A Polythetic Approach to the Study of Religion


Religion is a term that covers a wide range of social practices and spiritual experiences. Some of these involve a deity, some do not. Others deal with beliefs, traditions, morality, and approaches to Scripture or behavior. Yet, even when people in the same culture share similar beliefs and practices, it is often hard to draw lines that separate one religion from another or to define what is a religion.

The concept of religion is a contested one, and it is the subject of ongoing debate among scholars in anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science. In the 19th century, Emile Durkheim and other sociological scholars focused on what he called the “functional” aspects of religion, such as binding people into a moral community and providing them with meaning in their lives. This perspective still informs much sociological thinking about religion today.

In more recent times, however, a number of scholars have taken a more critical view of the term religion and the issues it encompasses. They have challenged the assumption that there is a single definition of religion, and they have sought to identify the assumptions behind different approaches to studying and understanding it. They have called for a more reflexive approach that allows for the possibility of incorporating elements from all of these disciplinary approaches into a single definition and theory of religion. This is what has come to be known as a “polythetic” approach to the study of religion.

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