Religion is a taxon of beliefs and practices that many scholars believe is one of the most important, influential, and ancient of human phenomena. The concept of religion has been used by scholars to identify a variety of cultural formations, including the so-called world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, as well as indigenous or folk religious traditions.
The term religion is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has been the subject of considerable controversy and debate among scholars. As such, there is no single definition of religion that is accepted by all scholars. Some scholars have developed a distinction between monothetic and polythetic approaches to the definition of religion. Monothetic approaches (also called substantive or lexical definitions) assume that a religion can be accurately identified by some shared defining property. This approach, which dates back to the classical logical treatment of concepts in the 5th century BCE in Athens and the 4th century CE in Rome, is based on the axiomatic principle that every instance that is accurately described by a concept will have one identifying property.
Conversely, polythetic approaches to the definition of religion (also known as “family resemblance” definitions) are based on the observation that the various things that are called religions share some family resemblances, or are related to each other in some way. As Rodney Needham points out, a computer program could sort the many different strains of bacteria that are known to exist and that have been given the label of bacterial infections to find patterns or shared properties that would distinguish them from each other. This approach to the definition of religion is based on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that the various games that are currently called by the same name have nothing in common, but only varying degrees of analogical similarity.
Many sociologists of religion, particularly those who are interested in the social construction of religious phenomena, have developed polythetic definitions of religion. They have also developed methods for analyzing religious structures and comparing them with each other. Polythetic definitions of religion are criticized by some scholars for ignoring the role of metaphysics and axiology in the definition of religion. They also tend to ignore the fact that, in most instances, a religion cannot be identified without reference to its prescriptions for life.
Another way to look at the question of the definition of religion is to view it as a political act. In the United States, for example, political leaders from both parties have recognized the central importance of religious beliefs and regular religious practice in maintaining a functional society. The problem is, however, that most Americans do not have access to a church or synagogue where they can participate in these practices. In addition, a large percentage of Americans do not understand their own religion’s teachings; they may think that Joan of Arc was a biblical character, or that God helps those who help themselves, or that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.