The Polythetic View of Religion


Religion is a social concept for a set of practices and beliefs that people in a given culture or geographical area follow. It is the genus that encompasses Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others. The term religion is often used in contrast to secularism, which refers to a lack of religious practice and beliefs.

Sociologists who study religion focus on its impact on society, the problems that it can reinforce and perpetuate, and its role in our lives. They use different perspectives to understand what kinds of religious behaviors and beliefs are meaningful for individuals, how those beliefs and practices connect them to other members of a culture or group, and the role they play in the creation and maintenance of social systems, including economic systems.

Historically, most attempts to analyze religion have been “monothetic”: They assume that all instances of a concept share some defining property that puts them in the same category. In the last several decades, however, there has been a movement to adopt what is called a “polythetic” approach to concepts like religion.

The polythetic view, which is based on the idea that every instance of a concept has a different “flavor” or “characteristic,” requires us to look at how these variations affect our understanding of the concept over time and across cultures. Consequently, it is necessary to examine both how religion has been defined in the past and how definitions of religion have changed over time.

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