Classifying Religion

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Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices that gives its members an object of devotion, something sacred to believe in; a code of conduct; and a set of values to live by. It involves belief in the supernatural and spiritual, and often teaches about forces beyond human control. It stresses the social consequences of approved and disapproved behaviour, providing sanctions from a supernatural source. In its positive form it upholds certain ideals and values and promotes discipline and morality. It also provides a sense of belonging to a community, with its rituals and festivals, rites of passage and sanctuaries.

A formal approach attempts to identify a core set of characteristics that all religions have in common and then classify them. For example, Kidd identifies a shared concept of a supreme being and a system of rituals as the basic characteristics of religion. He then grouped them into categories such as polytheism, henotheism and monotheism.

Another approach is to look for patterns and co-appearances in different religions, such as the way that certain symbols appear in all of them. This method is sometimes called the ‘polythetic’ or ‘functional’ approach. It is an approach that predated the modern study of religion by many years and helped prepare for it. However, it is sometimes criticized because it imposes a passive image of the religious person and fails to take account of some of the more social functions of religion. In particular, it can exclude religions that do not believe in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders.