The Definition of Religion

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Religion is an umbrella term used to describe a system of beliefs, rituals and practices that give meaning, purpose and direction to lives and also contribute to social unity and stability. It can also promote psychological and physical well-being and may motivate people to act for positive social change.

Religious phenomena are so vast and complex that to study them requires a great deal of attention from many perspectives, without prejudice. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that many scientists over the last century have attempted to capture Religion from a single perspective and have failed to do so.

Monothetic definitions: The most common approach to religion is the monothetic one, which seeks to define it in terms of a single property or characteristic. This approach has received little attention in the academic study of religion, though it has been developed in the literature on sociology of religion (Dobbelaere and Lauwers 1973).

Polythetic definitions: The polythetic approach recognizes more than a single property or characteristic. It also acknowledges that religions are shaped by a variety of social factors, including the body and the physical culture of its members as well as the social structures they inhabit.

Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life exemplifies this type of formal definition, which focuses on the facts that distinguish religious systems and the ways in which they can be grouped by secondary traits.

Moreover, the polythetic approach can be useful for analyzing the ways in which religions vary across societies and cultures. It is especially useful in assessing the role that religions have played in changing cultural and political environments over time. This is because it can identify the specific elements that make up a given religion and how these have changed over time.