How Religion Is Defined


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, practices, and ethics that involves beliefs, emotions, and experiences. It is often associated with belief in a superior god or divine being or spirits, and with the ultimate concerns of human beings about their lives and afterlife.

The term religion was first defined in 1871 by Edward Burnett Tylor. He argued that defining the concept narrowly to mean belief in a supreme deity, judgment after death, or idolatry would exclude many peoples from the category of religious and thus “has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them”.

Another important approach is the monothetic definition, such as that used by Emile Durkheim in 1912. This approach typically produces relatively clear lines between what is and is not religion.

A key component of the monothetic approach is that it determines membership in a group by asking a Yes/No question regarding a single criterion. Those who apply this method usually use it to distinguish among forms of life that share one essential property and thus are a type of religion, such as belief in spiritual beings or the general order of existence, from those that do not.

A polythetic approach, on the other hand, attempts to distinguish between different types of social behavior by focusing on a set of essential properties or characteristics. These properties are necessary and sufficient for a social taxon to be considered a religion.

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