A Taxonomy of Religion

Religion, in the form of spirituality, belief, or practice, is a major factor in human life. It plays an important role in the formation of families, communities and nations. Religious practices contribute to the psychological well-being of individuals, and the economic strength of societies. In the United States, people who regularly attend church are more likely to be married, less likely to divorce, and more satisfied in their marriages. People who believe in God tend to be healthier, report higher levels of social support and give more charitable donations. In addition, people who regularly attend church are more likely than those who do not to have a strong family life, and children of believers are more likely to have high self-esteem, be active citizens and have good relationships with others.

The study of religion is a multidisciplinary endeavor spanning philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and a variety of other disciplines. As such, a wide range of definitions have been proposed for the concept of religion, and it is important to understand the variety of approaches to this subject. This entry provides a brief historical account of the development of the term religion and a general taxonomy of the various kinds of definitions that have been offered (monothetic, polythetic, substantive, functional, mixed, and family resemblance). It also discusses two philosophical issues that arise for this contested concept and that are likely to apply to any abstract concept used to sort cultural types (such as “literature”, “democracy”, or “culture” itself).

Monothetic definitions focus on the tenets and practices of religiosity and define it as believing in some unusual kind of reality. A related approach focuses on the way that religion unifies individuals into a social group and defines it as a system of beliefs and practices that creates solidarity within this group. Emile Durkheim, for example, argues that any system of beliefs and practices can be called religion if it functions to create this sense of community. Another functional definition comes from Paul Tillich, who argues that a religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, regardless of whether the beliefs involved in that concern are unusual.

A third category of definitions combines a substantive and a functional dimension and attempts to capture both the tenets and the ways in which people live out their faith. This is sometimes referred to as a “mixed” definition and it has been defended by scholars such as Charlesworth, Schilbrack, and Vansina. Mixed definitions argue that one cannot understand a religion without considering its metaphysics and axiology, and that a religion must be understood as both a set of prescriptions for how to live and a structure for organizing values and morals. This definition has the advantage of being inclusive and including many phenomena that have been excluded by other definitions. However, it has the disadvantage of failing to recognize that not all people who claim to be religious have any kind of orthodox belief in an unusual reality.