What Is Religion?

The word religion encompasses a wide range of practices and beliefs. It includes the belief in a higher power, worship of a god or gods, and other traditions that connect people to a larger universe and provide meaning in life. Religion also encompasses the ideas and narratives that guide these rituals.

In this sense, religions have protected and transmitted knowledge that has been tested and winnowed through the ages; they have provided a source of confidence and guidance in navigating the uncertain world around us. In addition, they have supplied the resources and inspiration for many of the most enduring and timelessly moving human creations-art, architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, and even the explorations of the cosmos that issued into what are now the natural sciences.

They also establish codes of recognition, so that in potentially hostile environments people can recognize whether those approaching them are friends or foes. They build extended families, extending beyond kinship groups and tribes to make into one community those who are members of the religion (the term used for this is ‘umma’). They help people understand their place in the world, their origins, and their destiny, and they teach them how to live with and even accept, the many limitations that are part of human existence.

Nevertheless, two philosophical issues arise when the term religion is used to sort a range of practices-whether it can be understood as a social taxon with an essence or whether it should be treated like other abstract concepts that sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy, or culture itself. One approach is a monothetic definition that fastens on a single property; another, more common, is a polythetic approach that uses the classical view that every instance accurately described by a concept will share certain properties.

The latter approach is useful because it identifies many different properties that are commonly shared by religions-not necessarily essential to the concept but important for its understanding. However, there is a danger that using an open polythetic approach can lead to confusion and misinterpretation. It can also cause the notion of a prototypical religion to become inflated.

The eminent sociologist Edward Burnett Tylor criticized a narrow interpretation of the concept religion. He wrote in 1871 that defining it as the belief in spiritual beings would exclude many peoples from its membership and “has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them”. For this reason, he preferred to use an ambiguous but descriptive phrase. A more recent example of a polythetic approach can be found in Rodney Needham’s work on the classification of bacteria-he developed an algorithm that sorts bacteria into groups by a set of 200 different properties. This allows him to find patterns that a monothetic approach could not. Moreover, it helps him to avoid the problem of the ethnocentric identification that comes with monothetic definitions. Nonetheless, some scholars prefer to work with either monothetic or polythetic approaches, for reasons of focus or clarity.