Religion is the belief system of an individual or a group, often having a supernatural being in the centre. These beliefs and practices are seen as superior, inexplicable by science and in many cases incompatible with other aspects of modern society.
There are many different kinds of religions around the world. Studying religions can give you a better understanding of how people from different cultures believe differently and interact with each other in their everyday lives. It can also help you get a better understanding of the diverse global complexity that is so present in today’s world.
How do different sociologists define religion?
One important approach is the “substantive” definition of religion. This approach, first developed in the early twentieth century by Max Weber (1905), defines religion in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. It excludes any beliefs that do not revolve around a supernatural being or supernatural power, usually excluding most non-Western religions and belief systems.
The other approach is the “functional” definition of religion, which drops the idea of a unique kind of reality and instead defines religion in terms of the way that it can help people to live life. It is often criticised as being misleading, but it is still the most common definition.
How can one distinguish a substantive definition from a functional one?
The classical theory of concepts suggests that a concept names a real thing that operates in the world even though it has not been explicitly conceptualized by the referents. A “monothetic” theory of concepts is an approach that operates with this assumption and treats religion as a set of instances that share a defining property that makes them count as religion (Laurence and Margolis 1999).
It is therefore easy to see why some people would reject these monothetic-set definitions. It is not only an outdated view, but it entails the assumption that all instances that are accurately described by the term will have the same defining property–i.e., that they will name a real thing.
In recent years, some scholars have begun to move beyond the monothetic-set view of concepts and adopt a “polythetic” approach. They argue that religion is a prototypical social complex that has its own distinct defining property.
These polythetic definitions of religion are very useful to sociologists as they can help to explain why different kinds of religions exist and how they differ from each other. They can also help to explain why some religions have become dominant in different parts of the world.
How can a polythetic definition of religion be assessed?
Although the monothetic-set and polythetic approaches are useful for analyzing religion, they do not offer a way to assess whether a particular definition of religion is true or false. If a definition is true, then it can be shown to be wrong by showing that it is not what it should be in relation to other examples of religions or to other aspects of the referents.