A Taxonomy of Definitive Approaches to Religion


Over the past forty years there has been a pronounced turn in the study of religion. Scholars of various disciplines have pulled back the camera so to speak to examine the constructed nature of objects that had previously been taken for granted as unproblematically “there”. This has been most notable with the rise of the Verstehen school of social scientists who analyzed how social actors decide such matters as whether their activities fall within the category of religion and, if so, what form it takes in the world they live in (see Runciman 1969).

The result is a broad taxonomy of approaches to defining religion. At one extreme are those who take the view that religion is a functional term and that it refers to beliefs or practices that generate group cohesion, create orientation in life, or manage conflict. Such a definition treats religion as a sort of universal social genus, something that appears in every culture.

At the other extreme is the view that to define religion requires the recognition of certain features and that these are necessary to distinguish it from non-religions. For example, some scholars have defined religion in terms of the belief that human beings are spiritual beings. Hence, the term religion is synonymous with these beliefs and with the institutions and disciplinary practices that manage these beliefs. This approach is called monothetic because it fastens on the idea that there are only a few features that differentiate religion from other phenomena and these are essential to it.

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