The Problem of Determining Religion


Religion is a concept that is studied in several disciplines, including sociology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and psychology. It is an extremely complex and multifaceted concept, and scholars from various fields are engaged in a vigorous debate about what exactly it means.

Many scholars have proposed definitions for religion, both monothetic and polythetic. Monothetic approaches attempt to find a structure that is common across all cases of religion. Typical examples of this approach are a focus on the notions of a transcendent holy reality (as in the ontological argument for God’s existence) or the notion that religion is the result of a human response to the abyss or death (as in the eschatological arguments of Rudolf Otto).

Polythetic definitions, on the other hand, array a master list of features that must be present in order for something to be considered a religion. This is a more functional approach, based on the idea that there are certain fundamental aspects of any religion, such as an axiological function or an empirical-nonempirical distinction.

Still other scholars have focused on a more reflexive approach to the problem of definition, and have tried to point out that the very act of attempting to define religion reveals the nature of the term itself as a social construction. These scholars, such as George Durkheim, argue that the category of religion is an invention, and that it has a specific historical context, and they criticize the use of it as a way to justify European colonialism.