The Polythetic Definition of Religion


Religion is a social phenomenon whose presence varies from culture to culture. Although scholars have tended to define religion either functionally or normatively, there are those who seek to understand its role and function without applying a normative evaluation. This approach, called a polythetic definition, is more recent and seeks to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence.

Several sociologists have crafted polythetic definitions of religion, the most prominent being American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. His definition is complex and holistic. It recognizes that a religion is a system of symbols that establishes powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these concepts with such an aura of factuality that the resulting moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

For many people, religion provides a way to cope with life’s difficulties. It allows them to make sense of the world around them and to live by and sometimes die for what they most value. It also encourages them to continue their efforts in society by providing them with self-flattery based on the belief that they are part of something infinitely grand and glorious.

While some may argue that to define religion in terms of these values and beliefs reveals an inherent Protestant bias, the truth is that there are few other sources for human faith. Humans need to have faith, meaning, and value in their lives and religion is the primary form that that valuation takes.