Polythetic Definitions of Religion


Religious traditions play an important role in the lives of millions of people around the world. While some religions may be vehicles for intolerance and war, there is a growing body of social science research that indicates that regular religious practice enhances health, academic achievement and economic well-being, as well as fosters self-control, empathy, and compassion.

As the semantic range of what is called “religion” has expanded and shifted over time, two philosophical issues have emerged for this contested concept. First, it is unclear whether or not the concept can be understood as sorting phenomena in a socially valid way. The classic account of a “three C” model (the true, the beautiful, and the good) provides one way to think about this question; but it is mnemonically awkward since it overlooks the contributions of a fourth C: community.

One way to address this issue is the use of polythetic definitions, in which a set of features are alleged to constitute religion. Proponents of such an approach frequently arrange a master list of “religion-making” properties, and claim that if a phenomenon has enough of these features, it is religious. Such a strategy, however, does not help to resolve the fundamental philosophical problem.

Another challenge comes from the fact that some of the same features that scholars identify as religion-making also appear in other things that are not called “religion”. It is thus possible to have polythetic definitions that include both religious and nonreligious elements, but these tend to be contested in the same ways that monothetic definitions are.