A Polythetic Approach to the Study of Religion


Religion is a set of beliefs, practices and social values that give meaning to life. It serves to unite people, promote social cohesion, and facilitate stability, peace and well-being.

Its purpose is to encourage people to live up to their highest ideals, challenge injustice and offer a vision for another kind of society. It also seeks to teach people how to work toward a common good for the whole world.

The study of religion can be divided into normative and descriptive inquiries, each of which focuses on different aspects of the religious experience. The normative dimension consists of the truth of religious claims, the acceptability of religious values, and other such questions; the descriptive aspect is concerned with the history, structure, and other observable elements of religion.

A common definition of religion is a relation to that which is holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It may concern the existence of gods, spirits, or other supernatural entities or the fate of human beings after death; it can also involve beliefs and attitudes about the natural world or about one’s place in it.

Traditionally, the concept of religion has been analyzed as a “monothetic” social genus: each instance of this concept shares a set of necessary and sufficient characteristics that makes it a member of this social taxon. However, this theory is not adequate to the complexities of the study of religion.

The recent development of a polythetic approach has led to an important shift in our understanding of this conceptual problem. A polythetic approach treats a class of social types not as a universal concept that can be used to sort instances but rather as an abstract, prototype structure that can be analyzed for patterns and properties that can lead to explanatory theories.

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