Religion is a complex influence in human lives, sometimes bringing people together and other times creating stress and division. Merriam-Webster says that “religion” means “belief in a power or spirit.” It can also mean an institution, or system of beliefs and practices, or a set of ideas about life. Some scholars have a problem with the term “religion.” They think it is too vague, and can be used to describe many different things. Others are concerned about the negative aspects of religion, such as religious violence. But most are interested in understanding how religion works, and the ways that it is important to people.
Historically, there have been several different approaches to the study of religion. One approach, favored by Edward Tylor and Paul Tillich, is to offer a single criterion that defines what religion is. For example, Tylor specifies that a religion must involve belief in spiritual beings; a form of life without such a belief could not be called a religion.
These monothetic approaches can be valuable, as they provide clear boundaries between what is and is not a religion. But there is another way to think about the concept, and that is through a polythetic lens. Polythetic approaches look at the class of religions and identify a set of properties that tend to appear in them. As a result, these approaches often produce unexpected discoveries about what makes a religion what it is.
A polythetic approach can produce a set of criteria that is useful for research on religion, and it can work just as well as a lexical definition. The only disadvantage of a polythetic lens is that it can be difficult to tell what is and is not a religion when using it.
The definitions offered by a polythetic lens can differ, but they all include some aspect of ritual. Some of these include chanting, sacrificing, celebrating, and participating in social events. Other aspects include teaching and learning, interpreting symbols, and giving and receiving guidance. In addition, a polythetic lens can be used to understand the evolution of religions in the context of culture.
In the end, it is important to remember that religions are systems for monitoring, coding, protecting, and transmitting information that has proved to be of immense value to humans. This information, ranging from sex to salvation, is far too important to leave up to chance. That is why religions exist.
It is easy for religions to become ends in themselves, but their creative health lies in the recognition that they are a means to ends that transcend them, including maps of time and space (for example, a belief in a linear chronology or a cyclical view of history, or an idea about an afterlife). The goal of any religious system is thus to guide people along the path toward recognized but largely unknown futures. The resulting map provides an opportunity for a sense of control over an unpredictable world. This is what makes religion so important to the human species.