Religion is an important part of most people’s lives and a key source of moral guidance. It’s possible to be a good and moral person without religion, but many believe it’s easier to follow a code of ethics and make the right choices when guided by religious teachings. Religious practices can also be beneficial to mental health, with some studies finding that regular church attendance increases longevity and decreases the risk of death from various killer diseases.
The question of whether religion is just a human construct or something that exists in nature is not easily answered, and scholarly work on the subject continues to be controversial. Despite these differences, most scholars do agree that religion is complex and involves a wide range of activities and beliefs. Rather than attempting to create a single definition, many scholars focus on how religious activity is organized and structured.
For some scholars, this is enough to classify a group as a religion. Others are more interested in the specific tenets of a group’s beliefs, such as their views on how the universe was created or how one should behave. These types of definitions are called “substantive” because they define religion in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality.
A third way to think about religion is to look at the group’s functions and how those functions relate to other groups in society. This approach is called “functional.” Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx are renowned social theorists who used functional approaches in their analysis of religion. In this type of analysis, a religion is whatever system of activities serves to unite a group into a moral community (whether or not the community’s beliefs involve unusual realities).
Those who take a polythetic view of religion believe that there are many different characteristics that can be present in a religion and that each characteristic can be classified as either substantive or functional. The advantage of this approach is that it allows scholars to find patterns in religions, such as the number of times a particular word appears in a text or how often a certain type of behavior occurs. These patterns can then be analyzed in order to create explanatory theories about how those religions function and why they are so popular.
Some scholars think that this polythetic approach is more accurate than the monothetic view because it avoids a common bias in Western culture, where the term religion has become closely associated with a particular set of beliefs and behaviors. Taking a polythetic view of religion can help us to see that the concept is much more complicated than a simple belief in God or a particular set of practices. For this reason, polythetic analyses are becoming increasingly popular in the study of religion. It may seem avant-garde to treat religion in this way, but it’s a long-standing practice in the social sciences.