Polythetic Thinking and Religion

Categories : Gembing


Religion is a hugely complex topic that encompasses many intangible ideas, beliefs, and values. As a result, the concept is often muddled and hazy. Nevertheless, some shared signposts are helpful. Among the most well-known are two definitions offered by researchers who study religion, one substantive and the other functional.

A substantive definition, such as that of anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), describes religion as a system of symbols that establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with so much “aura” of factuality that the resulting moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic to the participants.

Alternatively, a functional definition of religion, such as that of philosopher Paul Tillich (1957), describes religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not those concerns involve belief in any unusual realities. This view of religion allows for phenomena such as magic, art, and science to be classified as religions.

While these stipulative definitions have advantages, they can also be criticized for failing to capture the essence of religion or being too narrow or too broad. As a consequence, the best way to approach the question of religion may be to avoid attempting to construct a single, definitive, structural definition and instead treat it as a category open to a stunning variety of human experiences and practices. This is the implication of the approach that scholars have taken in recent decades, known as polythetic thinking.