Religion is one of the most controversial and widely discussed aspects of human culture. It has become a subject of intense debate in academia and the popular press. While some people use the term “religion” to refer to a specific faith, others see it as a broad social construct. Still others use the term to describe a variety of social and psychological phenomena. The question of how to define religion has been a central issue in the study of the concept.
The most common approach is to develop a set of characteristics that is thought to constitute a religion. This has been called a monothetic set definition because it assumes that every instance of the category will share the same defining properties. However, recent years have seen the development of a new class of analytical approaches to the concept of religion that operate on the principle of prototypes. These are called polythetic, or multifaceted, approaches.
In polythetic analyses, the concept of religion is treated as a complex that has many different dimensions and components. A number of different characteristic sets are considered to be a part of a religion, and the category is defined by the co-occurrence of these dimensions in a given population. These approaches may seem avant garde, but the idea of treating a social phenomenon as a complex is actually very old. Christian theologians, for example, analyzed their way of life by referring to it as simultaneously a matter of fides, fiducia, and fidelitas (faith, trust, and loyalty).
A third approach to defining religion is to look at the functions that religion performs in a society. This is a functional analysis, and it is often associated with the work of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim argued that there is no such thing as a religion without some kind of belief in a supernatural being or a divine order. However, modern sociologists have developed a version of this view that drops the substantive element and defines a religion as whatever concerns people with their place in the universe, whether or not these beliefs involve unusual realities.
These three forms of defining religion are not mutually exclusive, and many scholars have used each to analyze specific religions or religion in general. However, these approaches have a serious limitation. In the case of a religion, it is hard to make any of them work when applied to a specific situation because religious ideas and practices can be so different from one culture to another.
For this reason, some sociologists have criticized the three-dimensional model of religion and have suggested adding a fourth dimension, that of physical culture. This includes the ways that people dress, eat, and live together in a community, and it is viewed as an important component of religion. Including this dimension allows for a more holistic and comprehensive account of the role that religion plays in a culture. It also makes it easier to compare different religions with each other.