A Polythetic Definition of Religion


The practice of Religion has a profound impact on individuals, families, communities and nations. It enhances health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, empathy and social behavior. It also reduces the incidence of a variety of social pathologies, including out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, family violence and prejudices. Congress, and the Senate in particular, has the unique opportunity to lead a national debate on the renewed role of Religion in American life.

Many scholars have attempted to define Religion by its function and have treated it as a universal human phenomenon. This approach is inherently limited, however. A functional definition identifies the features of a religion that generate social cohesion and provide orientation in life, but fails to recognize that these are not the only or even the primary functions of religion.

In its strictest sense Religion is the recognition of dependence on God and a voluntary acknowledgment of that dependence through acts of homage. Religion involves the whole of man, involving not only the will but the intellect, imagination and emotions. It is a way of life, an order of conduct in which man, recognizing his dependence on Divine help and persuaded that he can acquire it by friendly communion with the Creator, finds joy and perfection.

A number of theories have been advanced to explain the origin of Religion. Some anthropologists have speculated that it developed in tribal and “primitive” societies as an outlet for the emotional attachments that are unsatisfactorily resolved in primitive family relations. Freud, in his writings on Totem and Taboo and his explanation of the genesis of the Oedipus complex, suggested that Religion was an attempt to deal with feelings of hostility toward one’s father and love for one’s mother that arise in primitive childhood and are not adequately satisfied by sexual experiences.

It has also been argued that Religion develops in response to the experience of death and loss. Psychoanalytic theorists such as James and Leuba have proposed that the emergence of Religion was a necessary consequence of this experience.

In recent years a movement has developed to embrace the concept of a polythetic definition of Religion that recognizes many of the same properties as a monothetic definition but does not require that these be mutually exclusive. The most important property that a religious belief or activity must possess is that it is valued, and values are determined by an individual’s perception of the nature of Reality. This perception is affected by a variety of factors, including culture and history, as well as by the beliefs and experiences of others. A comprehensive definition of Religion should therefore include all these factors. It should also include a dimension that acknowledges the fact that Religion is rooted in a material world, in physical habits and cultures, and in physical structures and rituals. This dimension is often referred to as the fourth C, or Community. It is sometimes omitted from definitions of Religion, but should be included because it provides an essential context for the valuation of Religion.