The term religion is used to describe a wide range of beliefs, practices, and experiences that give people meaning and purpose in life. These include the belief in a divine or supernatural being, such as a god or goddess, or in a greater spiritual dimension or reality.
Many people use the terms religion and spirituality interchangeably, though there are differences among these concepts and their cultural manifestations. Some people define religion as the belief in a supernatural being or an afterlife, while others see it as a set of rituals and group membership that give a person a sense of being part of a community of believers.
Although there are many ways to define religion, most scholars agree on at least one defining characteristic. Oxford Dictionaries defines religion as the belief in and/or worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
Most people who say they are religious also consider themselves to be members of a particular tradition or faith. There are several major traditions with a great number of adherents, including the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Christian religions.
These groups have a significant impact on the lives of many people throughout the world, and in some countries they even affect the government and politics (Emerson, Monahan, & Mirola 2011). However, despite its powerful presence, religion is not without flaws.
The concept of religion has been criticized for being too Western in origin, and some scholars argue that the terms used to describe it are unsuitable for non-Western cultures. For example, Daniel Dubuisson, Timothy Fitzgerald, Talal Asad, and Jason Ananda Josephson Storm have all argued that the concepts used to study religion originated in Judeo-Christian culture and should therefore be applied only to cultures that share these assumptions.
Some scholars, however, believe that the term religion has a universal meaning and should be interpreted in an objective way. This is often done by applying a polythetic approach.
Polythetic approaches allow scholars to compare various forms of life and find patterns that might lead to explanatory theories. They are useful when comparing large numbers of phenomena that have no obvious connection and that cannot be easily categorized by other methods.
Alternatively, they can be used to study particular phenomena that have an identifiable relationship with other forms of life and are thus easier to categorize. A key parameter in a polythetic approach is the threshold number, which determines the level of properties a member must have to be defined as a member of the class.
For instance, Alston suggests that a religion is “any set of social behaviors characterized by a certain number of common characteristics” (1967: 142). He notes that the number of properties can vary from one person to another and from society to society. The properties might be physical or mental, but they could also be social and political.
A polythetic approach can be helpful when evaluating the utility of a definition of religion or assessing whether it is adequate or appropriate for a given purpose. The important factor, however, is that one must be able to critique such a definition. The stipulative definition offered by De Muckadell (2014), for example, is problematic because it forces scholars to accept whatever definition is given without being able to criticize it.