How to Study Religion – Monothetic and Polythetic Approaches to Definition


Religion is a way of life that is important to many people around the world. Religious belief and practice is often a source of strength for individuals who are struggling with a variety of social problems, including poverty, alcoholism, crime, and depression.

How to Study Religion

A good place to begin your exploration of a religion is by reading its Holy Book. Most religions have long and complex texts that provide a detailed account of their beliefs, teachings, and practices.

You can also ask someone you know about their religion. They may have questions you can answer or stories that they can tell about their experience with their religion.

Polythetic Approaches to Definition

In the academic study of religion, discussions of monothetic and polythetic approaches have primarily been in service of developing a definition. Unlike lexical definitions, which are based on what the term means in common use, polythetic definitions attempt to sort religious facts and behaviors into a class that exhibits a threshold number of characteristic properties.

This approach was first proposed by Durkheim, who defines religion as a social function that creates solidarity and provides orientation in life. Paul Tillich also argues that religion is a social function and defines it as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.

In this way, a polythetic approach treats religion as an abstract taxon. It is the same approach that would be used to sort the 1500 different strains of a bacteria into 200 separate classes that each have a distinct characteristic. The goal is to discover patterns within the class and to co-appearances of properties that may contribute to an explanation of how a particular type of religion functions in society.