Sorting Religion Into Meaningful Categories

Religions are early and, for millennia, successful protective systems that bind people to each other and to their societies. These protect against the pitfalls of the human brain and body, and they also offer a framework within which to explore human possibility. That exploration is a key feature of religion, and it can take many forms. It might be undertaken scrupulously, fervently, generously, ecstatically, prayerfully, sacrificially, puritanically, ritualistically, or otherwise, but it is always an exploration of the human possibilities that lie ahead.

This diverse range of religious practice raises questions about how this abstract concept might be sorted into meaningful categories. Traditionally, scholars have used monothetic and polythetic approaches to sorting cultural types. Monothetic approaches are those that use a particular definition to identify a particular type of culture, such as Emile Durkheim’s view that religion is a social phenomenon that generates solidarity. Polythetic approaches, such as the one used by Paul Tillich, sort a variety of different practices into a category, and treat them like a family of concepts that share certain properties.

Yet, as the diversity of religiosity grows, more and more academics are arguing that the traditional distinction between polytheistic and monotheistic religion is insufficient to distinguish between the different forms of human spirituality. For instance, the traditional definitions of polytheism and monotheism fail to account for the role of mythology in each tradition. In addition, they do not capture the fact that most religions contain a strong element of eschatological thinking and, therefore, must be considered to be part of a larger worldview that encompasses both the divine and the mundane.