Defining religion polythetically

I’ve noted before that religion is a tricky thing to define. Simple definitions, such as belief in gods, have a tendency to leave out movements that everyone agrees is religious, such as non-theistic versions of Buddhism. We can be a bit more inclusive by including any belief in a superempirical reality, but that still leaves out things like classic Confucianism, while also including belief in witches, magic, or Platonism. We can include Confucianism by expanding the definition to any beliefs that lead to a distinct way of life, but now we end up including Epicureanism, Stoicism, Communism, capitalism, humanism, and many other outlooks that generally don’t see themselves as religions.

These difficulties have led many scholars to conclude that religion as a concept is simply incoherent and should be dispensed with, at least for scholarly analyses. In this eliminativist view, it’s too tangled up with colonialism and the west’s tendency to understand other cultures in terms of Christian or monotheistic frameworks. Europe’s history of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to distinctions between religion and secular aspects of culture that don’t exist in pre-modern societies or other cultures throughout the world.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a new article last week by Kevin Schilbrack: The Concept of Religion. Schilbrack traces the history of the concept, from the early term “religio”, which originally referred to devotion to one’s duty. That duty may have been related to the gods, but also to other things. The term doesn’t seem to appreciably narrow in the middle ages.

It’s only in early modern times that signs of a shift emerge. At first the term “religion” seems to refer exclusively to monotheistic outlooks, probably with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in mind. But as the west begins to get exposure to other cultures around the globe, it gradually extends to include other ways of life, with the concept gradually expanding and its coherency weakening, until we get to the 20th century and scholars beginning to wonder if the term has any meaning anymore.

Many people have taken a shot at trying to define religion. Schilbrack discusses two definitional strategies: monothetic and polythetic.

Monothetic is the more traditional approach to definitions, going back to Plato and the Euthyphro. It involves trying to find the common property, or set of properties, that all instances of a concept possess, in other words, the essence of the concept. Traditionally, until we have identified this essence, we haven’t successfully defined the concept.

Schilbrack notes that most historical definitions of religion have been monothetic. The result is that they have the issues noted above, in that they either exclude some movements usually thought of as religious, or include others not considered religions. Often the authors of these definitions simply bite the bullet and accept these exclusions or inclusions. (This reminds me of Yuval Noah Harari’s superhuman order definition of religion, and his embracing of the idea that humanism and Communism are religions.)

The polythetic approach is interesting. It’s an anti-essentialist approach attributed to Ludwig Wittgenstein. It gives up on trying to find a single essence for the concept, instead aiming to identify a more fuzzy family resemblance. So instead of trying to find the one necessary and sufficient set of properties, a range of possible properties are identified, with the idea that many instances of that concept may not have all of the properties, but should have some minimal number.

From the article:

For example, the five religion-making characteristics could be these:

A. belief in superempirical beings or powers

B. ethical norms,

C. worship rituals,

D. participation believed to bestow benefits on participants, and

E. those who participate in this form of life see themselves as a distinct community.

The idea is that a prototypical example of religion, such as the Abrahamic faiths, would have all of these. But something that had only four, such as ancient religions that seem to lack B, would still be safely in the religious category. Something with only three, like maybe Confucianism only having B, D, and E, might be an edge case. But something with only one or two, like consequentialism or an isolated belief in ghosts, wouldn’t qualify.

Schilbrack refers to this as the “bounded” version of the polythetic approach. But he admits that Wittgenstein had something more open in mind when he articulated it. Wittgenstein notes that over time as new instances with new properties are added to a concept, the new properties can gradually start to be seen as typical, shifting the center of gravity of the concept, so that it eventually comes to mean something different. This does seem to fit the evolution of the term “religion” over the centuries.

Schilbrack also describes an “anchored” approach, where one or more properties are identified as necessary, while the others remain individually optional, although with some number of them still necessary. This hints at something he doesn’t discuss, which is that for our intuitive feel on whether a particular instance belongs in a category, the properties might have different weights. In the example above, it feels like A and C might be sufficient for many people to consider an outlook religious, even if they’re the only two that outlook has.

The strength of the polythetic approach is that it recognizes the hazy reality of some concepts. Although many say that if we have to resort to such an approach, we’ve basically admitted that the concept lacks coherency. As a counter, Schilbrack points out that the polythetic approach is used in some areas of science, such as biology.

Although my experience is that when something like that is brought up in biology, it’s usually to call attention to how hazy a concept like “species” actually is. And just looking at Schilbrack’s examples, they still seem in danger of including outlooks like Epicureanism, Stoicism, etc. So while I think the polythetic approach is useful here in the same way it’s useful in biology, that use is in understanding the evolution of the concept and how diverse and disjointed it actually is.

Overall then, while I tend to think it’s probably okay to refer to an ideology that sees itself as religious as a religion, it’s probably not productive to get so hung up on any particular definition that we use the word for any movement that doesn’t self label as one. We have to recognize that what is or isn’t a religion has to do with history and how a particular sub-culture sees itself.

What do you think about the difficulties of defining “religion”? Or the monothetic and polythetic approaches? What should we conclude about a concept once we have to resort to the polythetic approach?

43 thoughts on “Defining religion polythetically

    1. That’s a good description of current major world-religions, but a lot of ancient religions and native ones don’t have any afterlife, or their afterlife isn’t very appealing. Interestingly, that includes early Judaism. You’ll have a hard time finding any description of an afterlife in the Old Testament. Early Greek religion had an afterlife, but as described in the Iliad, it was a pretty dismal existence, for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe so. Although with some definitions, they never will. And I wonder how much the doctrines of future “non-religious” ideologies would feel religious to us. A lot of people saw Communism as a religion.


  1. I’m not a polytheist, but I’m definitely a polytheticist! Concepts almost always carve out clusters in high-dimensional spaces, where different examples need not score strongly as typical in all dimensions, just most of the most important ones.

    But I’d also say that definition is an activity that should be postponed, if not avoided altogether, except for ostensive definition. Postponed until the subject matter (meaning the exemplars) is very well understood.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Is it so much that definition should be postponed, or should only be specified contingently, with us always being willing to revise it on new information? After thousands of years of history, it seems odd if we’re not ready to define religion yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point. There might be some contexts – free exercise of religion as mentioned in the US Constitution, for example – where it’s useful to have a more-than-ostensive definition of religion. But revision will definitely be necessary; the odds of getting it right on the first try are negligible.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. That reminds me why constitutional law is far more complex than it might seem. The definition of common terms, and whether we should be using the ones at the time the text was written, or more contemporary versions, has no real right or wrong answer, just what judges are inclined to accept.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, it would be nice – it would make the laws more intelligible to the citizens – if the judges stuck to their official interpretative philosophies. In reality, they mostly just use those philosophies as a thin fig leaf to cover making the policies they prefer.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. All who just go away?
    A.N. Whitehead had a place for god in his metaphysics. He also worked with B. Russell for a decade or so trying to ground/define mathematics in Symbolic Logic. The Logical Positivists thought they could ‘anchor’ (?) scientific concepts in some kind of universally acceptable observation terms. But very few believe that now, even Wittgenstein and Quine who started out as Positivists.
    Essentialism is not a very popular theory these days. I wonder how many ‘truly well defined terms’ we have anywhere in use? In Math, in science, we surely struggle for precise definition. How about common, everyday, terminology? The term “automobile” (I just looked it up) seems to have evolved into a whole set of terms that rely on each other for clarity and contrast.
    I think Wittgenstein finally believed that All Language was a set of contrasts, a far flung set of resemblances that held itself together only by there internal relations, not the privileged status of some one sector (like science) and its ability to connect with that which was outside of language and existing in itself.
    The general problem is not unique to “religion.”
    It seems.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that definitions are problematic in a lot of places, not just for religion. My last post talked about similar issues for consciousness. In most cases, we’re aware of this but just accept it. No one gets worked up about whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich. But of course, for some subjects, things can get contentious.


  3. This seems to be an extension of our recent discussion of pattern recognition. A unit of pattern recognition will have some set of inputs which trigger the recognition, but there will be variability in which inputs are necessary and/or sufficient. Definitions and language are just the assignment of labels to pattern recognition units (unitrackers).


    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sure you had the same thought I did when reading about the polythetic approach, that it does seem to match the way neural pattern completion likely works. Although as I noted, the inputs would likely always have different weights, with some strengthened due to the high use of the relevant synapses, or to affects that were firing during their formation or strengthening.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I noticed like other Materialist-Rationists do in articles about Religion..that you leave everything out about Religious ‘influence’ out..of why we live in affluent Western societies. It not only gets tiresome and laborious to read the same over and over, but you don’t give the least bit worth of how judeo cristiano history got you to be where you are..irks me end.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry you’re irked. But you do know my overall views. I’m not hostile to religious belief, but I’m not reverent toward it either. My interest in it is historical and anthropological. If you want something reverent, I’m really not the place you should expect to get it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Every reason you are so historical and anthropological is for everything that came from Rene Descartes and Newton in the 16th Century. Your views are a glimpse back then and even so if it wasn’t for the freedom you have now you wouldn’t even even know who they were.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that when looked at in enough detail, everything is unique in one aspect or another. For example, identical twins may share the exact genetic makeup, but their worldview and accepted cultural norms likely diverge somewhat over time, which probably makes the structure of their brains somewhat different over time. Classifying things or defining things is never going to be satisfactory unless the classification is unique to each unique entity in the universe. But then, why classify at all when every classification group has a member number of one? I think we have to accept that classifications, like basically everything else in the universe, evolve over time as memetic structures and just go along for the ride as they evolve.


  6. That last sentence was worded poorly. I didn’t want to imply that basically everything in the universe evolves as memetic structures, just that classifications do. 🙂


  7. I also should add that by accepting that classifications evolve, we don’t have to sit by idly and wait for them to evolve. We can participate in their competition by getting involved in discussions about them like Mike has done here. As memes they likely wouldn’t evolve anyway without our direct input.


  8. On what to think about monothetic vs polythetic approaches, I think the process of evolution is blind to what catalyst for evolution is suitable. in terms of human induced evolution, as long as we agree that the catalysts are moral, then anything should be fair game. I don’t see polythetic means for classification as immoral, so it should be fine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks A Eric. Good points. Definitely classifying something never tells us everything about it. There are always instance specific variations. Even in the case of elementary particles, their classification doesn’t tell us about that particular particles current states. The question is how useful any particular classification is. When there are no common properties that identify an instance in a particular classification, the classification starts to look like it might be of questionable utility.

      On the other hand, classifications often have a history and cultural evolution, which means that their meaning becomes more a statement of our attitude toward a particular instance than anything inherent about that instance. The polythetic approach may be able to deal with those easier.


      1. Yes, definitely in some cases polythetic is more suitable, and in others monothetic. Are hierarchical classifications like the species taxonomic rank considered polythetic, or because they have to take on each part of the hierarchy in the classification are they considered something else?


        1. Good question. I know the distinction between adjacent species isn’t always clear cut. Even criteria like whether individuals can successfully breed with each other can be problematic, with situations where male A could breed with female B, who could breed with male C, who in turn could breed with female D, but A and D turn out to be too far genetically from each other to successfully breed.

          With the major branches, at least, the distance is so great it’s a more clear cut call. Which has the interesting consequence that sharper seeming distinctions can emerge from blurry ones.


  9. If one wants to paint themselves into the proverbial corner by defining religion polythetically, good luck with that one. In my book, all classifications of religion are essentially monothetic; and that single basic idea or principle is grounded in the ideology we’ve come to know as idealism be it subjective or objective idealism; the notion that a “fundamental reality” is a mind of some kind.

    The alternative ideology to religion as I’ve defined it is the metaphysical position of materialism which is not technically a religion but is simply a dogma.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Lee,
      I’m not seeing how idealism falls out of the monothetic definitions, or why polythetic ones back us into a corner. It might just be that I’m missing some logical steps here.

      I do agree that we don’t need religion to have dogmatic thinking. Of course, it always seems to be that someone else’s beliefs are the dogmatic ones.


      1. “I’m not seeing how idealism falls out of the monothetic definitions…”

        That’s because it doesn’t; idealism is monothetic and trying to define and/or segregate the polythetic disciplines of idealism is a waste of time because essentially, all forms of idealism are a religion. So, if one chooses to be an idealist, then one is a religious person whereas if one choose to be a materialist, then one is a naive realist.


        1. I wonder if it would be firmer ground to say that theism is idealistic, since it posits that the ultimate reality is a mind or minds. So non-theistic religions (admittedly a minority) might not be included. Of course, this assumes that the mental can’t produce the physical (as in God creating the physical universe).

          If materialists are naive realists, who are the non-naive realists?


          1. I had a conversation with Bernardo Kastrup several months ago and he willingly admitted that the notion of idealism is fundamental flawed because the ontology has holes in it big enough to drive a semi-truck through. The only “justification” he offered for clinging to his religion is because he sees materialism as a naive picture of reality. Not that I disagree that materialism is a naive picture of reality; but there are other alternatives other than idealism or physicalism.

            So, who would be classified as a non-naive realist? Anyone who accepts that a fundamental reality is neither matter nor mind.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m going to be brutally honest: in my mind, the #1 defining characteristic of a religion is its tax exempt status. In my experience, that seems to be the only thing that really matters. Although I remember a segment on John Oliver’s show where he showed how easy it is to game the system there, so maybe even that is not the best standard to go by.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This reminds me of Bill Maher interviewing some guy who was the head of a church dedicated to Marijuana. The guy was exactly what you would expect the head of that kind of church to be. (I think the guy’s long hair might have caught on fire during the interview when he brushed up against one of the many smoldering joints lying around the place.)


  11. My 2 cents: Religion is first unique to humans. It is a belief construction that’s function is survival. It is (was?) a fundamental, or foundational psychological/emotional mechanism necessary for the success of the species. I.e. it is a defense mechanism. So it’s “essence” is that – a survival mechanism.
    It’s properties (plural) are necessary and sufficient because they are required for group survival. They bond the tribe together into a force/power that can manage living in a chaotic, hostile, violent world.
    Or so it was.
    The components/elements are biologically and culturally based in the emotions of humans. There are five of them. FUGOD which stands for Fear, Uncertainty, Guilt, Obligation, and Doubt. (This is just my own analysis.) Those five emotions weave together to create the space for a “religion”. They protect an individual from insignificance and oblivion. Both physically and psychologically.
    Now the question(s) becomes: Is the world still chaotic, hostile, and violent? Is “religion” still necessary? Or, have we humans figured out how to live within this world without the adhesive effect of a religion? Have some people “evolved” wherein they have extinguished those emotions? Hmmm … ?
    Of course, we humans are also adept at self deception and great story tellers. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is similar to what I’ve long described as the fundamental functions of (most) religions:
      1. Explain the world
      2. Promote the social order
      3. Provide existential comfort

      1 is handled by science these days (with some resistance from fundamentalists).

      The west separated 2 away, mostly so members of different denominations of Christianity could get along with each other.

      That leaves 3 and the questions you ask. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries with the lowest levels of religiosity are the richest ones with the most comprehensive social safety nets, while the poorest countries where life is most uncertain have the highest levels. But it raises the question of what happens if life in currently developed countries were to become hard and uncertain again.


  12. I rather wonder whether “definitions” matter as such. As small and as yet not so terribly knowledgeable people we have wonder in the world. We also have fear and longing. The predominant animal emotions seem to be fear and greed and by expressing these emotions in our thoughts and everyday actions we increase those emotions in others. And as the struggle for survival becomes ever more extreme, as the gaps between haves and have not increase and our planet begins its decline in earnest, it seems wholly explicable that some of us should look for meaning in allegory and story.

    Perhaps the most important aspect of our imaginings is that we may bring some of what we imagine to come to pass.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think definitions matter. Without them, or without clear ones, we spend a lot of time and effort arguing past each other, each holding different conceptions of the thing being argued about. Clear definitions clarify if and when there’s a real ontological agreement or difference in outlook.

      Of course, the difficulty is that often the words used in the definition themselves need to have agreed upon definitions. Language has its limits. Which I’m sure is why science falls back on mathematics whenever it can. We may not know the intrinsic nature of what a particular variable in an equation represents, but the relations described in that equation should be either accurate or not.


      1. Ironically scientists themselves are among the most vigorously argumentative sector of our species. Definifions and mathematics seem to have done little to prevent the often highly un- pleasant exchanges in the scientific community. There is much in life which may be said to be indefinable in any true sense and it may be that the nature of religion is one such subject.

        That aside, there is little as damaging as argument. It rarely remains civilised and all too often escalates into the horrendous conflicts which religion itself has done so much to enflame.

        Perhaps it is always best to leave a door open. To leave a “definition” as a pointer and not a dictum. To stand back and say “perhaps” or “maybe” or even “does it matter so very much”.

        I am ever more aware that I know nothing with certainty. And hence very reluctant to try to impose definitions or opinions or anything else for that matter.

        At the end of the day, its not worth it and peace is all that matters.


        1. I agree that typical arguments are often destructive. I think they’re best avoided. It’s better when there is an exchange of views along with the reasons for those views. That could still be called an “argument”, but as long as it stays away from the “is-so” / “is-not” loop (not always easy), I think it’s productive.

          I also agree about remembering that all conclusions have a degree of uncertainty. It can help us stay in a scout mindset rather than a soldier one. Admitting the uncertainty also makes it easier to change our minds if we eventually turn out to be wrong.

          With the solider mindset, it’s very easy to fall into a mode of thinking our views are obviously right and anyone who disagrees is either incompetent, immoral, or both. It’s how we end up burning people at the stake for having the wrong beliefs.

          And it’s extremely difficult not to react when someone else takes that stance. But often the best thing we can do is walk away and go get an ice cream cone.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. It looks to me that the usage of a monothetic or a polythetic approach depends on a decision of how many characteristics/functions we put into the definition of religion. If we have five religion-making characteristics, from A to D, we could talk about polythetic. If we have only one religion-making factor, we could not talk about the polythetic approach.

    I prefer to use a part of the definition by Émile Durkeim – “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” That is a very broad definition because sacred things could be different from typical attributes of religion, such as Gods. At the same time, we should use a monothetic approach because we have only one parameter, sacred things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely if we only have one property for the definition, then it’s going to be monothetic. Although a monothetic definition can also have multiple properties if all of them are required. So to be monothetic is to have one set of properties that are necessary and sufficient for something to be an example of that concept. To be a polythetic definition is to identify multiple properties, not all of which are required, but which an example of that concept should have some minimal number.

      Durkheim’s definition is very broad. And the full version actually defines “sacred”:
      “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.”

      Of course, being so broad, it can include things like nationalities, capitalism, or even science. It also seems to mean that people can be in more than one, a strange notion for our modern understanding of religion. Although most ancient people would have been fine with the idea of someone being in multiple cults.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. If you want to understand what everything is about you are going in the wrong direction. You will find absolutely nothing in investigating superstitious beliefs like religion. You have to look at the underpinnings, just like the heading of your blog suggests.

    Liked by 1 person

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