Polythetic Anthropology of Religion

Religion, or religiosity, is a set of beliefs and practices that are claimed by people to be binding in some way. The claim may be literal, as in believing in a heaven after death, or symbolic, as in finding an end to suffering such as nirvana in some Eastern religions including Buddhism. Religions may include some kind of worship, sacred books and symbols, a religious order or clergy, sacred days, holy places, and moral codes of conduct. In addition, many religions are concerned with salvation in one form or another: saving souls, bringing good luck, or healing the sick.

Anthropologists often think that early religion developed as human beings tried to control uncontrollable parts of their environment, such as the weather or the success of hunting expeditions. They may have done so through manipulation, which is magic, or by supplication, which is religion. Magic tries to make the environment directly subject to human will, while religion tries to appeal to higher powers, gods or goddesses for assistance.

Most attempts to analyze religion have been “monothetic” and have fastened on the idea that an evolving social category has a definitional essence, such as truth, beauty or goodness. But, in the last few decades, there has been a move to “polythetic” approaches that attempt to avoid claiming that any particular instance of a religion has a unique defining property. Instead, polythetic analyses seek to identify properties that are common or typical of religions and that are helpful in explaining them.

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