A2 Sociology; Defining Religion and Types of Religion

Overview of the substantive, functional and polythetic definitions of religion, including criticism. And the main types of religion; animism, totemism, polytheistic and monotheistic.

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Substantive Definition of Religion

  • Attempts to explain what religion actually is.

Durkheim - "Unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things - Unite people into 1 single moral community."

  • Define religion in terms of Supernatural beliefs

Robertson - "Refers to the existence of supernatural beings that have a governing affect on life.



  • Some belief systems do not contain a belief in Supernatural beings.
  • Not sure which beliefs should be called religious - Ghosts? Magic?
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Functional Definitions of Religion

  • Define religion in terms of it's uses and purposes for individuals and societies.
  • Yinger - "System of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problem of life"


  • Too Broad; any belief system can be included if they give meaning to a life.

Scharf - "Allows any kind of enthusiastic purpose shared by a group to be a religion"

  • Assumes that religion plays a useful role in society.
  • Roles and purposes of religion may vary between societies and individuals.
  • Phrases such as the "ultimate problem of life" are open to varied interpretations.
  • Too inclusive - It's too easy to qualify as a religion.
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Polythetic definitions of Religion

Creating a list of possibly over-lapping characteristics that religion has, although no religion has all of them. Southwold;

  • Based on a 'power outside of ourselves' - a belief not supported by evidence (Faith)
  • A theology
  • Provides a reason for existence; make sense of the world.
  • Salvation from the ordinary world.
  • Ethical/Moral code to aid decision making.
  • Sanctions
  • Influence the social institutions that make up society.
  • Objects defined as 'holy'
  • Religious rituals and a religions elite
  • Single Moral Community


  • Not clear how many of the factors need to be shared for it to be a 'religion'
  • Items on the list are a matter of judgement
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Types of Religion


  • Small - scale tribal societies.
  • Totems - animals or plants believed to possess supernatural powers. Ceremonies organised around a particular totem, which is treated as sacred.


  • Believe in Ghosts and Spirits - Good or bad.
  • Believe the have a huge influence on human behaviour - cause illness and death.

Monotheistic Religion

  • Believe in One divine power or God.

Polytheistic religion

  • Believe in a number of separate Gods.
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