A Taxonomic Approach to Religion


Religious and spiritual beliefs and practices are an important part of the lives of most people on this planet. They give people a sense of purpose and direction, provide moral rules to guide behavior, offer comfort in times of stress, and are often the source of community support and social institutions. They also help people cope with death, illness, loss, and the uncertainty of life.

But, how should we understand this incredibly diverse group of practices? Many scholars have taken the position that religion is a social genus, a taxon that sort of resembles other categories like literature, democracy, or culture itself. However, some have argued that such definitions are flawed because they treat religion as a category with essential properties. They assert that, for example, a person can correct a real or lexical definition of religion by showing that Buddhism is not a religion while capitalism is.

This article examines the problems with this view and offers a new taxonomic approach to religion. It combines the traditional definitions of religion into a single one that includes a range of different activities and beliefs. It adds a fourth C, namely the material reality of people, in order to recognize that the ways they act and think about their worlds are as much part of their religion as the beliefs they espouse. It thus provides a framework that is more useful for understanding this broad, complex, and fascinating group of practices.