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Typology of Definitions


I) Contrasting Types of Definitions

1. Exclusive definition: narrow and restrictive; excludes several recognized world religions.
Inclusive definition: comprehensive, formal, broad, or structural; inclusive of wide religious diversity

Exclusive Inclusive

2. Subjective definition: identifies the individual, subject, or person as exclusively essential
Objective definition: identifies historical institutions, social-cultural traditions, and doctrinal systems as exclusively essential

Subjective Objective

3. Substantive definition: stresses doctrinal systems, dogmatic creeds, and orthodox belief
Functionalist definition: stresses the social, cultural, communal, psychological, or ideological function

Substantive Functionalist

4. Western definition: stresses personal relationship with a supernatural, transcendent, personal God
Eastern definition: emphasizes a naturalistic path or way of uniting with an impersonal ultimate reality

Western Eastern

II) Social-scientific Types of Definitions

1. Anthropological definition: interprets religion as a complex cultural phenomenon
2. Sociological definition: interprets religion as a
socially constructed reality
3. Psychological definition: interprets religion as a psychological projection or

Anthropological Sociological Psychological

III) Philosophical Type of Definition: What is Distinctively Religious in General?

The classical model of philosophical definition, inaugurated with Aristotle’s distinction between genus and species, perceives an identical form or basic structure among dissimilar things (broadly interpreted, any kind of object, event, or entity). It opposes any premature, provincial, restrictive definition of the subject that excludes what is initially foreign, alien, or unfamiliar. It is a conceptual way of thinking that perceives structural (formal) identities or similarities between otherwise dissimilar things.

Example: After viewing, over a period of time, the sun, the moon, car tires, bicycle wheels, coins, Frisbees, baseballs, and dinner plates, a child realizes that they all express or exhibit the same shape. In other words, these objects are formally identical (same form, shape, structure) although they are concretely different (in their specific or particular content). This type of thinking is called abstract because the reasoning agent abstracts (separates out, extracts) the general, common form from the several objects that embody, express, or exhibit it.

2. A more recent model of philosophical definition is Wittgenstein’s innovative (1889-1951) concept of family resemblance. Such a definition, in contrast to the classical model, composes an interwoven set of similarities (like the similar facial features of family members) that lack a common denominator or essential core characteristic shared by every member of the class (like family members that don’t share one identical feature in common).

Example: As a college student, you see many new faces the first week of a new school year. Someone in your French class looks a little like someone in your History course, who looks a little like someone in your Political Science class. Later in the semester you discover that two of them are brothers and the third is a cousin. In contrast to a strictly formal identity, we could say these three individuals exhibit a structural kinship, i.e., similarities that are not reducible to a singular characteristic.

3. Traditional Features of Philosophical Definition

a) Conceptual: identifies general features), structural traits), formal characteristics), common denominators), or core essence of X.
b) Comprehensive: covers all relevant cases, inclusive, broad, wide, or universal.
c) Impartial: unbiased, unprejudiced, not endorsing a specific position), not advocating a particular religious tradition.
d) Precise:  clear, lucid, economical, reduction of ambiguity or vagueness.
e) Trans-historical or Trans-cultural: provides latitude for variation among particular historical cultures, does not identify with any specific cultural expression.

IV) Traditional Questions Relating to the Nature of Religion

1. Given the multi-dimensional nature and complex history of religion, should it be judged positively, negatively, or both?
2. Is religion supernatural (revealed, discovered, etc.) or humanistic (invented, natural, etc.)?
3. What is the relationship between myth and religion?
4. Is religion primarily a private matter, a communal phenomenon, or both?
5. Does religion contradict or complement science?
6. Is there one true religion or are all religions ultimately united at a fundamental level?
7. Is religion primarily doctrinal or experiential?
8. Can religion (in the singular) be defined or is it beyond definition?
9. Is religious belief rational (evidential, reasonable, warranted, etc.) or irrational (fideistic, beyond or below the scope of reason, voluntaristic, etc.)?
10. Is religion essentially (by its very nature) a tool of power or is using religion as a tool of power a radical distortion of its essential nature?
11. Is morality or ethical beliefs dependent upon religion or independent of religion?