As the academic study of religion has developed over the last several decades, it has inevitably encountered two philosophical questions that also confront other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types (such as literature, democracy, or culture itself). First, the diverse range of practices now said to fall under this social taxon raises the question whether one can understand it by means of properties that are necessary and sufficient. This is a semantic issue and it has led to the development of what are known as “monothetic set definitions” and “polythetic sets.”
Monothetic set definitions fasten on a single property that distinguishes one religion from another. The classic example is Edward Tylor’s minimal definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings, which distinguishes it from non-religion on the basis of a single criterion. Polythetic sets recognize more than one property and so avoid the charge that they are etnocentric.
But there are also critics who go further and claim that the whole notion of religion is a Western construction rooted in missionary and colonial encounters. In other words, the idea of a social kind that can be defined by an underlying essence is a modern European construct. This view is often accompanied by the claim that it is inappropriate to use the concept of religion to understand cultures beyond its sphere of influence. This argument is problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with, it ignores the fact that there are a number of religions, such as Shinto and hockey, that are not based in Europe.