Posted by: aboutalbion | June 27, 2012

The polythetic approach to religion

I have only just been able to get hold of the 1978 journal article by Martin Southwold which was the anthropological approach that I used in my recent series of posts about whether or not a case could be made for the UK being an organised religion.

Southwold argued against a belief in godlike beings as the common feature of all religions.  (Buddhism was a counter-example here.)  And he argued against Durkheim who saw the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane as the common characteristic of all religions.  (Some cultures do not have words which translate to sacred and profane.)

Rather, Southwold suggested that religion was a polythetic class.  My dictionary says that a polythetic class is a class whose members share ‘a number of characteristics which occur commonly … , but none of which is essential for membership of that … class’.  Southwold’s article put it like this.  ‘With a polythetic class there is [a] bundle of attributes; but … it is not necessary that all the attributes in the bundle be possessed by a member of the class’. (p369)

Southwold then proceeded to a tentative list of twelve attributes for an organised religion (which I followed in my ‘Temple of Albion’ posts).

For me, to be human is to be religious, and to be religious is to be human.  So what I find attractive about Southwold’s approach is that it has the potential to realise that religious experience and religious behaviour is primary, and that the attributes in his twelve point list (which began with ‘a central concern with godlike beings’, and ended with ‘an association with an ethnic or similar group’) arise as secondary by-products of religious behaviour – and in different proportions in different cultures, which is what anthropologists find.

[Southwold, Martin (1978) ‘Buddhism and the Definition of Religion’ in Man (new series) Vol 13 No 3, pp 362-379.]



  1. This makes sense to me. I also think it’s important to look at “religion” as a category held together largely by the development of history. What counts as in and what counts as out, as well as what the implications are has less to do with any sort of logical entailment than a conventional set of applications.

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