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Resemblances Among Religions

A final approach to consider is the one sometimes favored by those who wish to steer a middle path between essentialist and functionalist approaches. This is referred to as the family resemblance approach, credited to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), who asked people to stop and consider how it is that they actually go about classifying things. If they did this, he suggested, they would see that all members of the family called "game" more or less shared a series of traits or characteristics, just as no two members of a family are exactly alike but, instead, each more or less share a series of characteristics (such as name, hair color, temperament, height, favorite foods, blood type, and so on). Definition, for Wittgenstein, was therefore an activity of choice; it therefore falls to the users of classifications—such as those who seek to define religion—not only to have what an anthropologist, Benson Saler, has termed a prototypical definition, but also to be prepared to make judgmental calls when a cultural artifact meets so few of their prototype's characteristics that it is questionable whether the artifact can productively be called a religion.

Contrary to both the essentialist and the functionalist scholar passively recognizing either some core feature or purpose served by a religion, Wittgensteinian scholars of religion actively constitute an artifact as religious insomuch as it does or does not match their prototype. That the family resemblance definition widens in the case of more liberal scholars (either politically or theologically), and narrows in the case of those who are more conservative, should not go unnoticed.

To define "religion," to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study. (Weber, p. 1)

To define is not to finish, but to start. To define is not to confine but to create something.… To define, finally, is not to destroy but to construct for the purpose of useful reflection.… In fact, we have definitions, hazy and inarticulate as they might be, for every object about which we know something.… Let us, then, define our concept of definition as a tentative classification of a phenomenon, which allows us to begin an analysis of the phenomenon so defined. (Brian K. Smith, pp. 4-5)

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - The Beginnings Of "religion", The Essentials Of Religion, The Functions Of Religion, Religion As An Item Of Public Discourse