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Buddhism and the Definition of Religion

Martin Southwold
Man
New Series, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sep., 1978), pp. 362-379
DOI: 10.2307/2801935
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2801935
Page Count: 18
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Buddhism and the Definition of Religion
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Abstract

The ethnography of practical Buddhism in Sri Lanka shows that theistic-type definitions and conceptions of religion are inadequate, as Durkheim argued. It is futile to follow Durkheim in seeking a better definition, as all such definitions must fail because religion is a polythetic class. The fact that it is a polythetic class is positively significant: it suggests that a religion is a compound of diverse elements. We should seek to understand why religions are compounded as they are. Buddhist cultures are particularly relevant because the compounding takes an unusual form. It is argued that Buddhism, though non-theistic, resembles other religions in depending on mystical notions; it is shown how this contributes to understanding the social functions of religions. Nevertheless dependence on mystical notions may not be fundamental for explaining religious behaviour.

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