Why “Classifications of Religion”?

Scholarship that deals with religion as a whole often classifies various religions according to underlying assumptions that are rarely identified or discussed.  In early cultural anthropology, for example, the religions of small-scale societies were variously characterized as primal, primitive, tribal, traditional, or animist.  The more recent universal religions were, in contrast, classified as “civilized.”  Many of these classifications are value laden and ideologically charged, which is not surprising given that they usually revolve around the idea of cultural evolution or progress.  Some classification schemes depend on the economic structure of any given society and follow a developmental model.  “Shamanism,” for instance, is usually identified with small-scale and foraging societies.  Harvey Whitehouse, for his part, divides religions into two types: the “doctrinal” and the “imagistic.”

Constructing a genealogy of religion that encompasses the entirety of human history requires a certain amount of classification, or a way to group similar supernatural or religious phenomena according to common denominators.  Generalizing and classifying religions carries certain risks, such as leveling, homogenization, and essentializing.  This Category will examine the various classification schemes to determine which, if any, are best suited to an accurate assessment of supernatural-religious history.

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