What do you see as the difference between a philosophy and a religion?

There have been times when religious groups, philosophical groups, and political groups have all been equated or spoken of as subsets of each other. Do you see a difference?

Posted: June 14th 2007


The difference between religion and philosophy is an imprecise one.

For example, christianity has a belief in a deity (ie “god”), and it also has a philosophy that goes along with it. And it’s labelled a religion.

Zen buddhism is far more of philosophy than it is a religion, but it still gets labelled a religion.

Humanism is about ethics and behavior, without nothing “god-like” in it, but it will sometimes get labelled as a religion.

So, the difference in definitions is mostly pointless, which is why “theist” and “atheist” are more useful terms – at least you can understand what they mean, even though there are still some gray areas.

Identity of political groups with religion is largely window dressing. The vast majority of politicians claim to be religious – which isn’t a surprise given what many people think about atheists – but how good they are at following their religion is open to debate. There’s enough hypocrisy in politics that I think you can’t really answer this question.

Posted: April 28th 2008

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Russell Blackford www

Philosophy equals rational inquiry into fundamental questions: Philosophy is the process of rational inquiry into the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. This has to be understood in a broad sense, because its subjects of inquiry include such questions as the following: How can we discover the truth, in any event, and how can we argue about it in ways that ought to be convincing? How, from the viewpoint of reason, ought we to live our lives? How can we best understand such puzzling, yet important, phenomena as morality, law, culture, and religious belief?

Philosophy is not sharply divided from science: Philosophers attempt to reach rationally-defensible answers to a range of fundamental questions that defy precise, empirical investigation. There is no sharp dividing line between philosophy and science. The more a question is amenable to empirical investigation, using such means as experiments, mathematical models, and observations with telescopes, microscopes, and all the other modern instruments that have been invented, the more it is a scientific one. However, it’s a matter of degree. In the past, many questions that are now considered scientific ones belonged to philosophy. Indeed, modern science arose out of philosophy about 400 years ago.

Because philosophy deals with issues that defy precise investigation, it often seems not to make progress, and to do no more than (at best) clarify issues and solve logical puzzles. There is some truth in that criticism, but it is also true that philosophy has helped us make intellectual progress by refining some questions until they can be investigated more precisely, identifying ways in which we can be misled by our language, concepts, and assumptions, and striving for a rigorously-supported, yet synoptic, view of the world, drawing on the findings of other humanities disciplines and sciences. It seeks to make connections and draw conclusions that lie outside the scope of any other, more specialised, discipline. In one sense, philosophy is very general in its outlook, but in actual practice, philosophical work can be quite narrowly-focused and technical.

“A philosophy” versus “a religion”: Just as there is no sharp boundary line between philosophy and science, there is also no sharp line between philosophy and religious doctrine. They can blur into each other in some cases.

However, the crucial difference is that philosophers seek rationally-defensible knowledge, hard though this is to obtain. This means that they will not blindly accept claims that are made in so-called holy books, or transmitted within the traditions of a religious institution such as the Catholic Church, or granted by an alleged divine revelation. Even philosophers who accept some, or all, of these as reliable sources for certain (alleged) truths will want to find some sort of rational argument as to why they should be accepted.

When we talk about “a” philosophy, as opposed to just “philosophy”, we usually mean some kind of comprehensive worldview that claims to be supported by reason.

By contrast, a religion will include a worldview that is typically supported by faith and authority, more than by reason, and will usually explain the world, and how it works, by invoking some kind of supernatural entity or principle. In addition, a religion is not just a set of doctrines: it will usually include such things as rituals, commandments, hierarchies of leadership, practices of worship, and prescribed methods for transcending our physical state, here on Earth.

Posted: June 15th 2007

See all questions answered by Russell Blackford


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