How Is Philosophy Different from Religion?

American Legion Postcard
American Legion postcard (circa 1930–1945), “Teach children religion for a better community — religion means reverence – obedience – order, irreligion means chaos – crime – social collapse, parents, wake up!” The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, Print Department

Week 2, lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how religion differs from philosophy and
  2. Discuss the methodological differences between these two disciplines.

In our previous lecture we discussed how Philosophy differs from Science. Now let’s discuss how Philosophy differs from Religion.

How does philosophy differ from religion?

The religious and philosophical perspectives were often one and the same in the period before the Middle Ages. From the time of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) forward, however, there is a gradual distancing of the two bodies of thought. Aquinas proposed that religion is best understood as a top-down field in which God reveals himself through his sacred texts and religion is the study of these moments of “self-revelation.” Philosophy, for Aquinas, was a bottom-up activity in which humans observe natural phenomena and proceeds to generate knowledge of the world until it can extrapolate laws upward to a knowledge of God.

A core question for Aquinas was whether or not the truths of faith (another way of describing revelation) are demonstrable. Can revelation be demonstrated in the same way that natural phenomena can? If not, then reasoning can take us only so far in our search for personal salvation.

“Religion demands acceptance and belief, and philosophy demands explanation. Philosophy demands that God be intelligible, that He and His actions should make sense to us.” (Pessin & Engel, 7) Of course, if God exists, then it’s easy to imagine a response along the lines of, “who are you to demand things of me, your maker?” Would God’s perspective even make sense to humans? Faith requires a leap away from reasonable.

“[P]hilosophy differs from religion in that it bases its conclusions primarily on reasoning and evidence and not, like religion, on appeal to revelation and sacred authority. Philosophy, unlike religion, wants to find out ‘what it’s all about,’ using reason as its primary tool.” (Pessin & Engel, The Study of Philosophy, 8) It’s important that we recognize that religion and philosophy can often arrive at similar conclusions about things; however, religion and philosophy arrive at these common conclusions through different methods.

In a previous class I told you a story about Pythagoras and the origin of the term “philosophy,” and I mentioned the Olympic games where he coined the term. It’s important for us to recognize that these games were religious ceremonies in some ways. Prior to philosophy, religion provided the conceptual scaffolding that the Ancient Greeks used to explain the phenomena they observed. Initially the superstitious beliefs that underwrote the religious explanations of these phenomena inhibited the growth of philosophy and science. But today there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason why philosophy, science, and religion cannot mutually inform one another.

As Chaffee (The Philosopher’s Way338) points out, their mutual beneficence is only undermined when any of the three disciplines intentionally encroaches on the territory of the other.

For example:

  • If philosophy decrees, as the logical positivists did, that religious statements have no ‘truth value’ because they cannot be verified empirically.
  • If science proclaims, as scientific materialists have, that only physical matter exists in the universe: Entities such as souls, spirits, or gods are simply concocted fantasies.
  • If religion announces, as many religions do, that the conclusions of philosophy and science should be automatically dismissed if they appear to conflict with religious truths.

Let’s review:

Philosophy differs from science by asking more general questions than can be tolerated by the scientific method.

Philosophy differs from religion in its method, which requires reason and evidence that can be communicated and replicated.