Chapter  3: Philosophy of Religion

What is Religion?

Definition of Religion

I.    Introduction

II.                    The Questions

III.                The Requirements of a Definition

IV.                The Definition

V.                    Final Questions  

I.      Introduction

Once people start to think about religion seriously and they study a variety of religions they are prompted to ask questions about the very nature of religion itself. What is the essence of religion? What is religion all about? What is the common element that links all religions that makes them belong or fit into the same category? A variety of answers has been offered by philosophers, theologians, scientists and a host of others from various disciplines and worldviews

II. The Questions

1.    What is religion?

2.    What is the essence of religion?

3.    What do all religions have in common?

4.    What is it about religion that makes it so distinct from other forms of life, from other worldviews?

5.    What is it about religion that makes it appear resistant to the efforts of philosophers and scientists and skeptics to disprove religious claims?

6.    How can religious believers go on believing without evidence to support their positions and beliefs and even against arguments that show their beliefs to contain irrational elements such as inconsistencies and contradictions?

III . The Requirements of a Definition

Note: What follows is based upon the work of Frederick Ferre in his Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion.

Any definition of religion must satisfy not only the general criteria that all definitions must meet, but a few additional concerns specific to religious phenomena as well. Definitions must:

1.    use ordinary language

2.    avoid ambiguity

3.    avoid contradictions

4.    include all that needs to be included

5.    exclude all that needs to be excluded

6.    avoid circularity

Ordinary language usage of the term "religion" is inadequate to the task of definition because it is among other things, ambiguous and oftentimes contradictory as well. Ordinary language usage is blind and can not deal with new phenomena and can not resolve confusions.

Consider some of these examples of common definitions offered by ordinary language.

Religion is:

a.    belief in god

b.    conviction in supernatural realities relevant to human well being

c.     all of life

d.    whatever gives meaning to life

These offerings make religion into something that is irrational, too superficial or they are too inclusive or too exclusive as definitions for they fail to appreciate the breadth and depth of religious phenomena.

Whatever religion is it must be relevant to:

1.    all kinds of people

2.    all aspects of life

3.    relate to social and public practices

4.    relate to private experiences and practices

Furthermore, any definition of religion must satisfy these requirements:

A.  Scope

i.      inclusive

ii.    specific

A.  Cruciality

i.      Unspecialized- relevant to all types of people and all aspects of life

ii.    hospitable- to the diversity of the phenomena

iii. permissive- as to personal and social role

iv.  open- as to the truth or falsity of claims

v.    unprejudiced- as to possible harm or benefit of the phenomena

So, considering all of the above requirements what would the definition need to notice about religion?

Religion:

a.    involves the whole of life

b.    is open to all kinds of people

c.     issues naturally in widely various activities

d.    issues in widely various ideas and beliefs

e.     exists and is exhibited in private and social settings

f.      is open to different opinions as to the truth or falsity of its beliefs

g.    has consequences considered to be either harmful or beneficial to individuals and groups

 

IV. The Definition

To satisfy the above requirements and conditions religion must be placed within a category of human phenomena that manifests itself in a manner with features illustrative of the characteristics listed above.

After placing religion in such a category it is necessary to distinguish it from other members of that category. What is the genus and what is the species that identifies religion uniquely?

VALUATION is the genus and the distinguishing characteristics of religion that separate it from other forms of valuation are intensity and comprehensiveness.

Religion is the most intensive and comprehensive method of valuing that is experienced by humankind.

Religion is a way of valuing that is most comprehensively and intensively experienced.

This definition is both ideal and actual. It enables us to both understand and explain religious phenomena better.

It enables us to understand how it is distinguished from other types of human experiences.

It enables us to understand better how it relates to other forms of life or language games.

Organized religion is an institutionalized way of valuing that is comprehensive and intensive.

As cultus it involves ritual and practices as aids to emotions and expressions of the valuation.

As doctrinus it involves ideational elements that enable the comprehensive inclusion of the valuation.

People participate in religion in different ways. People are religious to different degrees.

People have a religion in different manners:

  1. to be associated with a religion
  2. partial personal appropriation –"latent residue" in experience once religion has been internalized
  3. religion guides and integrates a person’s valuing in all aspects of life

This definition and this view of religion includes all the religions that have been traditionally thought of as religions and it excludes phenomena such as magic, art, and science from being considered as candidates for the title of religion. It has the power to discriminate among phenomena.

When religion is seen as a form of valuing and the most intensive and comprehensive form of valuing at that, then it is possible to understand why scientific findings and philosophical criticisms do not necessarily disturb its adherents.

Religion is about valuing and not about reasoning or about truth! This explains why the following is true of religion:

bulletReligion is more important than GOD!
bulletReligion is more important than TRUTH!
bulletReligion is more important than reasoning!
bulletReligion is more important than nearly anything else!

Think again of the ideas of Paul Tillich that faith is the state of being ultimately concerned and how the word ultimately reflects what is most intensely valued.

Faith as Ultimate Concern” by Paul Tillich     Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)

According to Tillich, “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.”  The Ultimate Concern is that which demands complete surrender of the person who faithfully accepts the Ultimate.  Additionally, faith in and surrender to the Ultimate promises total completion regardless of what must be sacrificed in the name of faith.  Tillich argues that faith is a task for the believer’s complete being—for instance, it is an act of both the conscious and the unconscious.  He refers to faith as a “total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite and ultimate concern.”  Tillich then goes on to examine the sources for faith.  He asserts that faith arises out of man’s awareness that he is a part of the infinite yet he is not the owner of this infinity.  Additionally, he points out that God cannot be an object of faith without also being the subject of man’s faith.  God, asserts Tillich, is present as the subject and object of ultimate faith while at the same time is transcendent beyond both subject and object.  Tillich warns that there are finite things that claim infinity, such as the nation or state.  However, unlike God, believers can approach such finite things with “ordinary knowledge.”  Since God is infinite and ultimate and faith in God is the ultimate concern, Tillich asserts that only symbolic language is sufficient to express faith and God.  Thus, he outlines the definition of the term “symbol.”  Like signs, symbols refer to that which is beyond themselves.  For instance, a stop sign points to the command to stop the movement of a vehicle.  Similarly letters refer to sounds and meanings.  However, unlike signs, symbols play a part in that which they represent and cannot be easily replaced.  For instance, a country’s flag not only represents the nation that it stands for but also is an active participant in portraying the country’s “power and dignity.”  Thus, it cannot simply be replaced unless the character of the nation itself is also changed.  Tillich also asserts that symbols allow us to experience other levels of reality that are normally off limits to us.  For instance art creates a symbol for a plane that we cannot move toward by science alone.  Additionally, symbols open aspects of our souls which allow us to experience awareness of ourselves that we were not conscious of prior to experiencing the symbol (such as the depths that we can reach by listening to the “melodies and rhythms in music”).  Another characteristic of a symbol is that it cannot be manufactured.  Symbols arise from the unconscious and must be accepted on that level before conscious acceptance.  Finally, since symbols cannot be intentionally produced, they come about and cease to exist in due time.  In essence, they are borne out of a need and they perish when they no longer generate a reaction within the group that originally used them for expressive purposes.   

Tillich then goes on to assert that anything that achieves ultimate concern for man is elevated to the status of god.  However, when things like a nation or success become elevated to the level of ultimacy, they are merely false or idolatrous symbols of ultimate concern.  Tillich also discusses that myths are an integral part of our ultimate concern.  While a myth must be recognized as a myth (much like how a symbol must be recognized as a symbol), Tillich argues that any attempt to remove the mythological from our consciousness will be unsuccessful because myths signify a collection of symbols which stand for our ultimate concern.  One might be able to replace one myth with another, but s/he could never completely remove mythology from human consciousness.  In fact, Tillich argues that even a “broken myth,” one which has been proven to be understood as a myth and has not been removed from or replaced within consciousness, cannot be replaced with a scientific substitute because myths are the symbolic language of faith.  However, Tillich also warns that one cannot simply accept myths as literal truths because they then loose their symbolic meaning and rob God of his standing as the ultimate.     

Tillich, Paul.  Dynamics of Faith.  HarperCollins, 1957. 

There are other sources that serve as the object of faith for humans.  People can have faith in science and in their family.  But there are few other sources for value.  People need to have faith and meaning and value in order to orient themselves to life in this world.  Religion is a phenomena that arises out of that need.  Religious people are willing to live according to and at times to die for what they most value.  Religion is the primary form in which that valuation is expressed and transmitted from one generation to the next.  It provides for a foundation for a moral order and in past times it has supplied answers to many questions of great importance.  Science may now serve many people as a better source of answers for many of those questions but it does not serve as a source of value.

Religion is likely to continue for some time as a popular and important feature of human culture.  As more people come to have a better understanding of the nature of religion there will be a more intelligent and penetrating questioning of religious phenomena.  Philosophy serves to provide a methodology for that activity.

To satisfy the above requirements and conditions religion must be placed within a category of human phenomena that manifests itself in a manner with features illustrative of the characteristics listed above.

After placing religion in such a category it is necessary to distinguish it from other members of that category. What is the genus and what is the species that identifies religion uniquely?

VALUATION is the genus and the distinguishing characteristics of religion that separate it from other forms of valuation are intensity and comprehensiveness.

Religion is the most intensive and comprehensive method of valuing that is experienced by humankind.

Religion is a way of valuing that is most comprehensively and intensively experienced.

This definition is both ideal and actual. It enables us to both understand and explain religious phenomena better.

It enables us to understand how it is distinguished from other types of human experiences.

It enables us to understand better how it relates to other forms of life or language games.

Organized religion is an institutionalized way of valuing that is comprehensive and intensive.

As cultus it involves ritual and practices as aids to emotions and expressions of the valuation.

As doctrinus it involves ideational elements that enable the comprehensive inclusion of the valuation.

People participate in religion in different ways. People are religious to different degrees.

People have a religion in different manners:

  1. to be associated with a religion
  2. partial personal appropriation –"latent residue" in experience once religion has been internalized
  3. religion guides and integrates a person’s valuing in all aspects of life

This definition and this view of religion includes all the religions that have been traditionally thought of as religions and it excludes phenomena such as magic, art, and science from being considered as candidates for the title of religion. It has the power to discriminate among phenomena.

When religion is seen as a form of valuing and the most intensive and comprehensive form of valuing at that, then it is possible to understand why scientific findings and philosophical criticisms do not necessarily disturb its adherents.

Religion is about valuing and not about reasoning or about truth! This explains why the following is true of religion:

bulletReligion is more important than GOD!
bulletReligion is more important than TRUTH!
bulletReligion is more important than reasoning!
bulletReligion is more important than nearly anything else!

Think again of the ideas of Paul Tillich that faith is the state of being ultimately concerned and how the word ultimately reflects what is most intensely valued.

Faith as Ultimate Concern” by Paul Tillich     Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)

According to Tillich, “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.”  The Ultimate Concern is that which demands complete surrender of the person who faithfully accepts the Ultimate.  Additionally, faith in and surrender to the Ultimate promises total completion regardless of what must be sacrificed in the name of faith.  Tillich argues that faith is a task for the believer’s complete being—for instance, it is an act of both the conscious and the unconscious.  He refers to faith as a “total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite and ultimate concern.”  Tillich then goes on to examine the sources for faith.  He asserts that faith arises out of man’s awareness that he is a part of the infinite yet he is not the owner of this infinity.  Additionally, he points out that God cannot be an object of faith without also being the subject of man’s faith.  God, asserts Tillich, is present as the subject and object of ultimate faith while at the same time is transcendent beyond both subject and object.  Tillich warns that there are finite things that claim infinity, such as the nation or state.  However, unlike God, believers can approach such finite things with “ordinary knowledge.”  Since God is infinite and ultimate and faith in God is the ultimate concern, Tillich asserts that only symbolic language is sufficient to express faith and God.  Thus, he outlines the definition of the term “symbol.”  Like signs, symbols refer to that which is beyond themselves.  For instance, a stop sign points to the command to stop the movement of a vehicle.  Similarly letters refer to sounds and meanings.  However, unlike signs, symbols play a part in that which they represent and cannot be easily replaced.  For instance, a country’s flag not only represents the nation that it stands for but also is an active participant in portraying the country’s “power and dignity.”  Thus, it cannot simply be replaced unless the character of the nation itself is also changed.  Tillich also asserts that symbols allow us to experience other levels of reality that are normally off limits to us.  For instance art creates a symbol for a plane that we cannot move toward by science alone.  Additionally, symbols open aspects of our souls which allow us to experience awareness of ourselves that we were not conscious of prior to experiencing the symbol (such as the depths that we can reach by listening to the “melodies and rhythms in music”).  Another characteristic of a symbol is that it cannot be manufactured.  Symbols arise from the unconscious and must be accepted on that level before conscious acceptance.  Finally, since symbols cannot be intentionally produced, they come about and cease to exist in due time.  In essence, they are borne out of a need and they perish when they no longer generate a reaction within the group that originally used them for expressive purposes.   

Tillich then goes on to assert that anything that achieves ultimate concern for man is elevated to the status of god.  However, when things like a nation or success become elevated to the level of ultimacy, they are merely false or idolatrous symbols of ultimate concern.  Tillich also discusses that myths are an integral part of our ultimate concern.  While a myth must be recognized as a myth (much like how a symbol must be recognized as a symbol), Tillich argues that any attempt to remove the mythological from our consciousness will be unsuccessful because myths signify a collection of symbols which stand for our ultimate concern.  One might be able to replace one myth with another, but s/he could never completely remove mythology from human consciousness.  In fact, Tillich argues that even a “broken myth,” one which has been proven to be understood as a myth and has not been removed from or replaced within consciousness, cannot be replaced with a scientific substitute because myths are the symbolic language of faith.  However, Tillich also warns that one cannot simply accept myths as literal truths because they then loose their symbolic meaning and rob God of his standing as the ultimate.     

Tillich, Paul.  Dynamics of Faith.  HarperCollins, 1957. 

There are other sources that serve as the object of faith for humans.  People can have faith in science and in their family.  But there are few other sources for value.  People need to have faith and meaning and value in order to orient themselves to life in this world.  Religion is a phenomena that arises out of that need.  Religious people are willing to live according to and at times to die for what they most value.  Religion is the primary form in which that valuation is expressed and transmitted from one generation to the next.  It provides for a foundation for a moral order and in past times it has supplied answers to many questions of great importance.  Science may now serve many people as a better source of answers for many of those questions but it does not serve as a source of value.

Religion is likely to continue for some time as a popular and important feature of human culture.  As more people come to have a better understanding of the nature of religion there will be a more intelligent and penetrating questioning of religious phenomena.  Philosophy serves to provide a methodology for that activity.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2000. All Rights reserved.

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