Philosophy of Religion

an online textbook

Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

CUNY:  Queensborough Community College

CUNY: Graduate School and University Center, School of Professional Studies,

SUNY, Suffolk County Community College

Chapter 10. A Definition of Religion

Section  5 Final Thoughts 

Is there some genetic base for religion?  Something that makes us religious?  Something that characterizes our species as homo religiousous? Something that is hardwired inside of us that drives us to think in a manner that is common to religion?  Some think that there may be a gene or something that produces a belief in a deity or a need for religion.

READ: Jeffrey Kluger  Genetic-Basis-for-Religion : Is God in Our Genes?  A provocative study asks whether religion is a product of evolution. Inside a quest for the roots of faith in TIME Magazine posted Sunday, October 17, 2004

Some think that religion is not needed for the survival of the species, homo sapiens, and may be detrimental to that survival in the changed environment in which the species now exists and struggle to survive.

READ: Richard Dawkins,  What use is religion? Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 5,Aug/Sept., 2004.

It is not so much religion that we find in us as some device that enhances our survival potential as it is the desire for and ability to fashion order out of the chaos of sensory inputs and accumulation of experiences. Genes and memes make for replicators.  Replicators that enhance survival are thereby transmitted to the next generation. Early replicators for humans included an enlarged brain with capacity for creation of symbolic representation, thought, language and abstraction.  Those with the ability to organize the overwhelming diversity of sensory inputs had enhanced survival potential.  Brains that could organize chaos into cosmos were better able to note change and particularly changes in the sensory input against the the pattern stored in memory of the physical environment that might be indications of danger.

Given the tremendous amount of apparent disorder in the changing physical environment -the weather and movements of animals of all types - the mind that supplied an order through abstraction held a survival advantage.  Ideas of supernatural forces emerged as organizing tools by minds that sought order.  The ideas of deities and the order of deities provided a cosmos or order to the environmental chaos.   The idea of an afterlife for those who held a life expectancy not much past 25 years of age provided not just order but consolation and hope.  Order, consolation and hope are needed for human enterprise and that held a survival advantage for those who participated in that belief system that was set on foundational beliefs as the source of order that became imbued with value as well and thus functioned to provide for a great deal of what proved useful for humans and the human community.  Upon the set of foundational beliefs rests ideas of the self in the grand scheme of things and ideas of the importance of things and the generative engine for hope.

When foundational beliefs are called into question many who hold them react in ways that do not appear to be rational.  The explanation is that the discourse that has threatened the foundations has moved from one involving a cognitive use of language employing reason and examining empirical claims to one that threatens self identity, group membership and identity, and the basic sense of order needed for making sense of the world and having hope for the future in either this physical real or in some other supernatural and spiritual realm.

The earliest mindset or habit of mind that rests on acceptance of the foundational beliefs and respect for the authoritarian sources of those beliefs is not open to considering change or the possibility that the foundational beliefs may be wrong. Acceptance of authority without question had a survival advantage as the young needed to be taught by their elders. For many adults such acceptance continues as a habit of mind whereby beliefs are held as blind faith and not to be subject to rational review, criticism or possible revision.   

The historical record and direct experience indicates that other habits of mind have evolved that enable enhanced survival potential.  The rational mind with its desire for examining beliefs and testing hypotheses and valuation for increased knowledge has produced survival of greater numbers of humans and for longer periods of time and with increase in goods and services available to them.

Confrontations of the rational mindset with the early authoritarian mindset are fraught with difficulties.  Two different mindsets can at times produce two different uses for the same language occurring simultaneously. The rational mind attempts to point out problems with the belief set of the earliest mindset.  Pointing out contradiction in beliefs or noting that there is no support for a belief and that there is empirical support for the contradictory claim will not be accepted as a serious occasion for reflective thought but instead it will be treated as a serious threat to what makes for the sense of self and all that is held as being most important.

Refuge will be taken by the believers who think that they are being attacked by the users of reason and empirical evidence: refuge into claims of mystery and defensive assertions of their right to believe what they want to believe.  It is more a case of what they believe that they must believe for fear of chaos or damnation.  They will make immunological claims that their beliefs are not to be subject to critical examination and held open to rational analysis and empirical verification.  They do this as a form of self defense, not so much defending any claims about truth but instead defending their self identities and values.

Such minds are not open to change and are resistant to education at both its highest and deepest levels.  Formal instruction is put up with as educators and educational institutions are seen as necessary experiences to endure on a path to some desired goal requiring a credential.  Teachers are gate keepers.  Teachers are for the most part members of the realm of reason and critical thought and the open mind looking for support for claims and mindful on inconsistencies and contradictions. Closed minds will pay the coin of the realm of reason but be unaffected by the experiences at any meaningful level as they pass through the doors and gates of the academe on their way to better paying jobs and careers.

At the most meaningful level the closed mind of the pre-rational authoritarian is incapable of education.  Unless and until that mind is opened there is not possibility of change. Education is about change.  The development of critical thinking skills and evaluative judgments and increase in knowledge and the value of knowledge and reason are what education is about. If there are such minds enrolled in colleges they may achieve the credits required for a degree but they will not be moved.  They will not be changed.  They will continue to hold the foundational beliefs despite evidence to the contrary and defend their doing so with the claims of a tolerant and pluralistic post modern society:  "I have a right to my beliefs and I can believe whatever I want to believe."  " You have no right to try to change my beliefs." " I have my beliefs and you have yours."  " Let's just respect one another's beliefs."

The survival potential of the authoritarian pre-modern mindset is not as high as with the modern rational mindset. This is so because the environment has changed and been changed by the development of reflective thought and reason as a basic tool for the species homo sapiens.  Confronted by challenges in the environment of infectious disease, environmental pollution, population growth, natural disasters, global cooling the rational mind is far better suited to deal with these threats than the rigid closed mind set with blind faith at its base.

At some point in time people created a way to answer their most troubling questions concerning the origins of life, the meaning of life, what there may be beyond death, the value in living and other such very fundamental issues.  Their answers to these questions and solutions to these problems appear in the physical record that we have today.  They appear to be presented in the form of stories that were repeated through the generations.  Participation in the worldview created by, transformed by, transmitted through those stories is now called a religious form of life or language game .  With religion there is a form of life or language game, as Wittgenstein and the fideists would have it. Religious language is used differently than elsewhere in life.  The same words take on different meaning and expressions function in different ways.  In the religious form of life language is conveying VALUE and MEANING without which it is difficult for a human to live.  Many of the most basic beliefs in the religious form of life are not subject to empirical verification from the science form of life.  The claims appear to be empirical claims but they are not.
  • There is an antelope in the field.
  • There is a deity in heaven.
  • There is the Tao in all.

The first claim may be subjected to the techniques of empirical verification/falsification.  It has a potential truth value.

The other two claims are not subject to such empirical examination and verification or falsification.  They are non-falsifiable claims.  They have an immunity to being examined by science.  Why?

The later claims are in the religious form of life and they are AXIOLOGICAL claims.  They are actually claims about what a person believes and such beliefs are expressions of what a person values most in life and what thereby provides for order and meaning in life. 


For more on considering language about a deity and religious language as Axiological rather than as making Ontological claims see Nicholas Rescher,"On Faith And Belief" as Chapter 1 in Issues in the Philosophy of Religion, Ontos, 2007  wherein he makes a distinction between a doxastic approach to religion and an axiological approach.  Where the doxastic perspective focuses on the use of reason and deals with propositional beliefs, their interpretation, coherence, and justification as contrasted with axiological inquiry that is about what a person values or finds desirable. 


Such an axiological use of language is not to be subject to empirical verification as if it was an ordinary use of language of the type:  There is an X.  It is an expression that appears to be similar but in the religious form of life is not the same as in the everyday or science forms of life.

The religious claim that "There is a god" is not like "there is a zebra"

The claim that "there is a god" is actually a claim about what the person speaking it holds to be important and valuable and it assists the person who is speaking to organize ideas about life that give it some value so that the religious believer can have HOPE for a decent meaningful life that is lived in the face of inevitable death.

The religious stories are not told as if they are historical.  Why not?

When the religious story teller is confronted by the lack of evidence to support the accuracy or veridical nature of the tales the religious story teller goes on telling the stories. An historian would stop telling the story when confronted by counter evidence or the removal of the evidence to support the story of what occurred in the past.  Religion is not science.  Science rests on evidence to support hypotheses and claims.  Religion rests on faith and faith is driven by hope.  So the religious story is NOT A TALE OF TRUTH.   The telling of the tale is a behavior that conveys meaning and value and purpose for the story teller.

But you may want to ask "Doesn't the religious story teller actually think that the religious story is true?" Answer: Yes, the religious story teller must believe it is true in order for it to convey meaning and value and purpose for the story teller. This goes on until the religious story teller no longer believes that the story needs to be true in order for it to convey meaning and value and purpose for the story teller. At this point the repeating of the story is done as a "broken myth" such as the Santa story. The tellers of the tale realize that the tale is not literally true but it is both important and valuable and so must be told.

Why must it be told?

All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by ... religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need. Harvey Cox in The Seduction of the Spirit, 1973

Because it is so highly VALUED. It is important in providing the community that shares in the story with meaning and value and purpose.   The tales are told to support a FAITH in a deity in some religions, not all.  But in all religions there is a FAITH in what is considered as the Absolute, that which is of Ultimate Concern and that which provides and sustains a way of life that offers meaning and value and purpose to support the HOPE that life is not in vain, that all is not for naught, that there is or can be meaning for human life both individually and collectively.  In some cases this involves belief in an afterlife in other cases not and instead a consumption of individual existence into a greater whole that survives or is eternally existent.  In some cases this involves belief in a supernatural or spiritual, non-physical realm as with Islam and in others not as with Buddhism or Confucian life.

Read on The Interrelation of Faith and Hope by Shannon Kincaid and Philip Pecorino

So there are other forms of life in which language is used in certain ways following the rules of that form of life.  There are the science form of life and the philosophy form of life and the sports form of life and the business form of life and so on.  Each with its own rules governing the use of language.  It is a major mistake to fail to recognize when the language being used is in a form of life different from those who want to treat it as if it was from another form of life.  It would be a big mistake for people to use the science form of life rules on expressions in the religious form of life that appear to be similar to empirical claims.  How is one to know when the claim is not being used as in everyday form of life or in the science form of life?  It is a nearly certain sign that people are using language within the religious form of life when those who make such claims hold that they are not subject to empirical verification or falsification and when those who make such claims will continue to make them (hold their beliefs) despite an absence of evidence or even when they are presented with counter evidence to what would be an empirical claim in the science or everyday form of life.

We would be foolish to erect a scientific research group to go to the North Pole of planet Earth to look for Santa Claus, the reindeer that fly and the elves making all the toys as are reported in stories about the famous bringer of gifts to children.  We would fail to realize that such stories are not being used in the ordinary way in which  people make claims or report what has occurred in the everyday of in the science form of life. These stories are being told to convey some message to the children about the value of giving gifts and the importance of proper behavior and so forth.  Likewise we are foolish to use science in an attempt to verify the existence of a supernatural being or deity or the tao.  We can use science to study religion as a cultural, social and psychological phenomena.  We can study the many forms taken on by the religious form of life.  We can learn about how religions change in the course of time how they rise and fall and are reformed and generate variations on themselves.  We make a mistake to look for the TRUTH of religion or to determine which religion is the true religion.

The are reasons that religions or the religious form of life has both many common characteristics and differences in the variety in which it is manifest on the planet through time.  The need for the basic worldview with its values and order is the same for all humans.  We are demonstrably homo religiousous according to the physical record.  Humans wherever and whenever have common basic intellectual needs.  Where these needs are for basic meaning in life so that it can be lived without a sense of futility those needs are termed "spiritual" as they are not based on a physical foundation.  Within each culture the ways in which the needs have been met have varied but there is enough of a resemblance that we identify the satisfaction of those basic needs as some form of religion.  Humans are every where the same in their most basic needs (physical and spiritual) and everywhere somewhat different in how they attempt to satisfy them.  Different cultures have produced and in part been composed of different religions.

What the religious form of life and its mythology and set of fundamental beliefs provides for humans is a set of what are most valued: the "absolute" that is found in all religions.  From this sense of the absolute, or what Paul Tillich has termed, the "Ultimate Concern", are generated both a set of what is valued that can serve as the basis for the ethical foundation for the moral rules needed for social life and for the sense of hope need for humans to live and struggle to survive and prosper.  Religious forms of life provide a belief system which is foundational and beyond empirical critique as it is held as essential for the basis of the hope that people need to live.  There must be a HOPE that life has a meaning that it is not all for naught.

So people will believe in the non-falsifiable claims because they sense that they must or else they fear:

  • there will be intellectual chaos
  • a loss of sense of purpose and meaning
  • loss of a basis for morality

and basically a loss of hope that life can be lived and possibly enjoyed and that it is not all for naught.

Does this mean that what they believe in may be anything and not subject to any rules?  No, not at all.  In order for the belief system that is part of the religious form of life to function to fulfill its purpose in meeting the most basic needs of the human community the beliefs systems should engage as much of the life of the mind as sis possible and so such belief systems should be subject to rational examination to insure that there is some form of consistency and that there is a coherency.

The intellectual leaders participating in the religious form of life need to insure the rules are followed and that to the degree possible the use of language within the religious form of life does follow rules of consistency and coherency in order to preserve intelligibility and to protect the beliefs from doubt.  Such leaders (e.g., theologians amongst those who are believers in a deity) will provide for continuing interpretations and reinterpretations of the sacred scriptures, mythologies and commentaries that are part of the religious tradition in an effort to make them as meaningful and as "believable" or as acceptable as is possible.

In this regard Faith is subject to Reason!  Not to be challenged but to be improved upon.  Improved how?  Well the belief set or the collection of beliefs are not to be made true where they have not been true and are either non-verifiable or inconsistent with one another if any of them were true and not where they are used in an AXIOLOGICAL manner expressing what the believer values and not making empirically verifiable claims.   The belief set can be improved by making the beliefs adhere internally to the criteria of reasoning:  consistency and coherency.  The belief set can be recognized formally as a symbolic system that functions as a broken myth.

In the end RELIGION is that which deals with what is most intensely and comprehensively valued.  What is most intensely valued is in many cases what is most intensely needed.  What is most intensely valued in religion is that which is of ultimate concern for humans.  What is so valued and so needed is HOPE.  Humans need hope for their survival and progress.  Humans value and cherish their hope that all is not for naught. Humans aware of their finiteness and their own inevitable deaths need something with which to face the vicissitudes, challenges, pains and sacrifices of every day life.  Religion provides a hope that the mundane has value and meaning.  Such value and meaning are not derived from direct observation or empirical study.  Such value and meaning are provided by religion.  From whence does religion derive it?   Religion rests upon a foundation of faith and that faith is needed by the religious persons in order to sustain hope. There are other ways in which hope can be sustained but religion has proven to be a most powerful medium for the provision of hope.  The price paid for obtaining and preserving hope through the institution of religion is now being examined as to whether or not it is worth the price of a sustained enforcement of differences between groups of people that can lead to violence and, in the case of some religions and their variations, the continuing discouragement of the development of critical thought and reasoning that is needed both for the survival and for the progression of the human species.

The Future of Religion

Humans continue on their quest to know and to understand and to explore and to search for that which provides satisfaction for their basic drives for sustenance, growth, meaning and value.  Given the significant role or function of religion in the development of the human species it is no small matter as to whether humans can accept an alternative source for the hope needed to transform the mundane and secular into something with value so important it can sustain individuals and societies as religion has done for so long.  If an alternative that was effective in providing what was of ultimate concern was devised and accepted and were it to have no supernatural elements, well then it might be possible that it would soon take on some or many of the characteristics of a religion as were described in the opening of this text.  Then "religion" would be part of the social fabric once again now rewoven into it. If that were to become the case and recognized as such it would provide evidence that religion, as re-envisioned as a source for hope for meaning and value,  may just be a part of what makes our species what it is.  This would make religion an important, perhaps indispensable, part of what sustains human social life.   It would not at all necessarily lead to the conclusion that all religions were of equal value either as contributing to the fulfillment of human need or as presenting no harm to human progress.  Some belief systems might prove more helpful than others when subjected to empirical testing of their consequences for social cohesion and progress and when subjected to cognitive evaluation as to their consequences for enhancing human intellectual capital (knowledge, intellectual skills and creativity).

Religion may become as myth has become: existing in two forms.  There are those who participate in myth and in "broken" myths, that is,  some humans are aware of the mythical nature of their beliefs (unproven or disproved or invented) and yet choose to participate in the social institutions informed by those myths.  There may be in the not too distant future "religions" that are known by their participants as deliberate creations of a set of beliefs, symbols, practices and the rest of what are characteristics of a religion that were so created to achieve a purpose: providing humans with that which they can most intensely and comprehensively value as a foundation for hope.  Currently vying for the role of a broken religion are a variety of secular humanisms.  If any are successful, then they would be as Buddhism or Confucianism are when considered as a religion without supernatural references or beliefs.   Some of the these humanisms value reason over faith and are insistent on beliefs resting on foundations of reason and evidence.

Human society is in need of critical thinking on the part of its members for social cohesion through non-violent conflict resolutions and a need for progress to sustain the increases in population and their contentment.  In relation to fulfilling those needs secular humanisms may find greater acceptance as compared to simple religious belief systems resting on uncritical foundations of faith that have proven through history to pose threats to peace, prosperity and even to survival.  A set of beliefs established on firmer foundations than blind faith or self confirming faith yet serving as religions have done throughout history may be what is needed but time will tell whether the human species will accept such beliefs as providing it with a sense of order, meaning and value capable of sustaining the hope needed by humans in the face of a finite existence filled with challenges and travails.  If humankind does so embrace a set of beliefs resting on reasoning and evidence readily verifiable and capable of continual review and revision providing the most basic needs of humankind, then there will be a form of religion capable of long term survival and identification with a fundamental characteristic of the species: the need for hope. 

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Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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