Philosophy of Religion/What is religion?

"religion: [M.E. religioum, fr. L. religion; religio reverence, religion, prob. fr. religare to tie back - more at RELY] 1 a (1). the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance b: the state of a religious 2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. 3 archaic: scrupulous conformity: CONSCIENTIOUSNESS 4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor or faith." -Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1967)
"Religion is a communication system that is constituted by supernatural beings and is related to specific patterns of behavior." -H. H. Penner
"Religion is man's involvement in the meaning of his existence, and the depth of one's involvement is the depth of his religion." -James L. Christian
"Religion is a sense of the sacred." -Sir Julian Huxley
"Religion is man's ultimate concern for the ultimate." -Paul Tillich
"Religion is a human being's total concern about Man's world." -Arnold Toynbee

Religion can be distilled as any belief system that rests explicitly on faith, but if you asked ten theologians what "religion" is, you would get 12 different answers. That is because religion is a complex subject and "religion" is only a word. Like all words, it can mean anything we want it to mean, but in a discussion, it is important that we understand how the word is used.

There is a problem with many of the common definitions of religion. If it has to do with how we relate to God, then Buddhism, Confucianism and core shamanism is left out because they have little to say about God. Many Christians claim that, since religion is a formalized system of knowledge, Christianity is not a religion since it is a relationship with Christ. That contradicts the Biblical author James since he maintained that Christianity is "pure religion and undefiled before God." The Greek word he used was threkeia or "ceremonial observance, worship, religion".

Whereas the concepts "sacred" and "faith" are quite basic to Western religion, they are not so in the Orient, so definitions that involve those ideas will not do. Also, definitions like Tillich's and Toynbee's subsume too much for the purposes of this book. One could say that philsophy is the study of man's concern for the ultimate and Toynbee's definition might include plumbing and badmitton, neither of which will be featured in this work.

It was held in the early days of philosophy that a word has an essential meaning - a definition that captured the essence of all uses of the word. That is, perhaps, somewhat naive. Very few words have just one meaning and most have various meaning that have very little to do with each other. For instance, a hat may be something you wear on your head or it might be a symbol used in statistics or it might be a drum. The German philosopher Wittgenstein took another position. Various uses of a word does not have an essential meaning but has more of a family resemblance. It's generally hard to put your finger on why members of a family look alike but it's usually not one particular feature but a set of features that may or may not all be present in the same individual, yet enough of them are present in any one member of the family to preserve the resemblance throughout. We will be working with concepts in the family of religion.

I will bypass all these semantical trivialities by using the following definition for religion: "the study and/or practice of what is generally considered to be religion - personal or organized." That will include Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, and Aunt Polly's talking to her dearly departed Uncle Fred. It will include magic and witchcraft, hermits and wise men.

And, fully aware of the etymological intent of the term "theology" (Meanings of words usually change from their original meanings over time), I will take the word to mean, simply "the study of religions."

There are a few other words that will be important here. A "doctrine" is a formalization of a system of religious beliefs.

A "dogma" is a doctrine that is considered to be held universally within a religion.

A "creed" is a set of belief (the word means "I believe") that are central to a religion - beliefs that distinguish members of a religious group from other people.

We should also have an understanding of the meaning of "philosophy". It can mean a general approach to life as in "what is your philosophy of life?" I have something a little more formal in mind. Philosophy as an intellectual pursuit typically concerns considerations once removed. Science, for instance is the investigation of the physical world or the knowledge obtained from such. The philosophy of science, on the other hand, involves how people approach science - how we think about the physical world, how we can be confident about such knowledge, and how we should (ethically) approach and use such knowledge.

Then, the philosophy or religion is concerned not with information about God or various religious systems of belief, but with why we should be concerned with such things, if and how we can know about them, and how people think about them. There will be a little admixture here of things that are not exactly philosophy, but are somewhat related. I will be writing some about the psychology of religion, for instance. also, we will consider the relationship of religion with other disciplines such as science, politics, and art.

Last modified on 23 November 2011, at 19:39