Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is Religion the Same Thing As Philosophy?

By Tom King © 2011

19th Century Philosopher
Karl Marx
 I knew when I saw the title to the piece that somehow or other religion wasn't going to come out well. The writer started off well enough, talking about definitions and linguistic ambiguity and even suggested that the terms might be somewhat interchangeable according to some unnamed lesser philosophers. Then about halfway in, he seems to have lost the thread he was spinning and descended into a case for the superiority of pure philosophy over mere religion. When he started name-dropping famous philosophers like Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Russel and William James, I knew it wasn't going to go well for persons of faith. There's a lot of this sort of thing going around these days.

Let me touch on his main points one by one. Don't read anything into the numbering. I'm not engaging in aggravated didacticism here, I just like to number things to keep them straight in my head. The words in blue are my friend's comments.

1. To begin with, of the two (philosophy and religion) only religions have rituals.
  • It's not true that philosophers do not establish rituals, holidays or observances. Pure philosophers observe all sorts of holidays because humans seem to need them. Like a religion, a philosophy-based organization does create holidays. Birthdays, anniversaries, president's days, independence days. All sorts of special days get celebrated by philosophers and instituted by philosophy-based organizations. I don't see holidays as material to the question of whether philosophy and religion are the same thing. Rituals are not exclusive to religions. People have all sorts of rituals that have nothing to do with religion. Baseball players have things they do to prepare for a game. Soldiers, sailors and pilots carry “lucky” keepsake objects that may have no basis in religion whatever. The objects just make them feel better. Adopters of Marxist philosophy, for instance, constantly held parades, holidays and celebrations complete with attendant rituals.
2. Another difference is the fact that philosophy tends to emphasize just the use of reason and critical thinking, whereas religions may make use of reason, but at the very least they also rely on faith, or even use faith to the exclusion of reason.
  • Only atheist philosophers do not incorporate a God or gods into their reasoning and logic. Reasoning and logic are impossible to separate from faith. Philosophers who believe in God or some supernatural power or process are no less philosophers for basing their philosophy on a 'best guess" about what is true. After all, faith IS a best guess in the end. All philosophy for that matter is a best guess based on evidence at hand. My problem with so many who get bent out of shape with religious people, is that they seem to be basing their own philosophy on a lack of evidence. You cannot prove a thing does not exist simply because you cannot prove it does exist. Black holes existed long before we even thought of them and to this day we can only see second-hand evidence of their existence. Faith in the unseen or unproved is elemental to our very ability to reason. Without faith, we would never be able to construct the very mental paradigms that make possible the conceptual leaps that philosophers, scientists and prophets make one after another in our herky-jerky trip toward enlightenment.
3. You won’t find Hegel, Kant or Russell saying that their philosophies are revelations from a god or that their work should be taken on faith. Instead, they base their philosophies on rational arguments — those arguments may not also prove valid or successful, but it is the effort which differentiates their work from religion.
  • Next you're going to quote Rousseau who said "The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.” It could be argued that philosophers like Karl Marx, Sir Francis Galton and H.G. Wells were responsible for more than half a billion deaths in the 20th century since disciples of their philosophies like Hitler, Stalin and Mao murdered quite a few people and a whole lot of them WERE priests.
4.  A separation between the sacred and the profane is something else lacking in philosophy. Many religions teach adherents to revere sacred scriptures, but no one teaches students to revere the collected notes of William James.
  • That's not true either. Marxism is a philosophy. Marx is a highly respected philosopher. His philosophy led to all kinds of revering. Mao's little red book and Mein Kampf were revered. The statue of Iron Felix in Red Square stood in for statues and paintings of saints. The fear of the Gestapo, the KGB and the Chinese secret police was as real a consequence of philosophy as fear of any wrathful Old Testament deity, the Inquisition or Reverend Billy Bob's hell-fire and damnation sermons. And if you argue that Marx is not responsible for the misuse of his philosophy by politicians and opportunists, please apply the same principle to religion.
5.Finally, most religions tend to include some sort of belief in what can only be described as the “miraculous” — events which either defy normal explanation or which are, in principal, outside the boundaries of what should occur in our universe.
  • Big bang, black holes, relativity. We've described these mathematically, but never witnessed any of these events directly. Miracles are events for which we do not have any explanation. Just because we don't understand how these events happen does not mean they haven't happened or couldn't happen. Just because we didn't understand that black holes, relativity or the big bang, didn't mean they weren't real things a hundred years ago or that they didn't exist or couldn't have happened simply because we couldn't explain them.
6.  It is important to keep their distinctness (religion and philosophy) in mind when considering them.
  • I don't see why, unless you are trying to make the point that philosophy is superior to religion or that faith in your own religious studies and experience is somehow inferior to reliance on science or philosophy. Both science and philosophy have a habit of periodically becoming rigid, and hidebound. Then, when new data shows them to be demonstrably wrong, these systems of thoughts make a big paradigm shift (about every century or so). Faith is in no way separate from philosophy. Even atheists operate from a foundation of faith. Evolutionary philosophers base their ideas upon faith in the principles of gradual geologic and biological change and may also reject any possibility of outside intervention in the course of human evolution. They haven't lived long enough to directly witness the billions of years of evolution that they believe has happened in just the way science currently understands it. Scientific theories are based on data collected by scientists endeavoring to prove hypotheses (usually their own). While their theories may be supported by evidence, there is hardly a theory more than a few hundred years old that has not been challenged by later evidence. New scientific theories rely heavily on previously "proved" theories, but unless you have have witnessed the collection of all of the data directly, you must have faith in whoever collected the evidence that supports the older theory upon which you are building. Even if you can reproduce the old experiment and get the same result, you still have to trust that both yours and their interpretation of the data is correct. Science is a discipline built heavily on faith.
Religion is not church management, politics or even dogma. One definition of religion is a system of personal belief, which basically means - a philosophy. The word is also used as "a religion" to designate an organization of believers who share a similar, though not always identical system of personal philosophy. Religion is philosophy. A religion is nothing more than a philosophy organized. And before you deny the existence of organized philosophy, think again. You could legitimately say the United States is an organization based on the philosophy of John Locke and his colleagues.  You could argue that the Soviet Union was based on the philosophy of Karl Marx.

It's apples to oranges when you compare philosophy as a system of belief to "a religion" which is an organization based on a belief. In the same way, you can't compare a philosphy-based organization to religion as a system of personal belief. It's a fine distinction, but an important one.

Just one man's philosophy...


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