Both philosophy and religion are widely used concepts, yet defining them accurately can be challenging due to the wide range of meanings that each has acquired over time. Because religion is a derivative of an ancient Latin phrase that referred to the relationship that existed between man and the gods, most people believe that religion entails a belief in some form of supernatural being or in a group of supernatural creatures. The definition of religion commonly supplied by dictionaries is as follows, yet such a definition would exclude several religious traditions; for example, the topic of the presence of supernatural beings is never raised in Confucianism, and so on. In some cases, the term “religion” has been applied to secular groups such as communism or different nationalist organisations that, despite their denial of the existence of God, demand a total, “religious” devotion from their supporters in order to survive.
The fact that there is such a vast variety of religious traditions only adds to the difficulty of achieving a good definition of religion. Every civilization has a religious tradition of some form, and these traditions are as diverse as the cultures that gave rise to the traditions in question. However, whereas many religious traditions are intricately tied to cultic and ceremonial practises, others are not. A priesthood is associated with some faiths, but this is not true of all of them. In some traditions, divine revelation plays a significant role; nonetheless, the relative importance of revelation in comparison to what can be learned via reason alone is sometimes a source of debate.
When it comes to the study of religion, one way to deal with the wide variety of meanings is to take a neutral, descriptive approach. This means just looking at a religion in its different cultural manifestations and describing religious phenomena of whatever kind they may be is all that is required. Such descriptive research focuses on comparing and contrasting the many modes of religious awareness that are encountered, and it is possible that some inferences regarding the nature of the religion under investigation might be drawn from this descriptive analysis. Whatever the benefits of this approach, it cannot be regarded a philosophical study of religion, because philosophy is the critical investigation of human life and ideas, and religion is a philosophical subject.
Religion, like any other organised human activity, can be studied from a multitude of perspectives, and the study of religion is not any different. The historian, the sociologist, and the psychologist are all concerned with religion from a different perspective. The growth of a religious tradition over time, its parallels to other religious traditions, and the influence that a religion has on the economic, political, and social affairs of a given community will all be of interest to the historian. When it comes to religious traditions, the sociologist is interested in learning about the values that society holds dear that are expressed in them, how religious beliefs of a group contribute to the cohesiveness of a society, and how stratifications within a society are affected by religious traditions. Because belief structures are symptomatic of a certain type of self-understanding, the psychologist will pay close attention to these structures themselves. Because the boundaries of disciplines are not always clearly defined, the interests of historians, sociologists, and psychologists will inevitably intersect.
There is also a distinction between being a religious student and being a believer in a certain religion, in addition to the distinctions in interests among the many academic subjects. While researching Islam, a student may seek to understand what Muslims believe, how those beliefs are incorporated into ritual and cultic practises, what the various Islam sects are, and how the beliefs of Islam relate to other religions in the Near East, all while refusing to accept the tenets of Islam as true. When it comes to religious beliefs, a believer may adopt the objective position taken by a student of religion; however, the believer’s attitude toward a religion will invariably be influenced by personal religious commitments, particularly if the religion under consideration happens to be the believer’s own.
The attitude of the believer is far more existential in nature, because the religion under consideration is not merely a subject of academic study but also a matter of personal devotion for the believer. The most challenging aspect of researching one’s own religious heritage is establishing an objective point of view on the subject matter (insofar as any objectivity is possible in religious study). Because of the critical task of philosophy, the philosophical study of religion necessitates a detachment from personal beliefs in order to be able to critically evaluate the fundamental concerns addressed by religion. This detachment is an essential first step in conducting a truly philosophical study of religion, and it is one that cannot be skipped. However, this does not rule out the possibility of an individual committed to a particular religious tradition from engaging in philosophical reflection on that tradition; otherwise, one would be forced to believe religiously what had been discovered philosophically, which would be an odd state of affairs. The notion is that the philosophical study of religion necessitates a certain amount of detachment from one’s personal religious convictions. In turn, taking a philosophical approach to religion may well result in more clarity and greater understanding, which can then be used to inspire even greater commitment. Students will benefit from exposure to the work of historians, sociologists, psychologists, and comparative religion specialists as they conduct a philosophical investigation of a religious belief system or practise. However, contacts with these disciplines only serve to prepare the learner for the philosophical task of critically analysing the basic questions generated by religion and subjecting these issues to rigorous scrutiny.
When even the aim of uncovering the essential nature of religion appears to be unachievable, as we have shown, how can the philosopher begin his or her search for the essential nature of religion? One way to address this question is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a religion, simply different kinds of religions. Religions can be divided into a variety of traditions, and within any religion, certain fundamental and common concerns will inevitably arise. Thus, a philosopher studying a family of Eastern religions, for example, would come up with a different set of questions than a philosopher studying an old animistic religion would come up with. Instead, each religion poses its own set of concerns, and part of the philosopher’s task is to identify these fundamental difficulties and subject them to as comprehensive an analysis as is reasonably practicable.
The religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity are the ones that the majority of my readers are most familiar with. As evidenced by the fact that Christianity has its origins in Judaism, as well as by the commonality of the problems that have historically preoccupied both religions, it is possible to view these two diverse religious traditions as part of a single cultural tradition. First and foremost, before embarking on a philosophical investigation of radically other religions, it would behoove us to consider the major questions addressed by our own religious tradition from a philosophical standpoint. There is, however, another rationale for starting with the Judaeo-Christian heritage in the first place. Despite the fact that both Judaism and Christianity originated in the ancient Near East, they have come to represent almost the entirety of the religious legacy of the Western world, and this is a remarkable achievement. Furthermore, our conception of the nature of philosophy, albeit it was conceived in Greece, has come to be associated with a particular Western manner of reasoning. Throughout history, both Western philosophy and Western religion have placed a strong focus on the human ability of reason, as well as the role that reason and argument play in the discovery of truth. As an example, a Zen master would refuse to answer questions, let alone participate in a syllogistic argument, which would be in stark contrast to the above. Zeno, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who is credited with being the first to reason dialectically, is often regarded as the founder of Western philosophy in a very genuine sense. In other words, he juxtaposed opposing points of view and attempted to reason his way to a conclusion that would result in the acceptance of one point of view and the rejection of the opposing point. The link between faith and reason will be of particular interest to a Western philosopher researching a Western religion, because reason and argument are important to the Western attitude toward philosophy. He might inquire, “Is faith a sensible choice? Is it possible to prove the assertions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition regarding God? If this is the case, can we intellectually comprehend what we take on faith?”
As the contemporary philosopher John Hick puts it, “philosophy of religion is philosophical thought on religion in general.” The problem here is that we must consider this as philosophical thinking about religion in general, rather than philosophical thinking about the problems produced by a specific religious tradition—in this case, the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Hick defines philosophy of religion as “an inquiry into the nature of religious utterances in comparison with those of everyday life” and “an inquiry into the nature of religious utterances in comparison with those of scientific discovery, morality, and the imaginative expressions of the arts,” among other concepts. Please keep in mind that while these notions are fundamental to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, they are not universally applicable to all religious traditions. A cluster of problems can be found when we examine what philosophers in both the Jewish and Christian traditions have identified as central concerns. These include the nature and existence of God, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the meaning of death, the relationship between morality and religion, and the question of human destiny. As a result, it is to these conceptions that we will apply the rigors of philosophical investigation in the future