A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion                                         

5. Philosophy and Religion


1.   Two distinct endeavors


It is important to distinguish between religion (including philosophical discourse based on a particular religion, for apologetic or polemical purposes) and philosophy proper (which makes no direct appeal to premises from a religious tradition, though it may discuss religious issues).

This is a derivative of the distinction between faith and reason, keeping in mind that faith may be reasonable (i.e. without conclusive proof or disproof) or unreasonable (i.e. in spite of conclusive disproof). Note that reasonable faith is necessarily before the fact – for, if some fact is already indubitably established, there is no need of faith in it. Unreasonable faith is contrary to fact.

Some philosophers regard faith in pure speculations, those that are in principle neither provable nor disprovable (e.g. faith in the existence of God or in strict karma), as unreasonable. But I would class the latter as within reason, for it is always – however remotely – conceivable that some proof or disproof might eventually be found, i.e. the ‘principle’ is itself is hard to establish with finality. Moreover, the category of pure speculation is even applicable to some scientific theories (for example, Bohr’s interpretation of quantum uncertainty as indeterminacy).

Religion is based on faith, i.e. on the acceptance of theses with insufficient inductive and deductive reasons, or without any reason, or even against reason (i.e. albeit serious divergence from scientific conclusions based on common experience and logic) – on the basis of statements by some assumed spiritual authority, or even merely because one feels so emotionally inclined.

Philosophy, on the other hand, is based on personal understanding, on purely empirical and logical considerations; although some or many of its theses might well to some extent be hypothetical, or even speculative, they remain circumscribed by scientific attitudes and theories – that is, a sincere effort is made to integrate them with the whole body of experience and reason.

The difference between religion and philosophy is not always clear-cut, note well. Religion is not throughout contrary to reason, and philosophy is not always free of mere speculation. The difference is whether the credulity, or degree of belief, in speculative propositions is proportional or not to the extent of available adductive evidence and proof. In the case of mere faith, the reliance on a given proposition is disproportionate to its scientific weight; whereas in the case of rational conviction, there is an effort to keep in mind the scientific weight of what is hypothesized - one is ready to admit that “maybe” things are not as one thinks.

The two also differ in content or purpose. Religions are attempts to confront the problems of human finitude and suffering, through essentially supernatural explanations and solutions. The aim of religion is a grand one, that of individual and collective redemption. Philosophies resort to natural explanations and expedients, attempting to understand how human knowledge is obtained and to be validated, and thus (together with the special sciences) gradually identify ways and means for human improvement. There is still an underlying valuation involved in the philosophical pursuit, note well; but the aim is more modest.

To make such a distinction does not (and should not) indicate an antireligious bias. It is not intended as a ‘secularist’ ideology, but merely as a secular one. Religion (or at least those parts of particular religions that are not decisively anti-empirical or anti-rational) remains a legitimate and respectable human activity – it is just recognized as being a different intellectual domain, something to be distinguished from philosophy so as to maintain a balanced perspective in one’s knowledge.


2.   Many people make claims


The reason this division was produced historically by philosophers was to protect philosophy (and more broadly, the special sciences) from being reduced to a supporting role, as the “handmaiden” of religion. It was necessary to make philosophy independent of religion to enable philosophers to engage in critical judgment, if need arose, without having to force themselves to be “religiously correct” or risk the ire of politically powerful religious authorities.

The secularization of philosophy was precisely this: a revolt against foregone conclusions imposed by religious authorities (i.e. people collectively self-proclaimed as sole torch-bearers of truth) as undeniable ‘fact’. It is important to understand the logical rationale behind such a revolt, i.e. why it is epistemologically valid and necessary.

Anyone can stand up and claim to have been graced by some Divine revelation/salvation (or holy spirit) or to have attained some Buddhist or Hindu enlightenment/liberation.

Many people throughout history have made such metaphysical claims. Some have gone so far as to claim to be a god or even G-d. Some have not made explicit claims for themselves, but have had such claims made on their behalf by others. Some of the claimants – notably, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha – have founded world-class religions, that have greatly affected the lives of millions of people and changed the course of history. Other claimants – like your local shaman, Egypt’s Pharaoh, or Reverend Moon – have been less influential.

The common denominator of all these claims is some extraordinary mystical experience, such as a prophetic vision or a breakthrough to ‘nirvana’ or ‘moksha’ (enlightenment/liberation). The one making a claim (or claimed for by others) has a special experience not readily available to common mortals, on the basis of which he (or she) becomes a religious authority, whose allegations as to what is true or untrue are to be accepted on faith by people who have not personally had any commensurable experience.

The founding impetus is always some esoteric experience, on the basis of which exoteric philosophy and science are shunted aside somewhat, if not thoroughly overturned. The founding master’s mantle of authority is thereafter transmitted on to disciples who do not necessarily claim an equal status for themselves, but who are pledged to loyally study and teach the founder’s original discoveries.

Religion is essentially elitist, even in cases where its core experience (of revelation or enlightenment) is considered as in principle ultimately open to all, if only because of the extreme difficulty of reaching this experience.

In some cases, the disciples can hope to duplicate the master’s achievement given sufficient effort and perseverance. In other cases, the master’s disciples cannot hope to ever reach their teacher’s level. But in either case, they are the guardians of the faith concerned, and thence (to varying degrees) acquire institutional ‘authority’ on this basis, over and above the remaining faithful.

Thus, we have essentially two categories of people, in this context.

  1. Those who have had (or claim to) the religious experience concerned first-hand.
  2. Those who, second-hand, rely on the claim of the preceding on the basis of faith, whether they have institutional status of authorities or not.


3.   How to decide?


Now, this distinction is not intended to be a put-down, a devaluation of either category of person. But it is a necessary distinction, if we are to understand the difference in epistemological perspective in each case.

From the point of view of a first-hand recipient, i.e. someone who has personally had the mystical experience concerned, his discourse is (for his own consumption, at least) pure philosophy, not religion. He is presumably not required to have faith, but all the information and reasoning involved is presented to him on platter. His task is simple enough; his responsibility is nil, his certainty total.

But a second-hand recipient has a difficult task, epistemologically. He has to decide for himself whether the first-hand teacher is making a true or false claim. He has to decide whether to have faith in him or not. He is required to accept an ad hominem argument.

This objection is not a judgment as to the master’s veracity. Some alleged masters are surely charlatans, who lie to others so as to rule and/or exploit them; some of these remain cynically conscious of their own dishonesty, while some kid themselves as well as others. But it may well be that some alleged masters are not only sincere, but have indeed had the experience claimed and have correctly interpreted it.

But who can tell? Certainly not the ordinary Joe, who (by definition) has never had the experience concerned, and in most cases can never hope to duplicate it – and so is not qualified to judge. Yet, he is called upon to take it on faith – sometimes under the threat of eternal damnation or continuing samsara if he does not comply.

How is the common man to know for sure whether some person (contemporary – or more probably in a distant past, who may even be a mere legend) has or has not had a certain mystical experience? It is an impossible task, since such experience is intrinsically private!

To date, we have no scientific means to penetrate other people’s consciousness. And even if we could, we would still need to evaluate the significance of the experience concerned. Such judgments could never be absolute and devoid of doubt, but necessarily inductive and open to debate. Thus, the ‘certainty’ required by faith could not be rationally constructed.

It is no use appealing to witnesses. Sometimes two or more people confirm each other’s claim or some third party’s. Moreover, often, alleged authorities disagree, and reject others’ claims. But who will confirm for us innocent bystanders that any of these people are qualified to authenticate or disqualify anyone?

Thus, faith is a leap into the unknown. However, it is often a necessary leap, for philosophy and science are not able to answer all questions (notably, moral questions) convincingly, and we in some cases all need to make decisions urgently. So, religion has to be recognized by philosophy as a legitimate, albeit very private, choice. In this context, note well, secularism is also a religion – an act of faith that there is no truth in any (other) religious faith.


4.   A word on Buddhism


Buddhism is today often painted as “a philosophy rather than a religion”, implying that it does not rely on faith. But this is a patently unfair description: there are plenty of faith loci within Buddhism. Belief in the wheel of reincarnation (samsara), belief in the possibility of leaving it (nirvana), belief that at least one man attained this Buddha state (Siddhartha Gautama), belief in the specific means he proposed (moral and meditative disciplines, notably non-attachment), belief in a multitude of related stories and texts – all these are acts of faith.

These beliefs require just as much faith as belief in the existence of God, and other more specific beliefs (starting with belief in the Torah, or Christian New Testament, or Koran), within the monotheistic religions. The adherent to Buddhism must take on faith the validity of his spiritual goal and pathway, before he becomes a Buddha (assuming he ever does). The end and means are not something philosophically evident, till he reaches the end through the means. This is the same situation as in the monotheistic religions.

So, Buddhism is not primarily a philosophy, but a religion – and to say otherwise is misleading advertising. The same is true of Hinduism, which shares many doctrines with Buddhism (as well as having some monotheistic tendencies, although these are not exclusive).


5.   Evaluating claims


It is important to remain both: open-minded, granting some of the claims of religions as conceivable; and cool-headed, keeping in mind some of them are unproved. Intolerance of religion is not a proper philosophical stance, but a prejudice, a dogma. The true philosopher, however, remains sober, and does not allow himself to get carried away by emotional preferences.

Transcendental claims can, nevertheless, be judged and classed to some extent. Sorting them out is, we might say, the realm of theology (a branch of philosophy).

Some claims are, as already pointed out, directly contrary to experience and/or reason; if some harmonization cannot be construed, philosophy must exclude such claims. Some are logically conceivable, but remotely so; these are to be kept on the back burner. And lastly, some are very possible in our present context of knowledge; these can be used as inspirations and motivations for secular research.

Generally speaking, it is easier to eliminate false claims than to definitely prove true claims.

Each specific claim should be considered and evaluated separately. It is not logical to reject a doctrine wholesale, having found fault with only some aspects of it (unless these be essentials, without which nothing else stands). In such research, it is well to keep in mind the difference between a non sequitur and a disproof: disproving premises does not necessarily mean their conclusions are false, for they might be deducible from other premises.

In choosing among religions, we usually refer to the moral recommendations and behavior patterns of their founder and disciples (as well as more sociologically, of course, to traditions handed down in our own family or society) as indices. If the advice given is practiced by those preaching, that is already a plus. If the advice and practice are wise, pure, virtuous, kindly, and loving, etc. – we instinctively have more confidence. Otherwise, if we spot hypocrisy or destructiveness, we are repelled. (Of course, all such evidence is inconclusive: it suggests, but does not prove.)

But, however persuaded we personally might be by a religious teaching, its discourse cannot be dogmatically taken as the starting premise of philosophy. To a first-hand mystic, it may well be; but to the rest of us, it cannot be. Philosophy is another mode of human inquiry, with other goals and means. Spirituality and rationality are neither necessarily bound together, nor necessarily mutually exclusive. They might be mixed somewhat, but never totally confused.

Thus, if someone claims some mystical experience, or refers to authoritative texts based on some such foundation, his philosophizing might well be considered attentively and learned from to some degree, but it is ultimately irrelevant to pure philosophy; or more precisely such discourse can become in part or wholly relevant only provided or to the extent that it submits to the secular standards of public philosophy.

The latter can only refer to experiences and insights that can readily be duplicated, i.e. that are within everyone’s reach (except a minority with damaged organs), if they but consider certain empirical data and follow a set of inductive and deductive arguments. It aims at developing, using ordinary language, a potentially universal worldview and understanding.

Admittedly, as some would argue, high-level philosophy (as with advanced mathematics or physics) is in practice not comprehensible to most laymen! Just as meditation or other religious techniques are not easily mastered, it takes a lot of effort and intelligence to learn and apply logic in depth. Moreover, the novice who enters the path of philosophy is as hopeful (full of faith in eventual results) as the religious initiate; and all along both disciplines, small successes encourage him to keep going.

So, one might well ask the embarrassing question: what is the difference between the elitism of philosophy and that of religion? Ultimately, perhaps none, or just a difference of degree! This answer would be true at least of reasonable religion. But in the case of unreasonable religion, we ought not allow ourselves to believe in it – even as a remote possibility – until if ever it becomes manifestly reasonable, i.e. until and unless our basic view of reality is indeed overturned by actual personal experiences.

It is unwise to excessively compartmentalize one’s mind and life; at the extreme, one may risk some sort of schizophrenia. One should rather always try to keep one’s rationality and spirituality largely harmonious. Faith in religious ideas need not be an ‘all or nothing’ proposition; one can pick and choose under the guidance of reason. Reason is not in principle opposed to faith; it allows for its essentials.


6.   Acknowledging science


The challenge for today’s philosophers of religion, who wish to bring God and/or other religious ideas back into the modern mind, is to fully acknowledge and accept the current conclusions of modern science. It is no use trying to tell an educated contemporary that scientific claims – regarding the age and size of the universe, the evolution of matter, the age and history of our planet, the evolution of vegetable and animal life on it, the emergence of the human species – are all wrong! Such discourse is irrelevant to the modern mind, if not absurd.

There is still room, side by side with the worldview of science, for religious ideas – but these must inductively adapt to survive. This is always possible by exploiting (within reason) loopholes in the current scientific narrative, whatever it happen to be at any given time. Instead of emphasizing conflicts, thinkers should seek out the conceptual possibilities for harmonization. Real scientists remain open-minded wherever there are lacunae.

Creationism need not be a fixed dogma. Rather than insist that the world was created in 6 days some 6’000 years ago, say that God is the creator of the initial matter-energy of the universe, and of the laws of nature and evolution inherent in it, and that He triggered the ‘big bang’ 13.7 billion years ago.

Moreover, in physics, suggest that the indeterminacy apparent in quantum mechanics is perhaps really the opportunity God uses to daily impinge on details of the world process. Or again, in biology, propose the first conversions of mineral into living and then animate matter (wherever and whenever they occurred) were maybe due to God’s intervention; and rather than combat Darwinism, accept it as part of God’s plan and hypothesize that the apparently spontaneous occasional mutations of genes might well be miracles.


Drawn from Ruminations (2005), Chapter 2.19.



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