Philosophy of Religion


(Bibliographic, and some biographic, information at the end by number)

  1. 1.“In discussions of philosophy it is usually—and quite rightly—taken for granted that there is no need of beginning with a definition. …  Discussions of religion, on the other hand, begin typically with definitions.  But not one of these definitions has won wide acceptance, nor is it likely that any ever will” (Walter Kaufmann).

  1. 2.“Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, and worship” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971).

  1. 3.“The relationship which humanity establishes with the divinity through worship; a specific group of beliefs, moral laws and cultic practices whereby humanity establishes a relationship with the divine” (Grand Larousse de la langue française, 1971).

  1. 4.“Religion: (Noun) 1a: the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion); 1b1: the service and worship of God or the supernatural; 1b2: commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; 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 and faith” (Merriam-Webster, “Religion,” Online).

  1. 5.“The essence of religion consists in a feeling of absolute dependence …” (Frederick Schleiermacher).

  1. 6.“It seems simplest … simply to claim, as a minimum definition of religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings” (E. B. Tylor).

  1. 7.“By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and human life” (Sir James George Frazer).

  1. 8.“The first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears, which actuate the human mind” (David Hume).

  1. 9.“All ideas and feelings are religious which refer to ideal existence, an existence that corresponds to the wishes and requirements of the human mind” (Wilhelm Wundt, Ethics).

  1. 10.“A man’s religion is that set of objects, habits, and convictions . . . which he would die for rather than abandon, or at least he would feel excommunicated from humanity if he did abandon” (Robert Holford Macdowall Bosanquet).

  1. 11.Religion is “an hypothesis which is supposed to render the Universe comprehensible ….  Now every theory tacitly asserts two things: first that there is something to be explained; secondly that such and such is the explanation … that the existence of the world with all it contains is a mystery ever pressing for interpretation … [and] that it is not a mystery passing human comprehension” (Herbert Spencer, First Principles).

  1. 12.Religion is “a pathological manifestation of the protective function, a sort of deviation of the normal function . . . caused by ignorance of natural causes and of their effects” (G. Sergi).

  1. 13.“Religious life consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto” (William James).

  1. 14.“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community … all who adhere to them” (Emile Durkheim).

  1. 15.“The psychic origin of all religious thought, is the recognition, or, if you please, the assumption, that conscious volition is the ultimate source of all Force. It is the belief that behind the sensuous, phenomenal world, distinct from it, giving it form, existence, and activity, lies the ultimate, invisible, immeasurable power of Mind, of conscious Will, of Intelligence, analogous in some way to our own; and, —mark this essential corollary—that man is in communication with it” (Daniel G. Brinton).

  1. 16.“Religion is a means of ultimate transformation.  In this definition the focus is on the religious character of human awareness, which includes at least two elements: ultimacy and effective power.  When we ask, why is one action ‘good’ and another ‘bad’? or Why does man suffer? or Why does man reflect on his nature?, we are seeking a certain kind of answer. … If we want to understand the religious answers to the above questions, then we must become sensitive to the assumptions behind religious answers; and one of these assumptions is that there is more to life than just physical existence.  It is this ‘more than’ character to which our term ‘ultimate’ point” (Frederick Streng).

  1. 17.“[The claim] that there is a Beyond or an Unborn, and that this is somehow accessible to the religious experience of the human race, and is not just a philosophical speculation or a theory about the world” (Ninian Smart).

  1. 18.“On the theoretical side [religion] is characterized by a world-view which denies the adequacy of the world of the senses and affirms the existence of a transcendental world, conceived both as highest existence and highest value. On the practical side, it consists in the passage from things of this world to a conception and experience of the reality of the transcendent world, and thus to salvation from the world” (Hermann Siebeck).

  1. 19.“Religion is a human response to mystery. … not as a deadly emptiness, but somehow as a reality in which lies the meaning of human existence. … The response to the mystery as fullness is religion. In general, religion is a way of relating to mystery as a sacred or divine reality rather than as useless or meaningless” (Michael H. Barnes).

  1. 20.“To be—or, rather, to become—a man means to be ‘religious’” (Mircea Eliade).

  1. 21.“One’s religion … is one’s way of valuing most intensively and comprehensively” (Frederick Ferré).

  1. 22.“A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Clifford Geertz).

  1. 23.“Religion is a cultural system and a social institution that governs and promotes ideal interpretations of existence and ideal praxis with reference to transempirical powers or beings” (Armin Geertz).

  1. 24.Finally perhaps “the sustained inability to clarify what the word ‘religion’ signifies, in itself suggests that the term ought to be dropped; that it is a distorted concept not really corresponding to anything definite or distinctive in the objective world. The phenomena we call religious undoubtedly exist. Yet perhaps the notion that they constitute in themselves some distinctive entity is an unwarranted analysis” (Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, 17).  But Smith goes on to say that this is too extreme a conclusion, “an alternative suggestion could be that a failure to agree on definitions of religion may well stem from the quality of the material. For what a man thinks about religion is central to what he thinks about life and the universe as a whole. The meaning that one ascribes to the term is a key to the meaning that one finds in existence” (18). This is one of the reasons that, as John Lyden points out, “we have a tendency to limit what we view as religion to that which is recognized as such by us in our own culture” (Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York: NYU Press, 2003: 2). However, “one cannot generalize about religion on the basis of the language and norms of just a single case, just as geologists do not construct a geology on the basis of the rocks that merely happen to be in one’s neighborhood. The neighborhood rocks, analogues to one’s own local religion, are themselves instances of certain common, universal properties” (William Paden).

  1. 25.Religion is: “… the recognition of all our duties as divine commands” (Immanuel Kant).

  1. 26.“Religion is a relationship to the highest or strongest value … The value by which you are possessed unconsciously.  That psychological fact which is the greatest power in your system is the god, since it is always the overwhelming psychic factor which is called god” (C. G. Jung).

  1. 27.Religion: “… means the conscious relation between man and God, and the expression of that relation in human conduct” (“Religion,” A Religious Encyclopedia, Vol. 3 (Funk & Wagnalls, 1891), 2022).

  1. 28.Religion is: “… the social processes that lead to the formation of Self” (Thomas Lcukmann).

  1. 29.“Religion is clearly a state of mind. … it may best be described as an emotion resting on a conviction of a harmony between ourselves and the universe at large” (John McTaggart).

  1. 30.Religion is: “… whatever we as individuals do to come to grips personally with the questions that confront us because we are aware that we and all others like us are alive and that we will die” (C. D. Batson and W. L. Ventis).

  1. 31.“… religion is a defensive reaction of nature against the representation, by intelligence, of the inevitability of death” (Henri Bergson).

  1. 32.“Religion implies a relationship; it may be defined as an attempt to overcome solitude, to release the Ego from its seclusion, to achieve community and intimacy” (Nicolas Berdyaev).

Notes:  Bibliographic and Biographic

  1. 1. Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 100.

  2. 2. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, The Doctrine of Faith; (1768-1834), German philosopher, classicist, and theologian; most known for his hermeneutics (his philosophical theory of interpretation and translation).  Some of his premises and theories of note include: belief that inner language use was fundamental to human nature, i.e., language is identical with thought and the foundation for self-consciousness; language is social, but inner language can develop without sociality; language effects all mental processes; mind and body are strongly dependent to point of identity; soul/mind is a force; hermeneutics is an universal discipline, not just for religious texts; interpretation comes from the text, not divine inspiration; hermeneutics requires knowledge of text’s historical context and has two dimensions, the linguistic and the psychological, and two methods, the comparative (induction) and divinatory (fallible hypotheses); and interpretation must be holistic.

  3. 3. E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), Vol. I, i, 424).  E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), English anthropologist; his works were fundamental in part because they sought to define and demarcate the study of anthropology as a science (and, his demarcations were primarily influenced by Charles Lyell’s evolutionary theory, hence making the definitions of anthropology that of a cultural evolutionism or, more generally what we might refer to as social anthropology).

  4. 4. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough; (1854-1941), Scottish anthropologist, famous for his The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (two volumes, 1890; 3rd ed., 12 vol., 1906-15), which approached religion as a cultural phenomenon, studying elements of religion ‘scientifically’ as to their contemporary impact and proposed religion as a progression from magic to religious belief to scientific thought.

  5. 5. David Hume, “The Natural History of Religions,” Four Dissertations; (1711-1776), Scottish philosopher and historian, famous for his empiricism (knowledge based upon sense experience); his religious beliefs were strongly skeptical, his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777) attacks the argument for God’s existence from design, and his “The Natural History of Religion” is an essay in his Four Dissertations, offers a naturalistic account for cause, effects, and historical development of religion, all resting in emotion (i.e., fear and desire to control the future and unknown).

  6. 6. Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832-1920), German psychologist, physician, and philosopher; known as a founding father of modern psychology, particularly experimental psychology, founding the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig and the first psychological journal.  One of his main focuses was exploring religious belief.  He rejected the idea of a soul, arguing humans can only be understood through what was empirically observable and verifiable. 

  7. 7. Robert Holford Macdowall Bosanquet, “Philosophy of Religion,” in Baldwin’s Dictionary; (1841-1912), English scientist and music theorist.

  8. 8. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher, biologist, and sociologist; known for his political theory that borrowed Darwin’s evolution and applied it to human nature, culture, and society, coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  Religiously, he was an agnostic, rejected theology and traditional religion, but wanted to reconcile religion and science, arguing both show our tenedency to embrace the inconceivable as utterly important and that faith should thus embrace the “Unknowable” as a positive faith, instead of traditional religion. 

  9. 9. G. Sergi, Les Émotions, 404; was published in 1901 as a French translation of his “Dolore e piacere,” with an added chapter of critique, which concerns itself with his “peripheral theory of emotion,” which is discovered mainly through introspection aided by philosophical and biological evidence, and purports that mental life is a development of our basic, primitive biological irritation born from physical energy.

  10. 10. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), 69; (1842-1910), American philosopher and psychologist; a founding figure of modern psychology and proponent of pragmatism (more about him in the course to come).

  11. 11. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life; (1858-1917), French sociologist, founding figure of sociology/social science; his focus was on the coherence of modern societies, which lack traditional religious and social ties.  The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life argues the origin of religion to emotion, especially that of security that comes from communal life, hence, religion is a social phenomenon.  Religion is essentially the concept of the sacred; it begins with a transference of emotion onto objects, totemism, and as it develops, we replace the objects, i.e., into the Church, etc.

  12. 12. Daniel Garrison Brinton, “Religions of Primitive Peoples;” (1837-1899), American archaeologist, ethnologist, linguist; first a doctor, he moved into the other areas, advocated theories of “scientific racism,” popular at the time, that promoted inborn difference between the races; became anarchist at the end of his life.

  13. 13. Frederick Streng, Understanding Religious Life, 4; (1933-93), American philosopher, founder of Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy; studied under Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago, completing a dissertation on emptiness in Nagarjuna (Buddhist philosopher), wherein he argued that religious knowledge is not information, but an awareness, and one that is in flux.  Other interests were in comparative religions and pluralism, beginning the book series The Religious Life of Man, representing all world traditions and stressing both the objective and subjective understandings of religion.  He argued that religious life “is a complex of processes through which people are being transformed” (Understanding Religious Life, 1976 Preface).

  14. 14. Roderick Ninian Smart, Beyond Ideology; (1927-2001), Scottish writer and professor in secular religious studies; he established the first department of religious studies in the UK, presided as president of the American Academy of Religion and the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace, and hosted BBC shows on world religions.  Studied religions in themselves, rather than from a theological perspective.

  15. 15. Hermann Siebeck (1842-1921), Lehrbuch der Religionsphilosophie.

  16. 16. Michael H. Barnes, In the Presence of Mystery, 1-2.

  17. 17. Mircea Eliade, The Quest, preface; (1907-86) Romanian historian of religion, philosopher, writer; best known for studies of religious experience and his theory human experience divides reality into the sacred and the profane.

  18. 18. Frederick Ferré, “The Definition of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 38, 1 (1970): 11; (1933-), American philosopher, Professor Emeritus at University of Georgia in Philosophy; worked in philosophy of religion, technology, etc.

  19. 19. Clifford James Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System;” (1926-2006), American anthropologist, known for his founding of and developments in symbolic anthropology (in cultural anthropology), which privledges the role of symbols in the construction of public meaning. 

  20. 20. Armin Geertz, “Theory, Definition, and Typology,” Temenos 33 (1997), 39; Professor in History of Religions in Denmark; known for his research into the cognitive study of religion, also biocultural theories of religion

  21. 21. William Paden, “Comparative Religion,” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, ed. John Hinnells (London: Routledge, 2005), 208; American Professor of Religion at the University of Vermont; he is known for his studies in Comparative Religion.

  22. 22. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

  23. 23. Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Religion, 98.

  24. 24. Thomas Lcukmann, The Invisible Religion (Macmillan, 1967), 49.

  25. 25. John McTaggart, Some Dogmas of Religion (1906), 3.

  26. 26. C. D. Batson and W. L. Ventis, The Religious Experience: A Social-Psychological Perspective (Oxford, 1982), 7.

  27. 27. Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Doubleday, 1954), 122.

  28. 28. Nicolas Berdyaev, Solitude and Society (1938), 91.


Definitions of Religion