PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION
WHAT IS RELIGION?
Typology of Definitions
I) Contrasting Types of Definitions
1. Exclusive definition:
narrow and restrictive; excludes several recognized world religions.
comprehensive, formal, broad, or structural; inclusive of wide religious
2. Subjective definition: identifies the individual, subject, or
identifies historical institutions, social-cultural
traditions, and doctrinal systems as exclusively
3. Substantive definition: stresses doctrinal systems, dogmatic
creeds, and orthodox belief
stresses the social, cultural, communal, psychological, or ideological
4. Western definition: stresses personal relationship with a
supernatural, transcendent, personal God
emphasizes a naturalistic path or way of uniting with an impersonal ultimate
II) Social-scientific Types of Definitions
1. Anthropological definition: interprets
religion as a complex cultural phenomenon
2. Sociological definition: interprets religion as a
socially constructed reality
3. Psychological definition: interprets religion as a
psychological projection or need
III) Philosophical Type of Definition: What is
Distinctively Religious in General?
1. The classical model of philosophical
definition, inaugurated with Aristotle’s distinction between genus
and species, perceives an identical form or basic structure among
dissimilar things (broadly interpreted, any kind of object, event, or
entity). It opposes any premature, provincial, restrictive definition of the
subject that excludes what is initially foreign, alien, or unfamiliar. It is
a conceptual way of thinking that perceives structural (formal) identities
or similarities between otherwise dissimilar things.
After viewing, over a period of time, the sun, the moon, car tires, bicycle
wheels, coins, Frisbees, baseballs, and dinner plates, a child realizes that
they all express or exhibit the same shape. In other
words, these objects are formally identical (same form, shape,
structure) although they are concretely different (in their specific
or particular content). This type of thinking is called abstract
because the reasoning agent abstracts (separates out, extracts) the
general, common form from the several objects that embody, express,
or exhibit it.
2. A more recent model of
philosophical definition is Wittgenstein’s innovative (1889-1951) concept of
family resemblance. Such a definition, in contrast to the classical
model, composes an interwoven set of similarities (like the similar facial
features of family members) that lack a common denominator or
essential core characteristic shared by every member of the class (like
family members that don’t share one identical feature in common).
Example: As a
college student, you see many new faces the first week of a new school year.
Someone in your French class looks a little like someone in your History
course, who looks a little like someone in your Political Science class.
Later in the semester you discover that two of them are brothers and the
third is a cousin. In contrast to a strictly formal identity, we could say
these three individuals exhibit a structural kinship, i.e.,
similarities that are not reducible to a singular characteristic.
3. Traditional Features of
a) Conceptual: identifies
general features), structural traits), formal characteristics), common
denominators), or core essence of X.
covers all relevant cases, inclusive, broad, wide, or universal.
c) Impartial: unbiased,
unprejudiced, not endorsing a specific position), not advocating a
particular religious tradition.
d) Precise: clear, lucid, economical, reduction of ambiguity or
e) Trans-historical or Trans-cultural: provides latitude for
variation among particular historical cultures, does not identify with any
specific cultural expression.
IV) Traditional Questions
Relating to the Nature of Religion
1. Given the multi-dimensional nature
and complex history of religion, should it be judged positively,
negatively, or both?
2. Is religion supernatural (revealed, discovered, etc.) or
humanistic (invented, natural, etc.)?
3. What is the relationship between myth and religion?
4. Is religion primarily a private matter, a communal
phenomenon, or both?
5. Does religion contradict or complement science?
6. Is there one true religion or are all
religions ultimately united at a fundamental level?
7. Is religion primarily doctrinal or experiential?
8. Can religion (in the singular) be defined or is it beyond
9. Is religious belief rational (evidential, reasonable, warranted,
etc.) or irrational (fideistic, beyond or below the scope of reason,
10. Is religion
essentially (by its very nature) a tool of power or is using religion
as a tool of power a radical distortion of its essential nature?
11. Is morality or ethical beliefs dependent
upon religion or independent of religion?