PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION
WHAT IS RELIGION?
Representative Historical Perspectives
Celtic religious symbol
A. Introduction to the question What
Religion has played a crucial and formative role
in human society, history, and culture from time immemorial. As a species, we
don’t even have a recollection of a time before religion. As such, it is
clear that religion, in its various mythical and magical forms, was an essential
factor in the creation of human culture and civilization. In its original
forms, religion was human culture in its entirety, a comprehensive
worldview (German, Weltanshaunng) and life form that preceded later
divisions of culture into independent spheres. It was the source (matrix:
generative origin) of intelligible meaning, language, law, politics, morality,
belief systems, social structures, and all aspects of organized human society.
Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that religion itself, although
critically examined by several ancient philosophers, did not become an explicit
and widespread theoretical theme of inquiry until the 19th
century. Several factors contributed to this historical development: the
emergence of new theoretical disciplines and methods of investigation
(psychology, sociology, anthropology, ethnology, etc.), recently discovered
religious data from around the world (especially the East and so-called
primitive cultures), the spirit of freedom and theoretical curiosity
characteristic of the modern era, and the cultural, social, and national crises
accompanying the industrial revolution, democratization, and general
modernization of Western civilization. Accordingly, the majority of the
definitions—or general interpretations—of religion listed below stem from the 19th
and 20th century. Nevertheless, several premodern accounts, primarily
from philosophers, are included as well.
B. Representative Historical Perspectives
1. F11 Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all
things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries
and deceivings of one another.
F14 But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have
clothes like theirs, and voice and form.
F15 Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with
their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of
the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of
their several kinds.
F16 The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say
theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
F18 The gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning, but by
seeking they find in time what is better.
F23 One god, the greatest among gods and men, neither in form like unto
mortals nor in thought....
F24 He sees all over, thinks all over, and hears all over.
F25 And he abideth ever in the selfsame place, moving not at all;
nor doth it befit him to go about now hither now thither.
F26 But without toil he swayeth all
things by the thought of his mind.
F34 There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the
gods and about all the things I speak of. Even if he should chance to say the
complete truth, yet he himself knows not that it is so. But all may have their
—Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570-c. 470
2. There are many questions in philosophy to which no satisfactory answer
has yet been given. But the question of the nature of the gods is the darkest
and most difficult of all. Yet an answer to this question could shed the
clearest light upon the nature of our minds and also give us the essential
guidance which we need from religion. So various and so contradictory are the
opinions of learned men on this matter as to persuade one of the truth of the
saying that philosophy is the child of ignorance: and that the philosophers of
the Academy have been wise in withholding their consent from any propositions
that have not been proved. There is nothing worse than a hasty judgement, and
nothing could be more unworthy of the dignity and integrity of a philosopher
than uncritically to adopt a false opinion or to maintain as certain some theory
which has not been fully explored and understood.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)
3. Religion binds us [Latin, religat] to the one Almighty God.
4. Religion in man only. Seeing there are no signs, nor fruit of
religion, but in man only; there is no cause to doubt, but that the seed of
religion, is also only in man; and consisteth in some peculiar quality,
or at least in some eminent degree thereof, not to be found in any other living
creatures…. First, from his desire of knowing causes…. [Secondly] From
the consideration of the beginning of things…. [Thirdly] From his
observation of the sequel of things…. The natural cause of religion, the
anxiety of the time to come…. Four things, natural seeds of religion.
And in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes,
devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things causal for prognostics,
consisteth the natural seed of religion; which by reason of the different
fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath grown up into ceremonies
so different, that those which are used by one man, are for the most part
ridiculous to another.
—Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
5. …the visible marks of extraordinary Wisdom and Power, appear so plainly in
all the works of creation, that a rational Creature, who will but seriously
reflect on them, cannot miss the discovery of a Deity…it seems stranger
to me, that a whole Nation of Men should be any where found so brutish, as to
want the Notion of a God; than that they should be without any Notion of
Numbers, or Fire.
—John Locke (1632-1704)
6. The great, the interesting object, as it appears to me, is not to argue
metaphysically but to consider whether, for the common good of us miserable and
thinking animals, we should admit a rewarding, an avenging God, at once our
restraint and consolation, or should reject this idea and so abandon ourselves
to calamity without hope, and crime without remorse…. From Job down to us, a
great many men have cursed their existence; we have, therefore, perpetual need
of consolation and hope. Of these your [i.e., d’Holbach’s] philosophy deprives
us. The fable of Pandora was better; it left us hope—which you snatch from us.
Philosophy, you say, furnishes no proof of happiness to come. No—but you have no
demonstration of the contrary.
7. It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought,
the ignorant multitude must first entertain some groveling and familiar notion
of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect being,
who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine,
that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before
agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit,
omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a
powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and
organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from
what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the
nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the
former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this
natural progress of thought, but some obvious and invincible argument, which
might immediately lead the mind into the pure principles of theism, and make it
overlap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human
and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the
universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument; yet I can never
think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they
formed their first rude notions of religion…. If we would, therefore, indulge
our curiosity, in enquiring concerning the origin of religion, we must turn our
thoughts toward polytheism, the primitive religion of uninstructed mankind…. We
may conclude, therefore, that, in all nations, which have embraced polytheism,
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 (1711-76)
8. The principles of every religion are founded upon the idea of a God….
Ignorance and fear are the two hinges of all religion. The uncertainty in which
man finds himself in relation to his God, is precisely the motive that attaches
him to his religion. Man is fearful in the dark—in moral, as well as physical
darkness…. In point of religion, men are only great children. The more a
religion is absurd, and filled with wonders, the greater ascendancy it acquires
over them. The devout man thinks himself obliged to place no bounds to his
credulity; the more things are inconceivable, they appear to him divine; the
more they are incredible, the greater merit he imagines, there is in believing
—Baron d’Holbach (1723-89)
9. Religion is (subjectively regarded) the recognition of all duties as divine
commands. That religion in which I must know in advance that something is a
divine command in order to recognize it as my duty, is the revealed
religion (or the one standing in need of a revelation); in contrast, that
religion in which I must first know that something is my duty before I can
accept it as a divine injunction is the natural religion….
The one true religion comprises nothing but laws, that is, those practical
principles of whose unconditioned necessity we can become aware, and which we
therefore recognize as revealed through pure reason (not empirically)….
Anthropomorphism, scarcely to be avoided by men in the theoretical
representation of God and His being, but yet harmless enough (so long as it does
not influence concepts of duty), is highly dangerous in connection with our
practical relation to His will, and even for our morality; for here we create
a God for ourselves, and we create Him in the form in which we believe we
shall be able most easily to win Him over to our advantage and ourselves escape
from the wearisome uninterrupted effort of working upon the innermost part of
our moral disposition.
10. It is an error to say that it is doubtful whether or not there is a God. It
is not doubtful, but the most certain of all certainties—nay, the foundation of
all other certainties—the one absolutely valid objective truth—that there is a
moral order in the world; that to every rational being is assigned his
particular place in that order, and the work which he has to do; that his
destiny, in so far as it is not occasioned by his own conduct, is the result of
this plan; that in no other way can even a hair fall from his head, nor a
sparrow fall to the ground around him; that every true and good action prospers,
and every bad action fails; and that all things must work together for good to
those who truly love goodness.
—Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814)
11. I could wish to exhibit religion in some well known form, reminding you, by
feature, carriage and deportment, of what here and there at least you have seen
in life. Religion, however, as I wish to show it, which is to say, in its own
original, characteristic form, is not accustomed to appear openly, but is only
seen in secret by those who love it….
Religion is for you at one time a way of thinking, a faith, a peculiar way of
contemplating the world, and of combining what meets us in the world: at
another, it is a way of acting, a peculiar desire and love, a special kind of
conduct and character….
It is true that religion is essentially contemplative…. The contemplation of the
pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite
things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through
the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves,
in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to
know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and
The usual conception of God as one single being outside of the world and behind
the world is not the beginning and end of religion. It is only one manner of
expressing God, seldom entirely pure and always inadequate…. Yet the true nature
of religion is neither this idea nor any other, but immediate consciousness of
the Deity as He is found in ourselves and in the world. Similarly the goal and
the character of the religious life is not the immortality desired and believed
in by many—or what their craving to be too wise about it would suggest—pretended
to be believed in by many. It is not the immortality that is outside of time,
behind it, or rather after it, and which still is in time. It is the immortality
which we can now have in this temporal life; it is the problem in the solution
of which we are for ever to be engaged. In the midst of finitude to be one with
the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion.
The essence of religion is the feeling of utter dependence upon the infinite
reality, that is, upon God.
—Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)
12. We know that in religion we withdraw ourselves from what is temporal and
that religion is for our consciousness that region in which all the enigmas of
the world are solved, all the contradictions of deeper-reaching thought have
their meaning unveiled, and where the voice of the heart’s pain is silenced--the
region of eternal truth, of eternal rest, of eternal peace.
—G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)
13. Religion is higher than devotion or feeling. The first signification
of this often misused word is conscientiousness; it is the expression of the
highest unity of knowing and acting, which makes impossible any contradiction
between knowing and acting. A man for whom this is impossible not humanly,
psychically, or psychologically, but rather divinely, is called religious or
conscientious in the highest sense of the word. He is not conscientious who, for
example, must first hold the command of duty before himself and determine
himself to act rightly only through respect for the law. He who is conscientious
does not need this; it is for him not possible to act in a way other than
the right way. Religiosity means, according to the term’s origin, a boundness of
action, in no way a choice between opposed options, such as that which is
assumed in the case of free will…
—F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854)
13. Religions are the children of ignorance, and they do not long survive their
mother…. Mankind is growing out of religion as out of its childhood clothes…. In
its death throes, we see religion clinging to morality, whose mother it would
like to pretend to be….
No one who is religious comes to philosophy; he does not need it. No one who
truly philosophizes is religious….
—Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
14. From the study of the development of human intelligence, in all directions,
and through all times, the discovery arises of a great fundamental law, to which
it is necessary subject, and which has a solid foundation of proof, both in the
facts of our organization and in our historical experience. The law is this:
—that each of our leading conceptions, —each branch of knowledge, —passes
successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or
fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive….
In the theological state, the human mind, seeking the essential nature of
things, the first and final causes (the origin and purpose) of all effects, —in
short, Absolute knowledge, —supposes all phenomena to be produced by the
immediate action of supernatural beings….
The Theological system arrived at the highest perfection of which it is capable
when it substituted the providential action of a single being for the varied
operations of the numerous divinities which had been before imagined.
—August Comte (1798-1857)
15. …religion is man’s earliest and also indirect form of self-knowledge….
religion—consciousness of God—is designated as the self-consciousness of man….
Religion is the childlike condition of humanity….
Religion, at least the Christian, is the relation of man to himself, or more
correctly to his own nature (i.e., his subjective nature); but a relation to it,
viewed as a nature apart from his own. The divine thing is nothing else than the
human being, or, rather, the human purified, freed from the limits of the
individual man, made objective—i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a
distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore,
attributes of the human nature.
—Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72)
16. Religion is the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and
Will ruling the universe and holding moral relations with man.
—James Martineau (1805-1900)
17. To this [Feuerbach’s theological view of
man] we reply: The supreme being is indeed the essence of man, but, just because
it is his essence and not he himself, it remains quite immaterial whether
we see it outside him and view it as “God,” or find it in him and call it
“Essence of Man” or “Man.” I am neither God nor Man, neither the
supreme essence nor my essence, and therefore it is all one in the main whether
I think of the essence as in me or outside me. Nay, we really do always think of
the supreme being as in both kinds of otherworldliness, the inward and outward,
at once; for the “Spirit of God” is, according to the Christian view, also “our
spirit,” and “dwells in us.” It dwells in heaven and dwells in us; we poor
things are just its “dwelling,” and, if Feuerbach goes on to destroy its
heavenly dwelling and force it to move to us bag and baggage, then we, its
earthly apartments, will be badly overcrowded….
Atheists keep up their scoffing at the higher being, which was also honored
under the name of the “highest” or être suprême, and trample in the dust
one “proof of his existence” after another, without noticing that they
themselves, out of need for a higher being, only annihilate the old to make room
for the new. Is “Man” perchance not a higher essence than an individual man, and
must not the truths, rights, and ideas which result from the concept of him be
honored and—counted sacred, as revelations of this very concept?
—Max Stirner (1806-56)
18. The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that
thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking, even in
the thinking of the individual, in so far as in thinking he participates in
something transcending himself….
But what is this unknown something with which the Reason collides when inspired
by its paradoxical passion, with the result of unsettling even man’s knowledge
of himself? It is the Unknown. It is not a human being, in so far as we know
what man is; nor is it any other known thing. So let us call this unknown
something: the God. It is nothing more than a name we assign to it. The
idea of demonstrating that this unknown something (the God) exists, could
scarcely suggest itself to the Reason. For if the God does not exists it would
of course be impossible to prove it; and if he does exists it would be folly to
—Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55)
19. Man makes religion, religion does not make man. And indeed religion
is the self-consciousness and self-regard of man who has either not yet found or
has already lost himself… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the
heart of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is
the opium of the people.
—Karl Marx (1818-1883)
20. In Religion let us recognize the high merit that from the beginning it has
dimly discerned the ultimate verity, and has never ceased to insist upon it….
For its essentially valid belief, Religion has constantly done battle…. It has
everywhere established and propagated one or other modification of the doctrine
that all things are manifestations of a Power that transcends our knowledge….
Religion has had the all-essential office of preventing men from being wholly
absorbed in the relative or immediate, and of awakening them to a consciousness
of something beyond it….
—Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
21. Religion is morality touched by emotions.
—Matthew Arnold (1822-88)
22. Religion consists in the perception of the infinite under such
manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man.
—Max Müller (1823-1900)
23. Religion, as a minimum, is the belief in spiritual beings. —Edward Tylor
24. Religion…shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual
men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation
to whatever they may consider the divine.
—William James (1842-1910)
the origin of religion
The metaphysical need is not
the origin of religions, as Schopenhauer supposed, but merely a late
offshoot. Under the rule of religious ideas, one has become accustomed to the
notion of "another world (behind, below, above) "—and when religious ideas are
destroyed one is troubled by an uncomfortable emptiness and deprivation. From
this feeling grows once again "another world," but now merely a metaphysical one
that is no longer religious. But what first led to a positing of "another world"
in primeval times was not some impulse or need but an error in the
interpretation of certain natural events, a failure of the intellect.
—Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
26. Religion is rather the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness
through every aspect of our being.
—F. H. Bradley (1846-1924)
27. Religion is a propitiation of, and dependency on, superior powers which are
believed to control and direct the course of nature and human life.Thus
religion, beginning as a slight and partial acknowledgment of powers superior to
man, tends with the growth of knowledge to deepen into a confession of man’s
entire and absolute dependence on the divine; his old free bearing is exchanged
for an attitude of lowliest prostration before the mysterious powers of the
—James G. Frazer (1854-1941)
28. …fix our attention on the psychical origin of religious ideas. These, which
profess to be dogmas, are not the residue of experience or the final result of
reflection; they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most
insistent wishes of mankind; the secret of their strength is the strength of
these wishes…. [Religion] regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of
all suffering…so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be
in any way happy. [Then] one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its
stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and
replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes…[this]
delusional remoulding of reality [may be] made by a considerable number of
people in common. The religions of mankind must be classed among the
mass-delusions of this kind.
—Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
29. A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred
things, that is things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite
into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
—Émile Durkheim (1858-1917)
30. Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal and against obstacles and in
spite of threats of personal loss, because of conviction of its general and
enduring value, is religious in quality.
31. To get at the very essence of religion and understand the history of
mankind, one must pass at once from the static and outer religion to dynamic,
inner religion. The first was designed to ward off the dangers to which
intelligence might expose man; it was infra-intellectual…. Later, and by an
effort which might easily never have been made, man wrenched himself free from
this motion of his own axis. He plunged anew into the current of evolution, at
the same time carrying it forward. Here was dynamic religion, coupled doubtless
with higher intellectuality, but distinct from it. The first form of religion
had been infra-intellectual…the second was supra-intellectual.
—Henri Bergson (1859-1941)
32. A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of
general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are
sincerely held and vividly apprehended….
Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it
depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things.
This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a
Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through
three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from
God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion. Thus
religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never
religious…. Accordingly, what should emerge from religion is individual worth of
character. But worth is positive or negative, good or bad. Religion is by no
means necessarily good. It may be very evil….
Religion, so far as it receives external expression in human history, exhibits
four factors or sides of itself. These factors are ritual, emotion, belief,
…[Religion is] the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within,
the passing flux of immediate things, something which is real, and yet waiting
to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of
present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes
apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond
all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.
—Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)
33. Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more
hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in
particular…. Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy.
Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which
that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it
propounds are another world to live in; and another world to live in—whether we
expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no—is what we mean by having a
—George Santayana (1863-1952)
34. By ‘world religion,’ we understand the five religions or religiously
determined systems of life-regulations which have known how to gather multitudes
of confessors around them. The term [world religion] is used here in a
completely value-neutral sense. the Confucian, Hinduist, Buddhist, Christian,
and Islamist religious ethics all belong to the category of world religion….
The annunciation and the promise of religion have naturally been addressed to
the masses of those who were in need of salvation. They and their interests have
moved into the center of the professional organization for the ‘cure of the
soul,’ which, indeed, only therewith originated. The typical service of
magicians and priests becomes the determination of the factors to be blamed for
suffering, that is, the confession of ‘sins’….
The general result of the modern form of thoroughly rationalizing the conception
of the world and of the way of life, theoretically and practically, in a
purposive manner, has been that religion has been shifted into the realm of the
irrational. This has been the more the case the further the purposive type of
rationalization has progressed, if one takes the standpoint of an intellectual
articulation of an image of the world. This shift of religion into the
irrational realm has occurred for several reasons.
—Max Weber (1864-1920)
35. It is essential to every theistic conception of God, and most of all the
Christian, that it designates and precisely characterizes deity by the
attributes spirit, reason, purpose, good will, supreme power, unity, selfhood.
The nature of God is thus thought of by analogy with our human nature of reason
and personality; only, whereas in ourselves we are aware of this as qualified by
restriction and limitation, as applied to God the attributes we use are
‘completed’, i.e. thought as absolute and unqualified. Now all these attributes
constitute clear and definite concepts: they can be grasped by the
intellect; they can be analysed by thought; they even admit of definition. An
object that can thus be thought conceptually may be termed rational. The
nature of deity described in the attributes above mentioned is, then, a rational
nature; and a religion which recognizes and maintains such a view of God is in
so far a ‘rational’ religion. Only on such terms is belief possible in
contrast to mere feeling…. Rather we count this the very mark and
criterion of a religion’s high rank and superior value—that it should have no
lack of conceptions about God; that it should admit knowledge—the
knowledge that comes from by faith—of the transcendent in terms of conceptual
thought…. But, when this is granted, we have to be on our guard against an error
which would lead to a wrong and one-sided interpretation of religion. This is
the view that the essence of deity can be given completely and exhaustively in
such ‘rational’ attributions as have been referred to above and in others like
them. It is not an unnatural misconception…. But though the above mistake is
thus a natural one enough, it is none the less seriously misleading…. Here for
the first time we come up against the contrast between rationalism and
profounder religion, and with this contrast and its signs we shall be repeatedly
concerned in what follows.
—Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)
36. The decay of traditional religious beliefs, bitterly bewailed by upholders
of the Churches, welcomed with joy by those who regard the old creeds as mere
superstition, is an undeniable fact. Yet when the dogmas have been rejected, the
question of the place of religion in life is by no means decided. The dogmas
have been valued, not so much on their own account, as because they were
believed to facilitate a certain attitude toward the world, an habitual
direction of our thoughts, a life in the whole, free from the finiteness of self
and providing an escape from the tyranny of desire and daily cares. Such a life
in the whole is possible without dogma, and ought not to perish through the
indifference of those to whom the beliefs of former ages are no longer credible.
Acts inspired by religion have some quality of infinity in them…. The beliefs
which underlie such acts are often so deep and so instinctive as to remain
unknown to those whose lives are built them. Indeed, it may not be belief but
feeling that makes religion: a feeling which, when brought into the sphere of
belief, may involve the conviction that this or that is good, but may, if it
remains untouched by intellect, be only a feeling and yet dominant in action. It
is the quality of infinity that makes religion, the selfless, untrammeled life
in the whole which frees men from the prison house of eager wishes and little
thoughts. This liberation from the prison is given by religion, but only by a
religion without fettering dogmas; and dogmas become fettering as soon as assent
to them becomes unnatural…. Religion, therefore, results from the combination of
two different kinds of worship—the selective, which is given to the good on
account of its goodness, and the impartial, which is given to everything that
exists. The former [the selective] is the source of belief in theism, the latter
[the impartial] of the belief in pantheism, but in neither case is such a belief
necessary for the worship which gives rise to it.
—Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
37. If we undertake to judge what religion is by what religion has done in
history, some data are conspicuous, others obscure, —little is of sure purport.
Students of Kulturgeschichte (German, cultural history) are more
ready than they were to credit religion with certain definite achievements and
services, especially at the beginning, in the rude business of nation-making,
law-making, mind-making…. From the record, vast and igneous as it is, there
appears also a certain contradictoriness in the effects of religion. It is
credited with works of government, charged with works of war, —it sheds blood as
generously as it promotes brotherhood. Religion has fostered everything valuable
to man and has obstructed everything: it has welded states and disintegrated
them; it has rescued races and it has oppressed them, destroyed them, condemned
them to perpetual wandering and outlawry. It has raised the value of human life,
and it has depressed the esteem of that life almost to the point of vanishing;
it has honored womanhood, it has slandered marriage.
—William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966)
38. After man had discovered both the
contingency of the world and the curious accident that his own center of being
transcended this world, it was still possible for him to take a twofold
attitude: He could pause in wonder (θaumάzein)
and then set his spirit in motion to grasp the Absolute and to become part of
it. That is the origin of metaphysics of any kind. It has appeared late in
history and only among a few peoples. Man could, however, take a different
course: he could also yield to the irresistible urge for safety or protection,
not only for himself, but primarily
for the group as a whole. By means of the enormous surplus of fantasy which was
his heritage in contrast to the animal, he could then populate this sphere of
being with imaginary figures in order to seek refuge in their power through cult
and ritual. The purpose was to get some protection and help “to back him up,”
since the basic act of his estrangement from, and his objectification of,
nature—together with his self-consciousness—threatened to throw him into pure
The overcoming of this nihilism by means of such protective measures is what we
call religion. Religion is originally a group and collective phenomenon; only
later, with the origin of the state, is it linked with a founder. Even as the
world is originally given to us in a practical context, in the experience of
resistance before it becomes an object of knowledge, so these ideas and images
in the newly discovered sphere of being, from which mankind has drawn the
strength to maintain itself in the world, must historically precede all forms of
knowledge aiming at the truth as we find them in metaphysics.
—Max Scheler (1874-1928)
39. To know and understand the peculiar nature of mythico-religious conception
not only through its results, but through the very principle of its formation,
and to see, furthermore, how the growth of linguistic concepts is related to
that of religious ideas and in what essential traits they coincide—this requires
us, indeed, to reach far back into the past.
So it may be said that the concept of godhead really receives its first concrete
development and richness through language…. So, guided by language, the mythic
mind finally reaches a point where it is no longer contented with the variety,
abundance and concrete fullness of divine attributes and names, but where it
seeks to attain, through the unity of the word, the unity of the God-idea. But
even here man’s mind does not rest content; beyond this unity, it strives for a
concept of Being that is unlimited by any particular manifestation, and
therefore not expressible in any word, not called by any name.
—Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)
40. Religion, as the Latin word denotes, is a careful and scrupulous observation
of…a dynamic existence or effect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will….
Religion appears to me to be a peculiar attitude of the human mind, which could
be formulated in accordance with the original use of the term “religio,” that
is, a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors…. I want
to make clear that by the term “religion” I do not mean a creed.
—Carl Gustav Jung
41. Instead, then, of darkening counsel by beginning with arbitrary and
confusing definitions of religion, let us recognize that the term “religion” is
generally used and understood to apply to Christianity, Judaism, Islam,
Hinduism, etc., and that these represent certain forms of organized life in
which beliefs about God and a supernatural realm enter more or less
—Morris Cohen (1880-1947)
42. Reality shows that religions quarrel with each other
and with philosophy. No comparative study will ever reveal objectively where the
truth lies. The individual is born and raised in a religion in which he comes to
Philosophy will fight against religion—but always against a specific
religion, and specifically against the untruth of its decline into real
objectivity to the point of a materialization of transcendence. Hand in hand
with this decline goes the decline of man when religion makes him dread
specters, when it turns him into a violent fanatic devoid of ideas, a
heretic-baiter, and a menace to all freedom in the world. Throughout history an
impassioned fight against the objectivations of religion has been waged to make
room for the individual’s freedom to choose at his own peril, and to keep the
deity from being dragged into the dust. Thus Xenophanes fought against the
immorality of the mythical gods, Epicurus against fear of demons, Kant against
superstition and priestcraft in established religion, Feuerbach against
illusions, and Kierkegaard against the church.
—Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
43. [Religion is the] affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul
and that this is immortal, [and] arises out of a deep need to deny personal
destruction…[Religion is] more akin to daydreaming and wish-fulfillment.
—Bronislaw Malinowski (1884—1942)
44. Religion is concern about experiences which are regarded as of
supreme value; devotion towards a power or powers believed to originate,
increase, and conserve these values; and some suitable expression of this
concern and devotion, whether through symbolic rites or through other individual
and social conduct.
—Edgar S. Brightman (1884-1953)
45. Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern
which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the
answer to the question of the meaning of our life…. the predominant religious
name for the content of such concern is God—or being.
—Paul Tillich (1886-1965)
46. Religion is a sense of the sacred.
—Julian Huxley (1887-1975)
47. Within the framework of a large and complicated allegory religious language
transforms these experiences [being astonished that the world exists, a feeling
of being absolutely safe, feeling guilty] about which we can only speak in
non-sensical propositions into statements about meaningful facts.
To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.
To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of
the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
48. Pure religion, religion as distinct from magic and opposed to it, is the
exact contrary of an applied science; for it constitutes a realm where the
subject is confronted with something over which he can obtain no hold at all.
—Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)
49. “RELIGION actually exists only in religions”, as Heinrich Frick very justly
asserts with reference to Schleiermacher’s fifth Discourse upon Religion.
This means that religion does not, as such, appear to us; what we can observe,
therefore, is always only one concrete religion: in other terms, only its
prevailing historical form appears to us. From this it follows that
“primeval religion” is here disregarded. The primeval ground of religion, that
is in the ontological or metaphysical sense, is in principle concealed….
The religious significance of things, therefore, is that on which no wider nor
deeper meaning whatever can follow. It is the meaning of the whole: it is the
The limit of human powerfulness, in conclusion, and the commencement of the
divine, together constitute the goal which has been sought and found in the
religion of all times: —salvation. It may be the enhancing of life,
improvement, beautifying, widening, deepening; but by “salvation” there may also
be meant completely new life, a devaluation of all that has preceded, a new
creation of the life that has been received “from elsewhere”. But in any case,
religion is always directed towards salvation, never towards life itself as it
is given; and in this respect all religion, with no exception, is the religion
—Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950)
50. [Written in 1949] During
the last fifty years religion and sex seem to have reversed their positions.
Writing in the Victorian age William James could bring himself to devote barely
two pages to the role of sex in human life which he labeled euphemistically the
“instinct of love.” Yet… on religion he spoke freely and with unexcelled
brilliance. Today, by contrast, psychologists write with the frankness of Freud
and Kinsey on the sexual passions of mankind, but blush and grow silent when the
religious passions come into view. Scarcely any modern textbook writers in
psychology devote as much as two shamefaced pages to the subject—even though
religion, like sex, is an almost universal interest of the human race.
—Gordon W. Allport (1897-1967)
51. Understood in this realistic and comprehensive
sense, religion usually acts as a tremendous force for social inertia…. Least of
all does it foster realization of the modernization ideals—though, of course,
appeals to religious principles on the “higher” level can be used for, as well
as against, those ideals, while cruder religious conceptions can be exploited to
incite people to resistance or to demonstrations, riots, and lynchings….
Among the masses, these traditional beliefs that with their related valuations
have religious sanction are normally irrational, for they are superstitious and
imply a mystical rather than a logical way of thinking….
By characterizing popular religion as a force of inertia and irrationality that
sanctifies the whole system of life and work, attitudes and institutions, we
are, in fact, stressing an important aspect of underdevelopment, namely, the
resistance of that system to planned, induced changes along the lines of the
modernization ideals. This wider definition of popular religion by the social
scientist is defensible on the ground that any narrower definition is arbitrary
and does violence to reality.
—Gunnar Myrdal (1898-1987)
52. In our time [written in 1984] religion finds itself in a unique situation.
For the first time the important thing is no longer the pro and contra
that have been connected from time immemorial with the claim that religions
raise. It is no longer waging war for the true god against the false ones or
defending one’s own religion against the attacks of unbelievers, whether those
belonging to another faith or that of scientific atheism. Today the issue is
much more the question whether humanity needs religion at all. Of course, the
critique of religion in the manner of Epicurus, Feuerbach, and Marx, as well as
of Freud, long ago posed this question and anticipated an answer. But the
uniqueness of today’s situation seems to me that even the question about the
meaning of religion becomes pointless when more and more people actually live
without religion. The atheism of indifference does not even recognize the
question anymore. Has the end of an illusion arrived? Or is precisely that the
illusion: thinking that human beings can live without religion?
—Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)
53. It is unfortunate that we do not have at our disposal a more precise word
than “religion” to denote the experience of the sacred. This term carries with
it a long, although culturally rather limited, history. One wonders how it can
be indiscriminately applied to the ancient Near East, to Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam, or to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism as well as to the
so-called primitive peoples. But perhaps it is too late to search for another
word, and “religion” may still be a useful term provided we keep in mind that it
does not necessarily imply belief in God, gods, or ghosts, but refers to the
experience of the sacred, and, consequently, is related to the ideas of being,
meaning, and truth….
On the most archaic levels of culture, living as a human being is in
itself a religious act, for alimentation, sexual life, and work have a
sacramental value. In other words, to be—or, rather, to become—a man means to be
—Mircea Eliade (1907-86)
54. The essence or core of religion is the personal belief that one’s most
important values are sponsored by, or in harmony with, the enduring structure of
the universe, whether they are sponsored by society or not.
—Peter Bertocci (1910-89)
55. To the question of how to pattern these religions [the major world
religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and
Taoism—and primal religions, e.g., Australian aborigines], three answers suggest
themselves. The first holds that one of the world’s religions is superior to the
others. Now that the peoples of the world are getting to know one another
better, we hear this answer less often than we used to; but even so it should
not be dismissed out of hand….
A second position lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: It holds that the
religions are all basically alike. Differences are acknowledged but, according
to this second view, they are incidental in comparison to the great enduring
truths on which the religions unite….
A third conception of the way the religions are related likens them to a stained
glass window whose sections divide the light of the sun into different colors.
This analogy allows for significant differences between the religions without
pronouncing on their relative worth.
—Huston Smith (c. 1922—)
56. 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 (1923—)
57. “Religion,” in the singular, as just one thing, is nowhere to be found; it
is too maddeningly polyvalent and too uncontainably diverse for us to fit it all
under one roof. There are Western religions, Eastern religions, ancient
religions, modern religions, monotheistic, polytheistic, and even slightly
atheistic religions; too many to count, too many to master, in too many
languages to learn. I am not complaining or making excuses. Indeed the
uncontainable diversity of “religion” is itself a great religious truth and a
marker of the uncontainability of what religion is all about. I am just trying
to get started and I have to start somewhere…
By religion, therefore, let me stipulate, I mean something simple, open-ended,
and old-fashioned, namely, the love of God. But the expression “love of God”
needs some work.
—John D. Caputo (1940—)
58. Religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and emotions, both
personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality.
—M. Peterson, W. Hasker, B. Reichenbach, D.
59. Religion is, in truth, the pure and reverential
disposition or frame of mind which we call piety.
—C. P. Tiele
60. All religion is based on the recognition of a
superhuman Reality of which man is somehow conscious and towards which he must
in some way orientate his life. The existence of the tremendous transcendent
reality that we name GOD is the foundation of all religions in all ages and
among all peoples.
61. Religion, then, we define as the conscious
desiring of whatever (if anything) is considered to be both inclusive in its
bearing on one’s life and primary in its importance.
Religion is one’s way of valuing most comprehensively and intensively.
62. Religion is a theory of man’s relation to the
—S. P. Haynes
63. Religion is a belief in an ultimate meaning of the
—Alfred R. Wallace
64. [Religion is] the endeavor to secure the
conservation of socially recognized values through specific actions that are
believed to evoke some agency different from the ordinary ego of the individual,
or from other merely human beings, and that imply a feeling of dependence upon
—W. K. Wright
65. [Religion is] a system of beliefs and practices by
means of which a group of people struggles with these ultimate problems of human
life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face
of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human aspirations.
—Alfred R. Wallace
66. Religion is the ritual cultivation of
socially accepted values.
67. [Religion is] an institution consisting of culturally patterned
interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.
68. In times past religion provided a conception of
man’s relation to the universe which gave his life meaning or taught him how to
order his life in order to make it meaningful. In one way or another, religion
has always attempted to establish a relationship between human purposes and
aspirations and the scheme of the universe
69. A religion may be generically defined as a system
of symbols (e.g., words and gestures, stories and practices, objects and places)
that function religiously, namely, an ongoing system of symbols that
participants use to draw near to, and come into right or appropriate
relationship with, what they deem to be ultimate reality.