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How do you make the distinction between philosophy and religion? Are there some philosophies/religions that are hard to categorize as being one or the other?

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This isn't a bad question intrinsically (I could see a number of people getting confused about this as well) but I would encourage you to expand it a bit. Surely you've read the dictionary definitions of each and know the distinction from that alone. What more are you looking for, exactly? – stoicfury Nov 3 '11 at 4:44
OK, I fixed the title. – language theorist Nov 3 '11 at 6:33
Some martial arts have philosophies tied to them, and I'm wondering if these philosophies are religions or not. – language theorist Nov 3 '11 at 6:53
Can you specify your concern here a bit more plainly? What have you found out already? – Joseph Weissman Nov 3 '11 at 20:27

Taking the latter part first: yes, there are definitely religions/philosophies which have proven difficult to categorize. The government of Australia, if I understand correctly, is currently trying to decide if Buddhism qualifies as a religion; the government of the US has decided that Scientology counts as a religion for tax purposes, while the government of Germany has decided the opposite. In Norway, the second-largest "faith/life-view" organization (after the state Lutheran church) is the Humanist-Ethical Society (i.e., a group of atheists) which qualifies as a "religion" for many purposes (including tax status.)

The fact that this confusion exists in practice shows that there isn't any clear, reliable indicator one can point to. The obvious candidates (such as the belief in a deity, or a soteriological path, or the presence of rituals or dogma) break down when you actually try to apply them in practice: exceptions abound.

So, that being the case, I would turn the question around: why does it matter? What benefit would be gained by drawing such a distinction? If we could answer that, perhaps we'd have a clearer way to finding an appropriate criterion.

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The terms are not synonyms. You should note that religion always refers to a specific set of beliefs, i.e. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. The term philosophy can be used in two senses: In the general sense it refers to:

the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. (source)

In a narrower sense, you can use the word to refer to a specific set of philosophical theories, such as stoic philosophy or Kantian philosophy. It would be these narrower subsets of philosophy which might be considered parallel to a particular set of religious beliefs.

With that cleared up...

How do you make the distinction between philosophy and religion?

Answer: philosophy in general is the rational investigation of truth, whereas religion often makes the same kind of truth claims but doesn't claim to base it on reason or rationality, but instead it is based on other things like faith. The key difference is that they are different epistemological positions — philosophy has a system of logical principles in place to arrive at conclusions whereas many religions (such as Christianity) allow for other sources of knowledge (i.e. faith).

Are there some philosophies/religions that are hard to categorize as being one or the other?

Answer: In principle, it could be a problem to categorize them but in practice it is not very difficult. Why? Because virtually all religions with even a modest following carry with it a set of traditions and rituals which philosophies do not. Put simply, religions have practices and philosophies do not. Theoretically, you could have what might be considered a religion without any practices, but it's not very common.

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Being able to distinguish them by whether or not they have practices is nice, but then wouldn't this mean that some martial arts which have a philosophies tied to them are religions too? – language theorist Nov 3 '11 at 6:52
Yes, there is some overlap; this is why I wrote "in principle, it could be a problem to categorize them but in practice it is not very difficult." The reason it's not generally a problem is that in practice no one refers to martial art religions, and no martial arts that I know of posit any kind of unique epistemological position. Even if there was one that did, it wouldn't gain any benefit from being referred to as a religion as opposed to a philosophy. – stoicfury Nov 3 '11 at 17:37
@languagetheorist I think you may be idealizing the connotation of "religion" a bit. Religions are usually systems of beliefs about how the world is, or came to be, or how we should act, so religions are often similar to some fields within philosophy, but these similarities do not make them the same thing as religion, insofar as your claim that martial arts which have "philosophies" attached to them could rightly be considered religions. I would say this makes them parallel, but distinct, systems. – Jaime Ravenet Nov 3 '11 at 19:25
Buddhism isn't about beliefs, it is about the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, and conduct... religiously. So which is it? – yuttadhammo Nov 4 '11 at 5:14
Buddhism is one of those more borderline cases. It's not uncommon to hear the terms "the Buddhist religion" or "Buddhist philosophy". I myself like to see it more as a recipe, a guide to living life rather than trying to describe how that life came to be. But ultimately the distinction is personal and irrelevant; Buddhism is Buddhism, regardless of how one tries to classify it. These are just purely semantic preferences. – stoicfury Aug 10 '12 at 17:30

Thomas Aquinas makes the distinction that philosophy is based on human reason alone, but religion also includes some kind of divine revelation.

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+1 for succinct reference to a philosopher who had something specific to say. – Niel de Beaudrap Jan 3 '13 at 11:48
With respect to Buddhism, Jacques Maritain seems to rather clearly identify it as a philosophical position rather than a religious one, and a rather weak kind of metaphysics at that (Chapter 1, "An Introduction to Philosophy"). Seems true to me, although some elaboration on the relation between enlightenment and reason would be useful. – danielm Jan 7 '13 at 22:12

One of my favorite statements of Wittgenstein's is this. "At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded" (§253, On Certainty). So, you can believe whatever you can believe. –An experience. –A scientific belief. See: it is of the system in which we claim knowledge of this or that. (I believe this or that statement, but I know my beliefs.) If this were not the case, we'd never know anything. (For me), philosophy is the "system builder." (And Charles Sanders Peirce would seem to agree, as he called science inquiry, and the system that puts everything together philosophical rather than scientific.) But, this makes sense. Think of the scientific use of the word "energy." Physics, chemistry, biology, geology all have their own form of energy, but it is not science that connects them (well, it's actually language), but it seems it is the job of philosophy to systematize. For example, we call physics and chemistry sciences, and yet, they fundamentally see different aspects in the same thing. There is no atom in chemistry. –Only molecules. The differences between the points of views of chemistry and physics really helps show the discontinuity of the modern sciences. It is a wonder of the world to listen to a particle physicist discuss atomic theory with a chemist.

What connects the seemingly infinite divide between our scientific facts is an holistic view (one that philosophy provides). Now the reason I brought up science as opposed to religion is that religion also can fit into this holistic view. That is, it can sit beside chemistry, perhaps between chemistry and biology, or physics and biology. (And there is no contradiction.) There isn't a contradiction because philosophy is what gives us the whole. That is, philosophy lets us put incommensurable systems under a whole system. I say philosophy, but really it could be your parents, or teachers, or friends who glue different points of view onto the same whole. In that, I would say that philosophy uses religion, as it uses chemistry or physics.

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I think the two are difficult to disentangle easily. For example:

Buddhism is often taken to be more philosophical rather than a religion, but I think this comes from viewing religion from a Christian perspective. Also Byran Magee (British philosopher) remarks in his autobiography that Kants philosophical thought can be seen as a rationalisation of the pietist tradition he was brought up in.

Acharya Sen, an expert on indian medieval literature and hinduism points out that hinduism includes the lokyata/carvaka tradition which was empirical & scientific. He also writes that rational inquiry is an investigation into the impersonal side of Brahman.

Pythagoras is said to have declared the universe is number and geometry in mystical reverie, this is still current today in the popular imagination, for example the Higgs boson referred to as the 'God' particle, and physicists and mathematicians seen as the high priests of a technocratic world (look at how they are referred to within science fiction).

David Wallace an american novelist writes that human beings are worshipful beings, they have no choice in this - what they do get is the choice of what to worship.

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I'm just curious what would David Wallace say atheist worship? Themselves? – Neil Meyer Mar 13 '13 at 8:53
Meyer:Power, beauty, the State+themselves. its in this speech – Mozibur Ullah Mar 13 '13 at 10:47

I suggest you read this first "What are some methods of defining things?" to understand one of my logical framework working on this post.


Wisdom has working area, it's within relativity. Wisdom is about act properly, respond relevantly. Practically, we are responding something through relevant approach. It's relevant respond, it's correct respond, it's appropriate respond.

But what is act properly? What is correct respond? What is appropriate respond?

  1. Correct respond can be provided when we are doing within priorities. It's not about stating how to do properly in order of priority perfectly, but this may put us closer to correctness.

    • It's knowing priorities
  2. Next, How do we know priorities?. Arranging one to another with any possible ways until we get the correct order of something (whether it's order of what, order of how, order of where, order of when, order of why and order of who, further order of - if there are - other things similar to these), it's to get priorities.

    • It's adjusting. We know priorities by making better adjustment.
  3. Next, How far can we do better adjustment?. Adjustment has working area within possibilities. To know to what extent possibilities available for us, can be solved by knowledge. Knowledge tells about possibilities that tell us about how far we can make adjustment.

    • It's applying knowledge. Possibilities for better adjustment can be known within knowledge.


By knowledge we can know possibilities to make an adjustment (mentally or practically) to further know our priorities. It's wisdom.

  1. Applying knowledge by unpacking knowledge to see possibilities for us to make an adjustment (at least mentally through thinking and possibly practically through trial & error and this asserts an open minded) to further lead us to know priorities. Next, after this, we get wisdom that we can use as a guidance when dealing with the same (closer, similar) case in the future.

  2. Simple = when we realize that there are priorities, mentally (should be believed and should be followed) or practically (should be remembered). It's wisdom.

  3. Simpler (as a trigger to further easy to unpack), act wisely is, to be open minded to know priorities and act upon it.

Wisdom obliges us to be open minded, will not take a side to something (rational investigation) as more important than others, but prefer to use any possibilities relevantly.

Wisdom is unique. It's personal because the potentiality of wisdom is determined by where it is located. But the working principle is the same.

  • An open minded, possibilities, adjustment and priorities, all of these may be different. It depends on where we were located. Our conditions limit our possibilities to be open minded, further limit our adjustment and priorities, and only from this, it's enough to assert that from one person to someone else may have the same working principles but may be with different ways to solve problems.

And this understanding can be used as comparison to "what philosophy is".


We will unpack "what philosophy is" through understanding "what wisdom is". Further we will see whether there is continuation in between "what wisdom is" and "what philosophy is".

  1. Love wisdom asserts "act wisely" (not just theoretical, but must be followed with real implementation, action), and it's "to be open minded to know priorities and act upon it".

    • To do this, we need to be open minded (through at least thinking and possibly "any possible ways") to get knowledge,

    • and further, this knowledge will be unpacked to see possibilities about how far we can make an adjustment through at least mentally and possibly practically (TO KNOW SOMETHING AS IT IS),

    • to realize that there are priorities should be done (TO LEAD US ACT AS IT SHOULD BE RELEVANTLY, based on priorities).

  2. It asserts that philosophizing that is in line with love wisdom, must be provided not primarily through thinking, but any possible ways (at least through thinking and possibly practically through trial and error) that must be considered as further options to get knowledge (whether it's through meditation, any spiritual ways or similar to these). To be open minded and implementing it on real life.

    • By doing this, hopefully, philosophizing can adapt any area that generally known as spirituality, as alternate option to be added as another possible premises that can be integrated with previous premises (that can be traced to rational investigation), to provide wider conclusions that covers wider empirical observation than previously, and eventually it will lead us to greater possibilities controlling something for better life.

    • On popular term, it has similarity with "we have to activate the potentiality of the right brain (closer to) equal with the left brain, and vice versa".


Philosophy is "knowing as it is to lead us act as it should be relevantly", IS IN LINE WITH "LOVE WISDOM", that is, "to be open minded to know priorities and act upon it".

  • In other words, "knowing something as it is to direct us acts as it should be (better adjustment)",

    • This doesn't mean that defining philosophy is as simple as already mentioned here. But it's rather as a starting point to guide us easily while we are unpacking it for wider understanding about philosophy on different point of view related to specific case and still within proper boundaries of philosophizing.

    • This starting point could make us easier to see for how far unpacking already exceed allowed boundaries (within consistencies) related to "what philosophy is".

That's why, on defining "what philosophy is", i don't assert philosophy as "rational investigation to the truth ..., ...", but wider, because philosophy doesn't oblige rational investigation as the first priority, but philosophy obliges us to love wisdom, which oblige us not to use rational mostly, but must be included implementation of wisdom.


I am not defining religion for all religions, but i am focusing to one of consistencies on some religions to capture the problem area in this post for further proper comparison.

Some religion are strongly related to spiritualism, mysticism (or if you deny it, then i must assert that this discussion related to religion is limited to this term).

  • And scientifically speaking, this spirituality mostly related to the other side of our brain (right side).

From this point of view, we could assert that there is intersection in between philosophy and religion.

  • Because philosophizing with an open minded must accept the way we decide what to do by relating it (scientifically speaking) with both sides of our brain.


  1. If we consider religion is merely just beliefs without thinking mostly as mentioned on philosophizing, then at least there is continuation in between religion and philosophy, in the sense that philosophy has working area the same on religion.

  2. If we consider philosophizing is merely just rational investigation (and another similar understanding to this) mostly, then this kind of philosophizing is against the essence of philosophizing, which is love wisdom.

    • This is just the same as ignoring the potential of the right side of our brain, which is an imbalance attitude.


Rather than separating philosophy to religion, or differentiate in between both, or finding similarities in between both, we prefer assert that both (religion & philosophy) assert mutual relationship (dependencies) how small it is.

  1. Religion can use philosophizing to assert (promote) its correctness by providing beliefs to be verified by philosophers,

  2. And Philosophers could widen their premises related to any possible realities (areas) as asserted by religion as long as those beliefs already verified at least through thinking and possibly by optimizing the potentiality of the right side of our brain.

    • But if philosophizing assert (promote) that "there is no way rational investigation to be directed to spirituality", then there is no way for us to remind those kind of philosophers that "scientifically has to be considered on philosophizing".

    • Or, better lowering the use of potentiality on the left side of our brain (closer) equal to the use of the right side of our brain.

    • Philosophizing is love wisdom, and it's not verifying theoretically, but also philosophizing is verifying through experiencing (correctly). Without this, there is no way for philosophers to judge the working area on religion whether religion is completely false, half false or completely true.

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