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. 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. 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
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    Possible duplicate of Is there a demarcation problem for religions? Jan 28 '19 at 22:31

11 Answers 11


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.

  • Incidentally, while some officials in the German government have certainly made attacks on Scientology, the German courts have in fact acknowledged the religious nature of Scientology many times over through the years. (I may be imperfectly characterizing that link but thought I would mention it.)
    – Wildcard
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:29
  • Nice answer, but you haven't really addressed the discipline of philosophy as opposed to one or another philosophy. The discipline of philosophy, from what I can tell, specifies a set of tools that are used (or not used) in whole or in part by everybody from every tradition. Jan 28 '19 at 18:30

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? Nov 3 '11 at 6:52
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    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
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    @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. 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? Nov 4 '11 at 5:14
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    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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    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

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.

  • 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 Mar 13 '13 at 10:47

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.

  • Completely off topic, but this is something that annoys me. Chemistry is about so much more than atomic and molecular bonds. It includes everything from creating materials with desired macroscopic properties (materials chemistry) to the detail of nuclear decay (nuclear chemistry). acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/chemical-sciences/fields.html
    – E Tam
    May 28 '21 at 2:01

I think it's a great question because it's quite clear, but I think many of the answers fall for a problem in the way the question is posed.

I take it the question is meant to be along the lines of

What's the difference between a fish and a giraffe?

In other words, there's two categories of things and something can at most belong to one of the categories.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's what we have here.

I think we have something more like:

Is a vegetable a root vegetable or sweet?

First off, both religion and philosophy are terms that have had a large number of differing definitions. Looking just at the philosophy side, the epicureans lived together in communities, had parties, and prostelytized. Similarly, there were groups like the pythagoreans, etc. Moving past the Greeks and Romans, there was the medieval arrangement where philosophy is the hand maiden of theology. And then later philosophy is a name for natural science, etc. etc. (Further, what happens when the term philosophy refers not just to the Western inheritors of the Greek tradition but to ideas from India, China, Africa?). Religion, too is a term that has rather varied definitions (as several answers highlight). This clouds things significantly and makes the question harder to answer.

So I think it's better to see there as being four possibilities:

  1. Some view is neither a religion nor a philosophy
  2. Some view is a religion but not a philosophy
  3. Some view is a philosophy but not a religion
  4. Some view is both philosophy and religion

Let's say we define a religion as something that has ritual communal practices and moral views. Let's say we define a philosophy as something which attempts to give a fundamental account of metaphysics and epistemology.

On such a reading, it would seem to me some forms of Christianity (say catholicism) are 4. Some forms would be 2 (say faith healing pentecostalism). Some forms of philosophy would also be kind of religious (see for instance the Jesuit difficulties in understanding the Confucian practices they saw in China). Moreover, the groups that do "church" for atheists or even just have regular discussion sessions in a bar on the weekends about philosophy (but with a commitment to a singular viewpoint or to pure inquiry) might qualify as being both religion and philosophy on this definition.

I suspect any resistance to this would be predicated on differing definition of "religion" -- which probably for some people means more like "believing idiocy" than having ritual practices.


Religion is philosophy but philosophy is not religion; rather, it could be a form of religion.

As the most general explanation, religion is about everything in relation to one cause and one end while philosophy is about different things in relation to no cause and different ends.

Another way of stating that, intended to bring its meaning out clearly is, the end of religion is Truth, also known as Beatific Vision, Heaven, Paradise, etc. The relation between man and this end in man's quest for it through prayers, rituals, beliefs, etc, is known as religion. Philosophy on the other hand has many means and NO one end. The relation between man and each of the ends in man's quest for them could be religious but since means may differ and no common end exists for all, as in religion, philosophy is not religion.

It is noted, as correction of the definition of philosophy as "rational search for truth"---based on which it is argued that religion, which it is said is based on faith is not philosophy---that the definition of philosophy as "rational search for truth" is the definition for epistemology and not philosophy. But if philosophy is taken as rational search for truth, St. Augustine's rational search for truth---Trinity---is a particular example of how or why religion is philosophy.


What is the difference between philosophy and religion?

A general account of religion is community, ritual and reverence.

Philosophy simply is reverence for obtaining knowledge. This translation from the Greek has stood unchanged for 2500+ years.

How do you make the distinction between philosophy and religion?

Same way you make any distinction: analysis.

For example, as I have described them, note that in this case both involve "reverence". Religion, however, merely requires reverence (i.e. a sense of virtue or respect). Philosophy is reverence for something specific: wisdom.

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

There is philosophy, not philosophies. There is love (in the sense of initial utterance, read: virtue, respect, reverence) and there is wisdom (read: obtaining knowledge) and there are prepositions to join them (i.e. "of" and "for"). Perhaps you mean something like, "according to my philosophy..." or "in their philosophy..." or "some philosophies suggest..."? This is using philosophy as misnomer for a way of looking at things.

Unlike "theology" and "theism" philosophy is not an "-ology" (a study of...) nor an "-ism" (a belief in...). Note that religion requires neither theology, nor theism, I merely bring this up to clarify the distinction between what you can categorize as "religion" and what is "philosophy". If a religion encourages reverence for obtaining knowledge, it may be said accurately that it is philosophical, but do not confuse this description of religion or the religious with the virtue of obtaining knowledge (read: philosophy).

Hope that helps!


You create a religion when you want a set of beliefs to be seen as true. When you simply have Truth, you don't need religion. And when you don't have Truth, you have philosophies.


A religion is the codification and institutionalization of a philosophy.

Every religion begins with someone teaching some philosophical principle; a moral or ethical worldview meant to help people understand and navigate human life. These teachings are then memorized, written down, expanded, and codified, usually along with practices and interpretations, so that they can be passed more easily down to others. The effort to pass the teachings on to others eventually generates the authoritative hierarchies, institutional structures, rules and standards, and other formal mechanisms that we associate with religion.

A full-fledged religion is calcified philosophy. It has lost the flexibility and 'aliveness' of philosophical investigation, but preserved many of the insights and implications of the original philosophical act. To my mind one can always revitalize a religion by reengaging with its core philosophical moment — that is the essence of religious mysticism, in fact — but that kind of reengagement is often viewed with suspicion by those in the faith who are more liturgically inclined.


There are many fields of philosophy that do not interact with religion at all. For a few examples:

  • Aestetics
  • Logic
  • Heuristics
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy of Language

You could argue that the inverse is not true; that there is no aspects of religion that do not have some type of philosophical importance. This would imply that religion is a subset of philosophy. But you could make the same argument about anything.

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