The Philosophy of Religion


Religions have been a major force in human history. They have brought people together and divided them, and they have shaped knowledge, the arts, and technology. They have sometimes been instruments of liberation and freedom, and they have also been used as instruments of exploitation and coercion.

Because of these complexities, there are a number of questions that are important to ask about religions. This article explores some of these questions, in particular: What do we mean by “religion”? How do we distinguish it from other ways that humans organize their lives and make sense of the world around them? What is the relationship between religion and other systems of belief and behavior, such as philosophy, science, politics, and economics? What are the implications of the fact that religions are so diverse and yet persist in human societies?

Many philosophers have addressed these issues. Most of the work, however, has been done since the 19th century, when there was a flurry of activity in the study of religions. Much of this work has been concerned with the problems that arise for a theory of religion in light of empirical evidence. This work has tended to focus on the nature of religious beliefs and practices and on the social, political, and cultural contexts in which they are rooted.

One of the most important aspects of this work has been a shift in attention to questions about the nature of the concept “religion.” The traditional approach to the question has been an empiricist one, focusing on showing that there are real beliefs that can be held. This approach was most influential in the philosophy of religion of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was informed by a Marxist analysis. This led to the idea that religion is a system of values and beliefs that operates in the world in a way that is shaped by power relations.

A different approach has been taken by philosophers such as Durkheim and Tillich, who have emphasized the function of religion in creating solidarity. Hegel took a more dialectical view, and his work was influenced by a modified relativism that assumed that each religion has its own limited truth.

Currently, most scholars in the field use a functionalist or “family-resemblance” concept of religion. These are not necessarily wrong, but they are not as strong a guide to the phenomenon of religion as a theory that takes into account both the social functions and the internal structures that create and sustain it.

The concept of religion is a taxon for sets of social practices, and the paradigmatic examples are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (although there are many more that could be included in this list). Some other views are also relevant for this discussion: agnosticism; atheism; humanism; monotheism; polytheism; and theism. These views are discussed at more length below. At the same time, there are two philosophical issues that come up for this contested term, that would be equally pertinent for any abstract terms used to sort types of culture: What are the characteristics of the class that this term refers to? And how do we distinguish it from the other categories that have been used to sort cultural phenomena?

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