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The Difference Between Philosophy and Religion

Updated on February 7, 2013

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Humans are curious creatures, forever pondering the nature of existence and throwing up eternal questions such as why are we here?, is there a God? and why is there something rather than nothing?

We also spend a great deal of time and mental energy on considering moral questions, such as what is right and wrong? is there such a thing as an objective morality? and what is the best way to live?

Although we have science to help us understand the natural world, there are still many seemingly unanswerable questions about existence and morality that, as yet, science is not able to throw much light on. Philosophy and religion both attempt to answer some of these questions but the method of operation of these two perspectives is very different.

"The Torch Bearers" by Anne Hyatt Huntington - representing the passing on of knowledge from one generation to another.
"The Torch Bearers" by Anne Hyatt Huntington - representing the passing on of knowledge from one generation to another. | Source

Reason Versus Assumption

The Western philosophical tradition, beginning with the philosophers of ancient Greece and eventually developing and spreading throughout many parts of the world, is underpinned by a rationalist tradition. That is, a philosopher must provide a reasoned justifcation for this or that philosophical position - it's not enough to say it just is. No-one is going to care a fig about a philosopher's theory unless they can back it up with some convincing, rational argument.

By contrast religion can and often does work on the just is principle.Theists may or may not attempt to make a reasoned case for a religious view but it's not a requirement of religion. Oftentimes, even before a theologian attempts to discuss this or that point of religion, certain assumptions have already been made and accepted as truths: for example, that God exists, and/or that one religion is the true religion. Wisdom is handed down by an accepted authority, in the form a Holy book or set of divine precepts and accepted on faith - no reason required.

Certainly there may be endless intellectual nitpicking, debates and inquiries about spiritual interpretations, meanings and discrepancies that require reasoned thought and argument but if these are all relying on a faith based premise to begin with, then they have no firm foundation on which to rest, at least in rational terms.


It's a common claim among certain religious thinkers that as science cannot give us answers to some of life's deepest mysteries, we have only religion to look to to glean meaning and knowledge about what science cannot tell us. However, as we also have philosophy, this isn't true! Philosophy can help us explore what it means to be human, consider meaning and moral questions from different points of view and help guide us in everyday living.

While it may not tell us why there is something rather than nothing?, neither does religion. It does not answer the question of why a God should exist? Where He came from? Or indeed why He should have created us and for what purpose? In addition, religious answers aren't so much answers as claims, without rational justification. We can choose to accept these claims as truths on faith but a philosopher versed in critical thinking might say, why should we...? What reason is there to?

If we're always guided by other people's thoughts, what's the point in having our own?~ Oscar Wilde

The essential difference between philosophy and religion is that one is bound by spiritual authority, the other is bound only by the limits of our own reasoning and while philosophers may look to other minds, past and present, for insight and knowledge, there is no compulsion to accept anything at all on faith. This is called free-thinking and with that, I'll leave you to ponder a provocative philosophical question - Religion creates sheep, philosophy creates thinkers...?

The Thinker  - Auguste Rodin
The Thinker - Auguste Rodin

Should philosophy be taught in schools as an alternative to religious education?

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    • Vortrek Grafix profile image

      Vortrek Grafix 

      3 years ago

      Jane, I like the respectful manner in which you describe the difference between philosophy and religion. Science does have, as yet, many unanswered questions. For such questions, philosophical speculation will often be the tool for establishing a potential hypothesis when grappling to understand unknown phenomena. This process involves making inferences from observations and drawing reasoned conclusions for a potential explanation. To be "scientific" that "thesis" then also needs to be subjected to scrutiny from a credible "antithesis". And that process may go back and forth repeatedly until hopefully an acceptable "synthesis" emerges. And so what starts out as speculative in a philosophical context may eventually develop into a set of logically deduced conclusions upon which a scientific discipline can be built. All peaceful and humanitarian religions are fine with me. I embrace them all, but follow none. My premise for that is rather like what you state here. As humans we are sentient, rational, and analytical beings. As such, my personal preference is for philosophy and science which encourages our natural instincts to explore and discover. To a philosopher accepting answers on faith is counter intuitive.

    • rayasa profile image

      Arun Ramchandramurthy 

      4 years ago

      Hi jane,

      As I read your article, I am reminded of the following quote -

      "religion without philosophy is sentiment, and philosophy without religion is just speculation".

      If religion can fill in the limitations of pure reason, I think we'll succeed in solving many questions that baffle our minds.


    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Religion is, strangely enough, older than philosophy. I guess we are all exploring what it means to be human.

      This snippet from Tennyson predates the electron microscope and yet seems to say something about how we are all connected and are part of this world. Cells make us up just as cells make up a plant.

      Flower in the Crannied Wall

      Flower in the crannied wall,

      I pluck you out of the crannies;

      I hold you here, root and all, in my hand;

      Little flower—but if I could understand

      What you are, root and all, and all in all,

      I should know what God and man is.

      —Alfred Tennyson

    • Jane Bovary profile imageAUTHOR

      Jane Bovary 

      6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi drbj...thanks for dropping in. Yes that's probably the most oft-repeated Karl Marx quote! I don't know whether it's the opiate but I do think that for many people religion does seem to fill an emotional need.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      Another provocative question to consider, Jane, might be the quote by Karl Marx: 'religion is the opiate of the people.' What do you think?


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