Understanding Religion From a Philosophical Perspective


Religion provides meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, teaches moral behavior, enables people to cope with suffering, may motivate people to work for social change, and gives a sense of spiritual well-being. Religions vary greatly in beliefs and practices but share many common features: tradition, myth, symbol, sacred places, objects, rituals, ceremonies, codes of ethical behavior, and a leader or founder who gains godlike status. Despite these similarities, it is important to remember that all religious experiences are personal and unique.

A number of philosophers have examined religion from a philosophical perspective, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Simone de Beauvoir. Other philosophers, such as A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, have considered the implications of a scientific approach to religion.

Traditionally, scholars have tried to determine what a religion is by examining its substantive beliefs and practices. However, this method of definition can quickly lead to a minimal notion of religion and the search for a univocal, ahistorical essence. Increasingly, sociologists and philosophers have turned to functional definitions, which seek to define religion by the role it plays in society rather than its beliefs or practices. Emile Durkheim is a classic example of this functional approach to religion.

This kind of definition is helpful because it tries to avoid the mistake that would be made by trying to find a single property that all religions must have in order to be considered “religious”. Moreover, functional approaches recognize that religions often serve multiple functions and that these may vary across societies.