Identity of Religion and Philosophy

If the philosophy of religion is indistinguishable from philosophy as a whole, what is the relation of philosophy as a whole to religion or theology ?

Philosophy is the theory of existence ; not of existence in the abstract, but of existence in the concrete ; the theory of all that exists ; the theory of the universe. This is frequently denied ; it is said that philosophy has problems of its own, and science has problems of its own ; that they progress by attending each to its own business and using its methods where they are suitable, and that when philosophy tries to answer the questions proper to science the result is chaos.

The example of natural science under the domination of Aristotelian philosophy in the later middle ages is quoted as a warning to philosophy to confine its activities within its own province.—Such a view seems to depend on a misconception as to the nature of philosophy. Sciences live by the discovery and employment of methods which facilitate their particular operations and are inapplicable to other kinds of research. Differentiation of problems and methods is the very essence of the natural sciences. It is important to realise that philosophy has in this sense no methods of its own at all ; that it is through and through homogeneous, straightforward thinking where formulæ and labour-saving devices are not used.

This absence of definite and ready-made method is at once the strength and the weakness of philosophy ; its weakness, because it makes philosophy much more difficult than any of the sciences ; its strength, because failure through defects in the apparatus is avoided, and there is no limitation to one particular subject such as is necessarily entailed by a fixed method. Philosophy is the free activity of critical thought, and is applicable to any problem which thought can raise. The chaos of which the scientist complains is partly his own feeling of helplessness when confronted by philosophical questions to which his methods supply no answer, and partly real blunders like those of mediæval science, whose cause he imagines to be the invasion of science by Aristotelian philosophy ; whereas they are really due not to the overbearingness of Aristotelian philosophy but to the defects of Aristotelian science.

Now if philosophy is the theory of the universe, what is religion ? We have said that it was the theory ∗ of God, and of God’s relations to the world and man. But the latter is surely nothing more nor less than a view of the universe. Indeed religion is quite as comprehensive as philosophy. For the religious consciousness in its true and complete form nothing is irrelevant, nothing is without its own unique and individual value. Religion and philosophy alike are views of the whole universe.

But are they therefore (it may be asked) identical ? May they not be views, but conflicting views ? or views from different points of view ? Not the latter, because it is the aim of each alike to transcend particular points of view, to overcome the limitations of individual interest. And to ask whether religion and philosophy may not disagree is to assume a general agreement among religions, which certainly does not exist, and the same among philosophies, which exists if possible even less. No doubt this or that philosophy would conflict with this or that religion.

The religion of Homer is inconsistent with the philosophy of Auguste Comte ; but Comte’s own religion and his philosophy are fully consistent with one another ; they are indeed identical. If religion and philosophy are views of the same thing—the ultimate nature of the universe—then the true religion and the true philosophy must coincide, though they may differ in the vocabulary which they use to express the same facts.

But, it may be insisted, we have at least by this enforced agreement condemned unheard all philosophies but those which believe in a God ; for we have defined religion as the theory of God, and many philosophies deny or doubt or never mention God. This difficulty may perhaps be cleared up by recollecting that we have not assumed the “ existence of God ” hitherto in any definite and concrete sense ; we have not, for instance, assumed a personal God. The God of whom we have been speaking was a purely abstract one, a mere name for the philosophical Absolute, the solution of the cosmological problem.

Thus we said that savage ritual (religious or magical) implies a creed ; but it may not imply anything we should call a theistic creed. The savage may believe that his ritual operates directly on the rain without any intervention on the part of a single supreme will. This is his “ theory of God ” ; his “ God ” is not a person but a principle. The Buddhist believes in no personal God at all, but he has a definite scheme of the universe and doctrine of salvation ; he believes in certain eternal principles ; that is his “ theory of God. ” Atheism itself, if it is a positive theory and not mere scepticism, is in this abstract sense a “ theory of God ” ; the only thing that is not a theory of God is scepticism, that is to say, the refusal to deal with the problem at all. God, so far as our conception has travelled, is merely at present a name for the unifying principle of the world, however that principle is regarded.

Every philosophy has a God in this sense, just in so far as it is a philosophy and not a mere collocation of disconnected doctrines ; in which case it has a number of different Gods whose relations it has not yet determined.  And this is the only sense in which some religions (such as Buddhism) have a God. In the sense, then, in which all religions require a God, one is equally required by all philosophy.

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