Why is religion considered philosophy?

Posted on December 24, 2010


I have always found it strange that people with a doctorate relating to religion get the designation Ph.D.  It’s the “Ph” that really gets me.  Why, I ask, is theology considered a form of philosophy?  The way I understand it, philosophy is a way of critically thinking about some aspect of the universe.  Moral philosophy deals with explaining our moral impulses and creating coherent systems for real-world application.  Natural philosophy attempts to describe the natural world and come to logical conclusions about the state of nature.  Metaphysical philosophy attempts to construct and determine first principles that flow from the universal to the particular.  What do all of these philosophical systems have in common?  They all involve heavy discourse founded in an ultimate goal to describe the way things are, or aid in understanding.  They are built upon, changed, and are adjusted based on new facts and insights—their aim is to discover truth.  The same cannot be said of theology.

Theology represents stagnance.  Views and ideas are set down and are never changed (at least that’s the goal).  Theological systems claim that truth in its most pure form is already known through scriptures and supposedly “Holy” books.  Any new thought, any amount of mulling things over or adjustments are forbidden, since that would be seen as a desecration of what is already true and pure.  Truth is assumed a priori; no further investigations are deployed or are even seen to be needed.

How, then, is theology considered a branch of philosophy if there is no active discourse or progression?  Let’s look at definitions of philosophy taken from dictionary.com:


1.      The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.

2.      Any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study.

3.      A system of philosophical doctrine: the philosophy of Spinoza.

4.      The critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, esp. with a view to improving or reconstituting them: the philosophy of science.

5.      A system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.

6.      A philosophical attitude, as one of composure and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

Theology seems to be gripping onto definition #3—a system of philosophical doctrine—for the rest of the definitions show an interest in truth, or at least some sort of resolution brought about by discourse.  Definition #5 is one such example, for it refers to guidance in practical affairs.  I wish to contend definition #3, however, because Sesame Street has made me rather adept in determining which of a set is not like the others.  Number 3, as a definition for philosophy just doesn’t belong.  You see, there already exists a niche in the human condition for systems that bear no relation to the search for truth, but instead exercise another vein of human desire—aesthetic pleasure, otherwise known as artistic value, or simply just The Arts.  Here is the first definition of art that I was able to find:

“The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

Religion has value, as many people will testify.  As wellsprings of symbolism, metaphor, allegory and simile, books such as the Holy Bible and Koran clearly have tremendous value.  But their value ends there, as purely aesthetic.  We all agree that theologians are not engaged in active discourse to ascertain the truth or falsity of their claims, and, as I have said, the goal of a theological system is intellectual stagnancy.  These facts alone remove theology permanently from the realm of philosophy.

A system of ideas can have great value in one of two forms.  Firstly, a system of ideas may have tremendous value for its chance of accurately reflecting reality.  These systems are brought about by intense deliberation, investigation, and above all a willingness to be open to ideas that may provide new insight.  These insights will hopefully lead to better understanding and toward more accurate depictions of reality than had previously been attained.  It is precisely these types of systems that are thought of as philosophical.  Secondly, value may be attributed to a system of ideas because it is beautiful, or traditional (so long as the tradition hurts no one).  Such systems may have some sort of progression of ideas, but the march in any direction is not a requirement.  Art requires no justification.  A debate on whose poetry is best, whose brush-strokes better represent passion, or whose religion best instills in its adherents a sense of the Divine, are all the same.  They are all pointless, because they all represent statements of value, not fact.   These systems are comfortably in the realm of The Arts.  I would observe Christian doctrine in the same manner I would observe a Rembrandt—as a thoroughly impressive contrivance of the human mind before which I stand in awe.

A world without religious ideas would be more boring; that is, we would be deprived of a fascinating contrivance of the human mind.  So long as students of theology are void of the notion that they are in any way philosophers, religion has a role to play in society.  Philosophers argue with one another, theologians nod at one another.  These two systems could not be on more polar ends of the spectrum of worldly investigation

I recommend not acknowledging a Ph.D. that is related to most theological disciplines.  Divinity is not a branch of philosophy, sorry.  Divinity is a topic of The Arts.  Those going through a Ph.D. program in divinity are not required to think for themselves.  Divinity does not have its graduate students jump through the mental hoops required to earn the title of philosophy.  It is a bit like studying poetry, paintings, and sculptures; it may be interesting, it may be fun, and it may require a lot of time, but if it does not require one to think critically or contribute to understanding the world or ourselves objectively, it is simply not philosophical.