• Daniel C
    67
    For some time now I've been thinking about whether it is possible to indicate specific criteria to be used in determining if a "coherent set of ideas" is to be classified as a philosophy or a religion. What brought me to this is the case of Buddhism. When you start doing only a little research on this matter, the division in opinion regarding Buddhism is immediately apparent. Even among scholars of philosophy and religion there is no consensus as far as Buddhism's position is concerned. This leads me inevitably to ask about the possibility of distinguishing such criteria and to what extend consensus on their validity is possible.
  • Pfhorrest
    159
    In my book the defining characterization of religion is appeal to faith, whether that means in your own gut feelings, popular tradition, or some kind of supposed authority. Philosophy on the other hand is characterized by incessant questioning of everything, the exact opposite of taking things on faith. The conclusions reached and the topics covered can be the same, it’s the methodology that differs.
  • Congau
    28
    If a coherent set of ideas has an element of revelation in it, it can be classified as a religion, if not it is a philosophy.

    We could also count a definite system of worship as a requirement, but that may be considered a part of the revelation in the present. People get in contact with the divinity to achieve enlightenment as opposed to reaching for it through thought alone. (Of course, Buddhism doesn’t speak of a divinity in the strict sense, but it deals with some sort of universal power and that amounts to the same.)

    All other distinguishing features of a religion that we may think of, an established canon, a perception of holiness, a priesthood etc. only underscore this point. It is all meant to reveal what is beyond.

    Philosophies are hatched by human philosophers alone and make no claim to divine origin of their thoughts. That is not to say that a philosopher can’t refer to divine inspiration and take some of their axioms from religion. Their distinguishing features are still pure thought.

    Sometimes a religion can lead into philosophy as in the case the case of Christian church fathers, Muslim Sufis and of course also Buddhist philosophy. It may also go the other way as in Pythagoreanism and Taoism. But the distinction, revelation versus pure thought, still keeps them apart.
  • praxis
    1.6k


    Religion, and this absolutely includes Buddhism, has a hierarchical authority structure and is primarily concerned with meaning and social cohesion.
  • PoeticUniverse
    723
    Religion is a 'philosophy' with all the questions left out.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    Very interesting question, and one that has been a theme of my study.

    In respect of Buddhism, which I've studied in some depth, there are both religious and philosophical aspects. Where it differs from the Semitic religions is the question of religious authority. That is not to say that the Buddha is not regarded as an authority, as he most definitely is and was. But there's a sense in which the Buddha is like a guide to a way that the aspiring Buddhist has to navigate; rather more a 'see for yourself' than 'do as I say'.

    Case in point is an often-quoted scripture called the Kalama Sutta, where the Buddha speaks to a group of villagers who have been puzzled by the conflicting advice of visiting 'contemplatives and sages' who extol their own schools and vilify others. The famous answer he gave was:

    "So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

    "Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.

    This passage is often quoted as a kind of mandate for rejection of religious authority in Buddhism, but it should be noted that it argues for the rejection of the three cardinal 'poisons' according to the Buddha, namely, greed, hatred and delusion. (The text can be found here. )


    Religion is a 'philosophy' with all the questions left out.PoeticUniverse

    That is fideism which is 'the doctrine that all knowledge depends on faith or revelation.' It is observable in some forms of religion, and emphasized in Protestant fundamentalism. But there is also a sense in which very deep questioning is basic to religious life, in that it calls you to question a lot of what is usually taken for granted.
  • praxis
    1.6k
    That is not to say that the Buddha is not regarded as an authority, as he most definitely is and was.Wayfarer

    Is it that you don’t believe your own words?

    This passage is often quoted as a kind of mandate for rejection of religious authority in Buddhism,Wayfarer

    A mandate (necessarily authoritative) to accept or reject that authority. Is this not superfluous? What religion exists that anyone is not free to accept or reject it?

    It could only be meaningfully non-hierarchical and rejecting of authority if practitioners were able to not merely accept or reject but to freely criticize or revise as they saw fit, such as with philosophy. Naturally, all religions, including Buddhism, are highly resistant to critique or reform.

    The mandate to accept or reject is a mandate which limits you to exactly that. You cannot question. Philosophy questions everything.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    It could only be meaningfully non-hierarchical and rejecting of authority if practitioners were able to not merely accept or reject but to freely criticize or revise as they saw fit, such as with philosophy. Naturally, all religions, including Buddhism, are highly resistant to critique or reform.praxis

    As far as Buddhism is concerned, their attitude is ‘take it or leave it’. They’re generally not going to try and save you in spite of yourself, like Christians, or kill you for nonbelief, like militant Islam.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    Besides, philosophy as traditionally understood had a religious aspect. Platonism is in some ways a religious philosophy or at least values the same kinds of ethics as do many religions. But Plato wants reasons for this, not to simply accept it on face value. Whereas in secular culture, there’s a positive bias against many of those ideas because of their association with religion..
  • praxis
    1.6k
    Platonism is in some ways a religious philosophy or at least values the same kinds of ethics as do many religions.Wayfarer

    I don’t know what this means. I’m not religious but I could say that I value the same kinds of ethics that many religions do.

    Plato could certainly be called an authority in philosophy. Significantly, however, no philosopher could exist that is considered THE authority or the ultimate authority.

    Anyone is free to accept or reject Platonism, as well as freely question or critique any part of it. There are no heretical Platonists, at least not in anything but a metaphorical sense.

    The Buddhist attitude of ‘take it or leave it’ leaves no room for questioning, critique, or least of all, reform. This only underscores the essential aspect of its hierarchical authority structure and places it squarely in the category of religion.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    Anyone is free to accept or reject Platonism, as well as freely question or critique any part of itpraxis

    Right. Have a look at http://veda.wikidot.com/dharma-and-religion
  • praxis
    1.6k


    Nothing I’ve written in this topic contradicts any of that, or rather, conflicts with their definition of religion.

    To reiterate, I claim:

    1) Buddha is the ultimate authority in Buddhism and Buddhism has a social hierarchy.

    2) Buddhism is meaningful.

    3) Buddhism is unifying.

    If Buddhism didn’t have an ultimate authority or social hierarchy, and it was meaningless and un-unifying, it would not be a religion.
  • alcontali
    702
    Even among scholars of philosophy and religion there is no consensus as far as Buddhism's position is concerned.Daniel C

    The Southeast Asian country in which I live, is largely Buddhist. My wife is Buddhist. My in-laws are Buddhist. In my opinion, Buddhism is first and foremost a religion. I seriously wonder why people in the West think it is a philosophy? My wife is not philosophical at all. She wouldn't want to follow a "philosophy".

    Of course, Buddhism doesn’t speak of a divinity in the strict sense, but it deals with some sort of universal power and that amounts to the same.Congau

    Agreed. When the monks come over the noodle soup restaurant in the morning, where I would be having my noodle soup, any Buddhist will give the monk twenty cents or so, and then they will pray together for twenty seconds or so, in ancient Pali language. (Almost) nobody understands what they are praying about and whom they are praying to.

    Religion, and this absolutely includes Buddhism, has a hierarchical authority structure and is primarily concerned with meaning and social cohesion.praxis

    There is no hierarchical authority in Buddhism that I know of. If there were, I would be able to see such authority here in this largely Buddhist country. There are certainly monks but there is no organization beyond the practical management of a single temple. These temples do not report to a higher authority. They were built by collecting donations. Some local elders manage the premises.

    There are indeed different monastic fraternities, but these loose associations have no governing authority. They do not own the temples. They do not appoint their administrators, and so on.

    By the way, Buddhists do not go to the temple like Christians go to church. That is a complete misconception. These temple buildings primarily house the monks. Furthermore, monks are not monks for life. They do that for a few years only; after which they return to civilian life. Occasionally, there are festivals and other festivities at the temple (not inside but in front of). I have been to a few in the past.

    Every day the monks visits the population in the morning and pray with people in front of their houses or shops. It is this morning-prayer round of mendicant monks that is the central pillar of Buddhism. The other pillar is the notion of traditional morality and law.

    By the way, the vast majority of Buddhists have no clue whatsoever what is written in the ancient Buddhist scriptures (Tipitaka). I have never seen a local translation either. Ordinary believers simply do not read them (and are not encouraged to read them by anybody). Only the older monks do, and always in original language (Pali or Sanskrit).
  • I like sushi
    1.3k
    In very simplistic terms I would distinguish between them as being dogmatic and skeptical. Religions tend toward basing ideologies on Holy Books and/or Sacred Traditions, whilst philosophy doesn’t. They certainly do crossover though in places and such is generally called theology and such.

    Sacred texts are not questioned, only interpreted. In philosophy texts/works may hold higher esteem than others, but they are constantly questioned and countered.

    As for Buddhism, some buddhists worship gods and some don’t. Just like some people will adhere to islamic or christian ideals yet not necessarily believe in a deity - and they call themselves muslims and christians without clinging to the texts and teachings with furious intent.

    They major commonality between them is their intent and interest in human emotions and ethics/aesthetics. A very rich source of investigation, of which science doesn’t have a particularly ‘authoritative’ hold (of course it still dabbles in such areas through research into psychology, complex systems, evolution and neurosciences).

    In super-duper simplistic terms I tend to shovel them onto opposing poles - religions ‘believe’ and philosophies ‘doubt’. I also tend to view science and art as opposed too: art at play with the ‘chaotic’ and science at play with the ‘ordered’. On the same poles none of these items are monopoles, they suffuse into each other beyond distinction at certain positions on the spectra.

    Categories are useful, but they’re not dogmatic doctrines. Such argumentation falls into epistemic issues though.
  • praxis
    1.6k
    There is no hierarchical authority in Buddhism that I know of. If there were, I would be able to see such authority here in this largely Buddhist country. There are certainly monks but there is no organization beyond the practical management of a single temple. These temples do not report to a higher authority. They were built by collecting donations. Some local elders manage the premises.alcontali

    Elders > monks > laymen & laywomen? With the Buddha being the ultimate authority, of course.
  • alcontali
    702
    Elders > monks > laymen & laywomen?praxis

    They have temples, i.e. a particular type of buildings. So, there are obviously people who take care of practicalities surrounding these temples. I am not privy to the nitty-gritty details of the facilities management involved in each one of these buildings, but all of that looks very, very practical.

    A monk is mostly a young man who spends a few years in that temple; after which he comes back to civilian life. He may do it again several decades later, when he is quite old already and he feels like investing again some time in monastic life.

    With the Buddha being the ultimate authority, of course.praxis

    For the ordinary Buddhist believer, the Buddha does not even seem to play a particularly large role in the religion. That would require these believers to understand what exactly the monks recite during the morning prayer, which they generally don't. I know because I speak the local language. So, I know that what they are reciting is absolutely not in that local language.

    Even most monks are incapable to tell you what exactly they are reciting in Pali language.

    To tell you something funny, I can also recite their main prayer, but I do not really understand what it means. When I ask other people who recite it, they do not know either what it means. Transliterated, it goes like this:

    Nek mo ta sa
    Nek mo ta sa phekevek tau ara hak tau
    sama sampot tau sa

    I do not know what it means, but I can recite it from memory, simply because I have heard it so often.

    I am afraid that this is what they all do. Seriously.

    It is most likely an excerpt from the Tipitaka, but I am not even sure about about that. There are more prayers similar to this one, but they are recited less often. So, I may recognize them, but I cannot recite them by myself.

    I am not deeply invested in that stuff. I just wanted to know what it was. So, I ended up participating in their things, once in a blue moon, just for the hell of it, but that is all there is to it.

    By the way, I have never heard a Buddhist mention the word "Buddha". Ever. It rather seems to be some kind of misguided western idea that Buddhism revolves around a "Buddha". Seriously, it doesn't.

    Buddhism is all about reciting prayers in an ancient language that you do not understand yourself. That is main pillar in Buddhism.

    The second pillar of Buddhism is to show respect for traditional morality, rules, and social conventions.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    The Buddhist attitude of ‘take it or leave it’ leaves no room for questioning, critique, or least of all, reform.praxis

    Buddhism has been in a continuous state of evolution and reform since its inception. If you read the Buddhist suttas, many are in question-and-answer format.

    Buddhists do not go to the temple like Christians go to church.alcontali

    I think you might be in Thailand. Japanese Pure Land services are very like church services, complete with hymns, which imitate the Christian style, and sermons ('dharma talks') along with sutra recitation (which is regulated to the minutest details in intonation and pronunciation.) Pure Land is the largest overall denomination in China and Japan, and it is generally oriented around temple services and hereditary priesthoods or 'family lineages'. I've attended a few over the years, out of my interest in Buddhism, but I end up asking myself if I was going to attend these services whether I might be better of in a Church where at least I can understand the words.

    In super-duper simplistic terms I tend to shovel them onto opposing poles - religions ‘believe’ and philosophies ‘doubt’.I like sushi

    I don't think you're mistaken in saying that, but it's very characteristic of modern Western culture to see it in terms of such dichotomies.
  • alcontali
    702
    I think you might be in Thailand.Wayfarer

    Well, next-door to Thailand, in Cambodia. I have never had a look at how the Thai do things, actually. I only have some kind of vague familiarity with the Cambodian take on religion. The thing is, the ordinary believer does not seem to know more than me. I know because I have asked so many people if there was more to what they are doing, and there isn't.

    apanese Pure Land services are very like church services, complete with hymns, which imitate the Christian style, and sermons ('dharma talks') along with sutra recitation (which is regulated to the minutest details in intonation and pronunciation.)Wayfarer

    That is really not how the Khmer do it. These "services" must be a Japanese thing. There are no "services" here in Cambodia. There is only the morning-prayer round of the mendicant monks. If there were "services", I would have run into one a long time ago already. There really aren't any.
  • I like sushi
    1.3k
    Dichotomies are useful tools not universal distinctions. I don’t think the ‘west’ is anymore prone to anywhere else - it’s a human characteristic not a cultural one.

    You have to be ‘religious’ to treat a text as irrefutable; but the clearer distinction would be that dogmatism is about unquestioned obedience to some ‘sacred’ work. If someone is reading the bible or the book of the dead as an absolute guide of how to live life they’re dogmatic; usually encumbered with the threat of death or torture in some afterlife. Philosophies can embrace such, but they are not necessarily embraced because of religious beliefs.

    The OP asked for possible useful distinctions. I erred away from being pedantic about the underlying ‘meanings’ of religion and/or philosophy. A line has to be drawn somewhere or we wouldn’t be able to speak to each other.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    Japan and China are Mahāyāna cultures. Vastly different. Of course now the everything is a jet flight or facetime away, then it all seems part of the same thing, but for centuries they were completely separate.

    Theravada countries like Thailand are much nearer the original Indian monastic order, in Tibet, China, Japan, and so on, Buddhism went through enormous changes. That's why it's a mistake to talk about 'Buddhism' as if it's a monolithic entity, really its a tremendously diverse set of cultures.
  • I like sushi
    1.3k
    It may be better to talk about about the differences in cosmological and cosmogonical attitudes?
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    You have to be ‘religious’ to treat a text as irrefutable; but the clearer distinction would be that dogmatism is about unquestioned obedience to some ‘sacred’ work. If someone is reading the bible or the book of the dead as an absolute guide of how to live life they’re dogmatic; usually encumbered with the threat of death or torture in some afterlife. Philosophies can embrace such, but they are not necessarily embraced because of religious beliefs.I like sushi

    As I said, I don't think you're mistaken, and many would agree, certainly a number of contributors have already said exactly this.

    But I'm trying to unpack what's behind that, as I think it's rather characteristic of the way modern culture has come to understand it. I'm interested in the original insights behind religious ideas, before they became ossified into dogmatic form, if you like.

    That's why I made the remark about Plato. Socrates, as we will all recall, was sentenced to death principally for teaching atheism to the youth of Athens, right? For the authorities there, questioning the Greek cults was atheism. But Socrates himself is in some sense a religious thinker, in that he's plumbing the depths of questions about knowledge, beauty, justice, and so on - which continued with his 'lineage', Plato, Aristotle and beyond. The Greek philosophical tradition, especially in the form of neo-platonism, became quite 'religious' - in a sense. Yes, they were questioning, and they would question everything, actually far more so than your modern urban armchair sceptic. But Plotinus, often called the last great philosopher of antiquity and an inheritor of the Platonic tradition, is known as a mystic and one of the sources of Western philosophical theology.

    So, too often, when we reject 'everything religious' on the basis of what we call 'humanism', then we're often rejecting that philosophical heritage along with it - throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. The originators of humanism were dedicated to these ideas - and they were at odds with the Church, they were not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
  • I like sushi
    1.3k
    Oral tradition and mnemonics is the short answer to the origin of ‘religion’.
  • Pfhorrest
    159
    With regards to whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, may I offer a counterfactual parallel scenario to illustrate how it could possibly be both?

    "The European philosophical tradition is [...] a series of footnotes to Plato", right? I mean, not really, but kinda, yeah? Imagine if, in addition to that philosophical tradition, you also had some people who took Plato as some kind of a holy figure who had solved philosophy and venerated his words and created rituals surrounding him. Now, in that counterfactual universe, where you've got folks like us who read and study Plato along with all the "footnotes" to him and question all of it, but you've also got those people in old Greek temples reciting prayers to the Form of the Good, doing ritual shadow puppet shows to reenact the Allegory of the Cave, and listening to sermons that recite passages from the Republic... in that world, is Platonism a philosophy or a religion?

    It can be two things.
  • I like sushi
    1.3k
    Just in case that was too obscure an answer, I meant that ‘religious ceremonies’ were originally a very obvious means of passing down knowledge from generation to generation prior to the written symbols. That’s just a plain fact not a theory.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    Imagine if, in addition to that philosophical tradition, you also had some people who took Plato as some kind of a holy figure who had solved philosophy and venerated his words and created rituals surrounding him.Pfhorrest

    Have you ever read the expression 'the divine Plato'? In Christian history, Socrates and Plato were designated as 'Christians before Christ'. Many will argue that this was part of the means by which christianity appropriated Greek philosophy - an early act of 'cultural appropriation', you could argue. But nevertheless, it also shows that at that time, the boundary between philosophy and religion was pretty porous - although I'm not sure about the ritual element. Neoplatonists were more connected with 'theurgy' which is nearer to what we would understand as ritual magic than religion per se.

    , I meant that ‘religious ceremonies’ were originally a very obvious means of passing down knowledge from generation to generation prior to the written symbolsI like sushi

    Sure - no argument there. Long before religious lore was committed to writing, it was memorised and spoken. The Vedas and the teachings of the Buddha were passed down for centuries (millenia, even) before being written down.
  • Pfhorrest
    159
    Yeah, I'm aware of that, and considered also bringing up the Gnostics who seem to take Platonism even more to heart than mainstream Christians, but all of those are essentially not-Plato-centric religions, so they didn't seem an appropriate example of Platonism as a religion itself.
  • Wayfarer
    8.6k
    I’m interested in Gnosticism also. (I should mention, I majored in comparative religion although also did two years of undergraduate philosophy. But my interests have mainly centred around spirituality. )
  • Daniel C
    67
    Thank you for all your constructive reactions so far, and, of course, the further one goes along with this line of exploration, the more complicated it seems to become. The one criterion which I think is a "sine qua non" for any set / system of coherent ideas to qualify as a religion is that a "Supernatural Element" must be present in that system. (This, of course, doesn't imply that any idea or concept which is merely supernatural constitutes a religion - much more is needed.) You may be able to indicate e.g. "prayer", "revelation", "authority" and others as key elements of a "religious system", but without reference to a supernatural element you don't have a religion. That is why, in the case of Buddhism, I feel more inclined to view it as a philosophy, because, in studying Buddhism, I could never detect anything supernatural in it, especially if one goes back to its original ideas in Theravada which is most probably the closest you can get to the Buddha's teachings. (I realize that I'm attempting to walk on "thin ice" by stating this, but so be it.)
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