content top

The Philosophy of Religion

Posted on: May 14, 2017

Category: Theology

The  Philosophy of Religion

In the Philosophy of Religion, the definition of religion is "a system of rituals and beliefs that make a claim about reality." For example, a Christian might claim that reality is the creation of God, and in relation to this claim might celebrate the ritual of the Eucharist to express the re-creating power of God. The claim and ritual are two sides of the same coin.

The important question for thinkers, though, is what sort of claim about reality does religion make? There are two types of claims about reality in philosophy. One is a truth-claim, and one is a meaning-claim. They are sometimes distinguished as referential and non-referential claims.

A truth claim makes an account about something. A truth claim is subject to 1) logic and 2) correspondence. The claim must make sense (logic) and it must describe something that actually exists (correspondence). When the Trump administration, which seems to provide unending examples, claimed that the Trump inauguration had more people than the Obama inauguration, we can prove that this is wrong. We can do so because we can count. We can show with reason (logic) that there were more people at the Obama than Trump inauguration (correspondence). Truth claims in science are called referential truths because they seek to use logic to establish correspondence. Theories in science refer to correspondences in reality. Of course, a theory can be mistaken, but this is what it attempts to do.

Does religion make a truth claim? Many thinkers in religion today say no. We have been mistakenly convinced by science that the only kind of claim available to human beings is a truth claim. The consequence is that many religious figures, especially on T.V., talk about religion as if it were a truth claim of logic and correspondence. God is spoken about as if "God" were an object that can either exist or not exist. God has become a proposition of logic and correspondence.

In the ancient world, God was not a truth claim. The Greeks were very smart, but no one ever climbed up Mount Olympus to see whether or not any gods lived there. Even the charge of "atheism" did not mean denying the existence of gods. It meant believing the wrong gods, creating your own gods, or denying the values the gods represented. Atheism in the ancient world was much like our word "unpatriotic." You can be an unpatriotic Canadian or American and be subject to much criticism, but this does not mean that you deny the existence of the United States or Canada. Being "unpatriotic" is much more a political act that can be motivated by the criticism of a government's policies or a culture's values. The act of being (or accused of being) unpatriotic is a value judgement, not a truth claim. It is a statement or accusation about what should be valued. Patriotism is, therefore, a non-referential claim, or, otherwise stated, a meaning-claim.

Religion is a meaning claim. Instead of asking, "Does God exist?", the real religious question is "How is God manifest?" The first question is a truth-claim question. It wants to know if there is such an object out there named God. The second question is a meaning-claim question. It seeks what people mean when they use God-language. The second question asks how is God manifest or expressed in someone's life? With the second question, it is possible to be an atheist but still be religious. An atheist who is still religious is someone who rejects the truth-claim about God but accepts the meaning-claim about God.

The distinction between referential and non-referential (or truth and meaning) claims allows us to understand how religion is not about truth but about being truthful. Religion is about cutting through deception with the aim of being honest. To accomplish this act of cutting through deception, one does not go about denying facts. There is no reason to be set against the scientific method of logic and correspondence. To deny science is to be delusional. No, the truth about religion is set otherwise, and the act of cutting through deception has a different meaning than that of denying facts.

The deception religion seeks to cut through is the deception of meaning. Any individual can be convinced that something is meaningful. We can be convinced that certain forms of sexism, because they emerge from tradition, are meaningful and non-negotiable. And we can be convinced to defend sexism based on religion. Sexism, as my example, is not a truth claim. It is not a referential claim. It is a worldview cultivated through various perceived values defended as meaning-claims. Religion is powerful enough to cut through this deception and to change a worldview. Religion is about awakening to our prejudices and learning to understand how our prejudices are harmful to ourselves and others. To awaken to prejudice is to cut through deception, and this act is tough, psychological work that is sometimes painful. Still, it is the work of religion. Cutting through deception is not about asking if deception exists; it is asking about how one lives.

wrapper background