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Philosophy vs. Religion: A search for truth and understanding

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Philosophy vs. Religion: A search for truth and understanding

By Erik Becker


When breaking down the relationship between philosophy and religion, it can be accurate to state that they both revolve around the search for greater understanding of truth and clarity in the world we live in. In philosophy, a focus is placed on the need for supreme truth, by using logic and reasoning skills to come up with a particular belief system. It requires an emphasis on using the mind to come up with understanding, while sometimes being in the absence of concrete evidence. With religion, a greater emphasis is placed on faith, which requires placing trust and hopefulness in powers greater than mere mortals. Religious teachings help to explain the underlying forces that shape humanity, as well as the physical world. However, both philosophy and religion are similar when considering their common subject matters, some of which involve the meaning of existence, as well as the differences between life and death. Philosophy and religion within the ancient world relate to each other due to the search for deeper understanding of life, the need to have one to help gain meaning in the other, and the way in which rituals and miracles are handled.

Philosophy meets ReligionEdit

Some of the more difficult questions that religion often tends to grapple with is, how does one find the presence of God? As well as, how do we know if He is here? As a result of the limitations that mortals have in regard to understanding the greater forces at work, philosophy provides a means of moving towards reasonable explanation.

Alcameon of Croton explained that “Of things invisible, as of mortal things, only the gods have certain knowledge; but to us, as men, only inference from evidence is possible” (DL 8.83). This explains how grasping understanding of the motives of the gods and seeing it in its absolute fullness is seemingly impossible. As a result of this, it is suggested that one must rely on their own interpretation and introspection of the world around them to see presence of the gods. Through use of logic and rational thought, these principles of philosophy were incorporated by those in the ancient world to understanding not just the workings of immortal powers, but also how humanity as a whole.

When trying to comprehend the form of God, philosophical opinion can lead one to use their own understanding and thought processes to come up with a depiction. Xenophanes, a critic of religion, explained that “the substance of God is spherical, in no way resembling man. He is all eye and all ear, but does not breath; he is the totality of mind and thought, and is eternal” (DL 9.18). This reveals how Xenophanes embraced the idea that God is universal and all powerful, and therefore that he is constantly present in the physical world. It can be suggested that Xenophanes saw God as someone who can’t be directly identified, however is certain to make His presence constant. Through Pythagoras, we can see the ways in which the Pythagorean belief system provided a means of understanding greater powers, much of which connected to idea of equilibrium in the physical world. He states “The sun, the moon, and the other stars are gods; for, in them, there is a preponderance of heat, and heat is the cause of life…Gods and men are akin, inasmuch as man partakes of heat; therefore God takes thought for man” (DL 8.25). This idea expresses how the processes of the physical world were believed to be under the control of higher powers, and that it is the work of these powers that moderate the equilibrium within the physical world. If equilibrium is not met, it is suggested that it is the result of the gods' wishes,

As discussed, a relationship between philosophy and religion occurs when considering their commonalities in subject matter. Both look to provide understanding in regard to the meanings of life, and behaviors that we partake in as humans. Augustine’s Confessions provides a detailed telling of how Augustine of Hippo went through the process of finding God and seeking Christianity. He elaborates on his sinful youth, as well his later life, and explains the role they play in coming to an understanding of God and his motives. Eventually, he comes to the realization while finding to find truth, that religion in the form of Christianity provides the ultimate truth.

In Augustine’s account, he describes the essence of mankind, and our role in doing what is right for God and others. He states “You provided that I should wish for no more than was supplied...The wish to supply me came from the natural instinct you planted deep in them, so that doing me good did them good, a good they did not provide themselves but passed on from you, the source of all good, my God, my rescue at every stage” (SA 1.7). This illustrates how in Augustine’s quest towards understanding, he identified with what he had done to wrong to God. He is able to recognize that he is in need of support through the mode of religion, and that prior to this he was unable to full recognize this need.

By being a consumer of various philosophical groups, and looking into each of their different belief systems, Augustine was able to come to the realization that Christianity should be his main source of understanding and support. When contemplating his education on philosophy, such as that of the Manichaeans, he questioned all he’d ever learned and stated “though I could not entirely trust the treatment of my spiritual symptoms to them, since they did not acknowledge the rescuing name of Christ” (SA 5.25). With more clarity in regard to where to find support, Augustine concluded by saying “So I resumed provisionally the learners’ status in the Catholic church to which my parents had in the past assigned me, there to stay until more certain light should be thrown on the path to follow. (SA 5.25). As a result of his uncertainty with the philosophical elements of his life, Augustine felt that Christianity was his only option. He would go on to place more trust in Christianity, and relied on maintaining his faith in God. While elements of uncertain speculation are present in both philosophy and religion, Augustine saw the teachings of Christianity as something worth holding onto.

It often occurs where the ideas of religion and philosophy within the ancient times seems almost interchangeable, making it difficult to distinguish the two separately. One of the ways in which the two differentiate from each other is the practice of ritual. Through philosophy, less attention is made to carrying out ritual practices. With religion, ritual serves as an integral part, such as with praying and the recognition of significant events. When evaluating the Pythagoreans, it appears to be a philosophical school on the outside, however it possesses an emphasis placed on ritual. In Laertius’ account of the Pythagorean school, it explains “For five whole years they had to keep silence, merely listening to his discourses without seeing him, until they passed an examination…They would never use coffins of cypress, because the sceptre of Zeus was made from it” (DL 8.10). Through this evidence, it is clear that Pythagoreans placed emphasize on carrying out a ritualistic plan, which deviates from a more philosophical approach that doesn’t place a great focus on a ritual aspect.

When further analyzing how religion and philosophy differentiate from one another, it must be understood that philosophies of the ancient world were generated typically from speculation and logic, and were not necessarily backed up by concrete evidence. With religion, stories of miracles provide a degree of speculation, because they often involve rare and unusual events that are suggested to be true. Trying to explain such events can only be attributed to the work of God or some other higher power. In Philostratus’ The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the story is told of a philosopher and teacher who experienced events of miracles throughout his life. In regard to his birth, it is stated that Apollonius’ mother was directed in a dream to go out to a meadow to pluck flowers while being pregnant, where she would go and then fall asleep. It states “There the swans who fed in the meadow set up a dance around her as she slept, and lifting their wings, as they are wont to do, cried out aloud al at one…She then leaped up at the sound of their song and bore her child, for any sudden fright is apt to bring on a premature delivery.” (FP 1.5). When hearing this story, and the other miraculous stories of Apollonius such as the event of a thunderbolt hitting earth upon his birth (FP 1.5), the typical philosopher of the ancient world would be critical in assessing the reliability of such stories. Significant instances of miracles were believed solely to be a work of greater beings more powerful than man, and the events experienced by Apollonius seem very questionable in terms of credibility. The fact that such a remarkable character like Apollonius is note more notorious makes it easy to question the legitimacy of such a person.


When comparing philosophy and religion as separate entities, it is worth first noting how they relate to each other. When assessing the use of philosophical thought in the ancient times, it is evident that it can help guide people to developing an understanding of religion, such is the case with Augustine of Hippo. Aside from this, religion can be used to help fulfill the need for truth that philosophy looks for. In order to fill in the voids that philosophy leaves in regard to speculation about the meanings of life and humanity, religion is able to help satisfy uncertainty, by ensuring people to stay faithful to God and higher powers. While religion and philosophy have different aspects, such as the existence of ritual and miracles, they are very much connected due to their common focus on the meaning of existence, the need for fulfillment in life, and the existence of higher powers.


Augustine, St. The Confessions of St. Augustine. (translated by Garry Willis). Penguin Classics, 2006.

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. (edited by R.D. Hicks). Loeb Classical Library, 1925.

Philostratus, Flavius. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. (translated by F.C. Conybeare). CreateSpace, 2011.

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