The philosophy of religion is the part of philosophy that asks the question of what a religion is. According to the concept of religion which is thus posed and according to the fundamental question which one poses on the religion, the philosophy of the religion can correspond to different approaches. The main distinction between the various approaches to the philosophy of religion is between so-called “essentialist” and “functionalist” approaches.
The philosophy of religion is faced with a particular difficulty, which is the absence of a concept of religion appropriate to all that it is customary to regard as the order of religion.
The philosophy of religion is significantly different in different religions, times and places.
Historically, the philosophy of religion can also refer to a moment in the history of thought centered on the German authors Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel. These are the main philosophers to have dealt with religion at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both Kant and Hegel gave courses in philosophy of religion. It was in their day that the philosophy of religion became a university discipline.
Essentialist approaches have a defined concept of religion and most often place great importance on the question of the existence of one or more deities. This question determines the fact that one considers religion as a human invention or as the activity of one or more deities in the world. The concepts of religions that correspond to this opposition are, on the one hand, that of religion as being essentially of the order of the relationship between divine and humanity, or, on the other hand, that of religion as essentially being of order of a belief in something whose existence is not assured. These approaches are thus marked by a strong opposition between the advocates of the existence of divinities and those who defend the opposite. At the extreme, the thinkers engaged in this way answer each other by books taking stock of the arguments for and against the existence of the gods. This way of doing philosophy of religion is very represented in the Anglo-Saxon world. It often covers what for a European of the continent would be immediately understood as theology and which, since the Middle Ages, is called “natural theology”.
Functionalist approaches deal with the facts or functions of religion in societies: what is it for, what are its manifestations? Functionalist approaches are common in continental Europe. In France, they were encouraged by the Debray report. These approaches hold that the religious does not exist apart from given and contingent forms on a historical level. They give priority to so-called religious phenomena in relation to the reflection on the teachings of religions and what they propose to believe. Religion is then considered according to the great diversity of religious phenomena.
Although it is possible to distinguish quite clearly essentialist approaches including a reflection on the propositions of the religions and their justification, of functionalist approaches concentrating on the religious facts, a functionalist approach necessarily leads to a questioning on the essence or the the nature of religion, particularly because of the centrality of the idea of belief in modern reflection on religion. Believing can indeed be approached as a function of religion: religion would have the function of responding to a need to believe, for example, by proposing to believe in a life after death, it would make it possible to face the fear of death as Freudian thought presupposes, or else it would have the role of ensuring the social bond by providing societies with a base of common and indisputable convictions. However, in such an approach, belief, first posited as a function of religion, is also its essence. It is therefore legitimate to wonder whether believing is truly peculiar to religion. To what extent is it possible to dispense with believing? or again, is religion necessarily an incentive to believe? Such a questioning is not optional to the functionalist approach of religion, it is a questioning on the essence of religion.
Philosophy is also an interrogation of itself so that whoever wants to philosophize about religion can not be satisfied with taking religion as its object, but is also led to wonder about what enables him to know that there are religions, or that such phenomenon can be said to be religious. One way to explore this question is the genealogical study of the concept of religion, that is, the way in which the idea that there are religions exist historically and that religion is such or such a thing in substance.
Jean Grondin remarks that the philosophy of religion is partly determined by the strongly nominalist framework of contemporary thought. Nominalism is a turn of mind according to which the name is the thing. In nominalism, the name is intuitively linked to existence, so that if we can not define the thing and find an existence that conforms to its definition, we say that the thing does not exist or that it is not this way. Now it is possible to note the existence of an apple according to a definition, this type of observation is not possible for God, not more than for any phenomenon not being a material object. This problem thus determines not only the debates on the existence of God, but also on religion itself. For example, when one asserts that Buddhism is not a religion because religion is to believe in deities and Buddhism does not ask to believe in the divine. Conversely, different phenomena are approached from an idea of religion which, roughly speaking, is understood on the model of Christianity, the tendency is thus to seek in other religions, which makes of Christianity a religion: a community or church , a doctrine, rites, places of worship, etc.
We can distinguish fundamental questions such as:
- What is god, the gods, the divine, the divinities, monotheism, polytheism, deism, animism, atheism, agnosticism? What do these concepts mean?
- Do we have good reason to believe that divinities exist or do not exist?
- What knowledge can we have of these objects?
- What is religious fanaticism and how can it be remedied?