Early on in my relationship with Unitarian Universalism I moved from one town to another, and one of the people in the church from which I was moving said that if I could not find a church which satisfied me in my new home, or if there were none available, I could always go to the Ethical Society meetings. That was, I discovered later, actually rather odd advice, since there are far fewer Ethical Society groups than Unitarian Universalist churches, so the likelihood of my finding one was considerably smaller, but my curiosity was piqued and I tried to learn something about them to see if I would indeed prefer their meetings to Unitarian Universalist church services. They were founded a good while ago by Felix Adler, and I suppose could be called secular humanist groups. Although they often are led by Unitarian Universalist ministers, advertising for them through classifieds in the UU World, they do not consider themselves a religious organization. Their meetings — not services — tend to be presentations and discussions of issues of significance in our lives, much like our forums. I decided to look first for a Unitarian Universalist church. The Ethical Society didn’t seem to be “religious” enough for me.
Although there are frequent exceptions to this rule, some people liking it better, one of the reasons often given for preferring a regular church service led by the minister to a lay-led service is that the lay-led service isn’t really a service. It is a lecture or a discussion with no overtones that feel religious, whatever that may be. Actually, that is not necessarily the case at all, and I have been to many lay-led services that seemed very religious to me, and I know that it is a goal often consciously considered by those arranging the service, but I am simply reporting what is often said. That seems to me to be objective evidence that at least to large numbers of its members, Unitarian Universalism is clearly a religion and should look and act like one.
Knowing that I was going to resent it, I looked up the word religion in the dictionary. That’s Webster’s
There was an interesting woman I knew in
The Britannica says that religion has to do with the human relationship to the holy — that is to whatever evokes reverence from us or seems sacred to us. I would suggest that it is the holy, however we perceive it, that provides meaning in our lives, that without it we are mere physical survivors. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves or occupy ourselves, merely that to do so for no transcendent meaning is by definition pointless. We are alive and therefore we live. To find abstract value in that or in anything else is to admit the transcendent — to be, in effect, in some sense, religious. The practice of religion is the activities which evoke the sense of connection to the transcendent that we have recognized.
So people ask, “What is the difference between philosophy and religion?” There should be, of course, no conflict. Philosophy and liberal religion interact with and support one another. They are concerned with the same issues. There are religions that reject the love of wisdom (the literal meaning of philosophy), but that is not because they have no interest in the categories of philosophy, but because they accept traditional answers without asking the philosophical questions. The interest in philosophy, however, would not exist without the religious consciousness, the feeling that there is meaning and purpose and value that can be or at least should attempt to be discovered.
Philosophy’s concerns are logic, ethics, aesthetics, politics and metaphysics. Philosophy examines them while liberal religion goes on to use them. Our process uses logic and reason just as philosophy does, and though we may not often concern ourselves with theories of aesthetics, the aesthetic aspect of our Sunday service is often what turns it from meeting into worship. Ethics, politics and metaphysics, of course, are as much the focus of our search as that of any philosophy. We ask the same questions: What is the nature of good and evil; what would a just society be like; what is the nature of ultimate reality? That last is what metaphysics is, as you know, rather than its new-age definition of exercises in prayer and meditation. In the context of religion, metaphysics is simply another word for speculative theology.
Another reason, besides the one of discomfort with the concept of religion, that the question arises among us, is that it often really is difficult to tell the difference between liberal religion and philosophy. Liberal religion — at least our liberal religion — was the product of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was the new epistemology (a branch of metaphysics) of the Age of Reason which insisted that knowledge was to be found through experience and experimentation (and authority which was in conflict with that experience was no authority, even when the subject was religion) which was the foundation of liberal religion.
No wonder they’re difficult to tell apart! However, there are differences, and they are important ones, although it is the religious consciousness that impels philosophy, and philosophy that shapes much of liberal religion. The first important difference is the place of transcendent values. A philosophy of materialism or meaninglessness can deny them. It can even deny the significance of its own activity, its own love of wisdom. Religion cannot. Religion says that such things as love, justice, compassion, and all the things that we define as good are what shape our lives with meaning. Worship, the activity that connects us to those transcendent values, those things of worth, is the central focus of religion.
Religion impels us to action. That action may be merely going to church or walking in the woods in reverential mood, but if whatever our concern with values is does not do this, it may be philosophy, but it is not religion. A philosopher may decide that a particular world-view is true, but is not required to do anything about it. Wisdom is sufficient unto itself. Religion urges us to bring our ideals into reality either in our own lives as we live according to them, or, in a religion of social justice, in the community as well. If our religion teaches us that justice is a religious value, we must do what we can to make it operative in society. If our religion teaches us that compassion is important, we are required to practice compassion. Philosophy is what you know about things, give or take a reasonable doubt or two. Religion is what you do about them. The philosophical work of religion should result in tangible consequences in our lives.