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What is the Difference Between Philosophy, Science, and Religion?
John G. Messerly   Mar 25, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

In order to more clearly conceptualize philosophy’s territory, let’s consider it in relationship to two other powerful cultural forces with which it’s intertwined: religion and science.

We may (roughly) characterize the contrast between philosophy and religion as follows: philosophy relies on reason, evidence and experience for its truths; religion depends on faith, authority grace, and revelation for truth.

Of course, any philosophical position probably contains some element of faith, inasmuch as reasoning rarely gives conclusive proof; and religious beliefs often contain some rational support, since few religious persons rely completely on faith.

The problem of the demarcation between the two is made more difficult by the fact that different philosophies and religions—and philosophers and religious persons within similar traditions—place dissimilar emphasis on the role of rational argument. 

For example, Eastern religions traditionally place less emphasis on the role of rational arguments than do Western religions, and in the east philosophy and religion are virtually indistinguishable. In addition, individuals in a given tradition differ in the emphasis they place on the relative importance of reason and faith. So the difference between philosophy and religion is one of emphasis and degree. 

Still, we reiterate what we said above: religion is that part of the human experience whose beliefs and practices rely significantly on faith, grace, authority, or revelation. Philosophy gives little, if any, place to these parts of human experience. While religion generally stresses faith and trust, philosophy honors reason and doubt.

Distinguishing philosophy from science is equally difficult because many of the questions vital to philosophers—like the cause and origin of the universe or a conception of human nature—increasingly have been taken over by cosmologists, astrophysicists, and biologists. Perhaps methodology best distinguishes the two, since philosophy relies on argument and analysis rather than empirical observation and experiment. In this way, philosophy resembles theoretical mathematics more than the natural sciences. Still, philosophers utilize evidence derived from the sciences to reformulate their theories.

Remember also that, until the nineteenth century, virtually every prominent philosopher in the history of western civilization was either a scientist or mathematician. In general, we contend that science explores areas where a generally acceptable body of information and methodology directs research involved with unanswered scientific questions. Philosophers explore philosophical questions without a generally acceptable body of information.

Philosophical analysis also ponders the future relationship between these domains. Since the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, science has increasingly expropriated territory once the exclusive province of both philosophy and religion. 

Will the relentless march of science continue to fill the gaps in human knowledge, leaving less room for the poetic, the mystical, the religious, and the philosophical? Will religion and philosophy be archaic, antiquated, obsolete, and outdated? Or will there always be questions of meaning and purposes that can never be grasped by science? 

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the twentieth-century’s greatest philosophers, elucidated the relationship between these three domains like this: “All definite knowledge … belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a no man’s land, exposed to attack from both sides; this no man’s land is philosophy.”

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


In my opinion, unlike science, religion is not primarily about epistemology. It is not even primarily about ethics. Effectively, religion is primarily about esthetics, particularly communal strenuous esthetics. When we try to use or understand religion as epistemology (or science as esthetics), we create more problems than we solve.

Often the same thing can be re-categorized as philosophy, or science, or religion, depending on slight differences in formulation or emphasis.

I recently read a story about a terrorist who escaped detention due to a jurisdictional fight between different government agencies. As a citizen, I don’t give a damn about who detains him, I just want him detained.

Similarly, jurisdictional fights between philosophy, science, and religion, can block progress.

Call them whatever you like, but give me good ideas!

Hmm, I’d go with Penrose’s discussion of meta-physics in ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ here.  He talked about ‘3 worlds’ - the worlds were (1) Mathematical/Logical, (2) Mental, (3) Physical.  Roughly speaking, the demarcation between philosophy, religion and science is based on which of the ‘3 worlds’ is under discussion.

Science has mainly been concerned with the physical world and emphasizes empirical testing.  It asks ‘how do things work and what are they made of?’

Religion has mainly been concerned with the mental world, and emphasizes the social and emotional aspects.  It asks ‘how best should we live our lives?’

Philosophy has mainly been concerned with the mathematical/logical world, and emphasizes the use of reason to investigate the structure of knowledge.  It asks ‘how does all knowledge fit together into a coherent whole?’

But the fact is, you can’t really seperate them out this cleanly, and there is definitely some overlap.  I’d say that philosphy is the most general of the three, but any true ‘theory of everything’ will unavoidably have to incorporate all three elements.


I had the misfortune in doing a semester of philosophy at uni and found it was anything but reasonable or logical. It was obsessed with ideology. The false premise that the Greeks were everything [not] and everybody else didn’t matter [wrong again]. That science began in the UK [wrong again] and that civilization is due to thanks to the Brits. And this is not even in the UK. That is the ideology out of the way now for unreason: logic. One had to accept illogical premises to come to pre-conceived conclusions and if one failed in this -by being philosophical in pointing out the illogical propositions of the proposition then one failed the exercise. Luckily I was good at cheating [that is using logic] to pass [just] their illogical logic. Apparently Goedell was never heard of. Or non 3D Riemanian space. Philosophy is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

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