Debates about religion in the West tend to center around the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, it is important to note that these three religions are not necessarily typical or representative of religion in general.
In fact, there are many different types of religion, but for purposes of simplicity I would like to divide the religions of the world into two types: revealed religion and philosophical religion. These two categories are not exclusive, and many religions overlap both categories, but I think it is a useful conceptual divide.
“Revealed religion” has been defined as a “religion based on the revelation by God to man of ideas that he would not have arrived at by his natural reason alone.” The three monotheistic religions all belong in this category, though there are philosophers and elements of philosophy in these religions as well. Most debates about religion and science, or religion and reason, assume that all religions are revealed religions. However, there is another type of religion: philosophical religion.
Philosophical religion can be defined as a set of religious beliefs that are arrived at primarily through reason and dialogue among philosophers. The founders of philosophical religion put forth ideas on the basis that these ideas are human creations accessible to all and subject to discussion and debate like any other idea. These religions are found in the far east, and include Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism. However, there are also philosophical religions in the West, such as Platonism or Stoicism, and there have been numerous philosophers who have constructed philosophical interpretations of the three monotheistic religions as well.
There are a number of crucial distinguishing characteristics that separate revealed religion from philosophical religion.
Revealed religion originates in a single prophet, who claims to have direct communication with God. Even when historical research indicates multiple people playing a role in founding a revealed religion, as well as the borrowing of concepts from other religions, the tradition and practice of revealed religion generally insists upon the unique role of a prophet who is usually regarded as infallible or close to infallible — Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad. Revealed religion also insists on the existence of God, often defined as a personal, supreme being who has the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence. (It may seem obvious to many that all religions are about God, but that is not the case, as will be discussed below.)
Faith is central to revealed religion. Rational argument and evidence may be used to convince others of the merits of a revealed religion, but ultimately there are too many fundamental beliefs in a revealed religion that are either non-demonstrable or contradictory to evidence from science, history, and archeology. Faith may be used positively, as an aid to making a decision in the absence of clear evidence, so that one does not sustain loss from despair and a paralysis of will; however, faith may also be used negatively, to deny or ignore findings from other fields of knowledge.
The problems with revealed religion are widely known: these religions are prone to a high degree of superstition and many followers embrace anti-scientific attitudes when the conclusions of science refute or contradict the beliefs of revealed religion. (This is a tendency, not a rule — for example, many believers in revealed religion do not regard a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story as central to their beliefs, and they fully accept the theory of evolution.) Worse, revealed religions appear to be prone to intolerance, oppression of non-believers and heretics, and bloody religious wars. It seems most likely that this intolerance is the result of a belief system that sees a single prophet as having a unique, infallible relationship to God, with all other religions being in error because they lack this relationship.
Philosophical religion, by contrast, emerges from a philosopher or philosophers engaging in dialogue. In the West, this role was played by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, before their views were eclipsed by the rise of the revealed religion of Christianity. In the East, philosophers were much more successful in establishing great religions. In China, Confucius established a system of beliefs about morals and righteous behavior that influenced an entire empire, while Lao Tzu proposed that a mysterious power known as the “Tao” was the source and driving force behind everything. In India, Hinduism originated as a diverse collection of beliefs by various philosophers, with some unifying themes, but no single creed.
As might be expected, philosophical religions have tended to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan than revealed religions. Neither Greek nor Roman philosophers were inclined to kill each other over the finer points of Plato’s conception of God or the various schools of Stoicism, because no one ever claimed to have an infallible relationship with an omnipotent being. In China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not regarded as incompatible, and many Chinese subscribe to elements of two or all three belief systems. It is rare to ever see a religious war between adherents of philosophical religions. And although many people automatically equate religion with faith, there is usually little or no role for faith in philosophical religions.
The role of God in philosophical religions is very different from the role of God in revealed religions. Most philosophers, in east and west, defined God in impersonal terms, or proposed a God that was not omnipotent, or regarded a Creator God as unimportant to their belief system. For example, Plato proposed that a secondary God known as a “demiurge” was responsible for creating the universe; the demiurge was not omnipotent, and was forced to create a less-than-perfect universe out of the imperfect materials he was given. The Stoics did not subscribe to a personal God and instead proposed that a divine fire pervaded the universe, acting on matter to bring all things into accordance with reason. Confucius, while not explicitly rejecting the possibility of God, did not discuss God in any detail, and had no role for divine powers in his teachings. The Tao of Lao Tzu is regarded as a mysterious power underlying all things, but it is certainly not a personal being. Finally, the concept of a Creator God is not central to Hinduism; in fact one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism is explicitly atheistic, and has been for over two thousand years.
There are many virtues to philosophical religion. While philosophical religion is not immune to the problem of incorrect conceptions and superstition, it does not resist reason and science, nor does it attempt to stamp out challenges to its claims to the same extent as revealed religions. Philosophical religion is largely tolerant and reasonable.
However, there is also something arid and unsatisfying about many philosophical religions. The claims of philosophical religion are usually modest, and philosophical religion has cool reason on its side. But philosophical religion often does not have the emotional and imaginative content of revealed religion, and in these ways it is lacking. The emotional swings and imaginative leaps of revealed religion can be dangerous, but emotion and imagination are also essential to full knowledge and understanding (see here and here). One cannot properly assign values to things and develop the right course of action without the emotions of love, joy, fear, anger, and sadness. Without imagination, it is not possible to envision better ways of living. When confronted with mystery, a leap of faith may be justified, or even required.
Abstractly, I have a great appreciation for philosophical religion, but in practice, I prefer Christianity. I have the greatest admiration for the love of Christ, and I believe in Christian love as a guide for living. At the same time, my Christianity is unorthodox and leavened with a generous amount of philosophy. I question various doctrinal points of Christianity, I believe in evolution, and I don’t believe in miracles that violate the physical laws that have been discovered by science. I think it would do the world good if revealed religions and philosophical religions recognized and borrowed each other’s virtues.