On the difference between religions and philosophies

Olympian ZeusIs (or was) Stoicism a religion? I would say no, because there are substantive differences (though there is also overlap) between religions and philosophies, and Stoicism was (and is) primarily a philosophy. It is certainly the case that Stoics can be religious or not — this sort of ecumenicism is one of the main reasons I like Stoicism. It is also true that most if not all the ancient Stoics believed in a god, though they embraced a materialist, pantheistic conception of the divinity, something that moderns can somewhat easily accommodate in the guise of Spinoza’s (sometimes referred to also as Einstein’s) God.

But it wasn’t sophisticated philosophical arguments that recently reinforced in my mind the distinction between religion and philosophy. It was, rather, the simple art of traveling and paying attention to what you see around you.

I have spent four months during the Spring in Rome, writing my forthcoming book, not at all by chance entitled “How to Be a Stoic” (out for Basic Books in April of ’17 or thereabouts). I also then took a side trip to Turkey, part work, part vacation, and ended up in the middle of a coup d’etat. Two episodes during this period are germane to this discussion: seeing the (alleged) chains that bound Saint Peter in Jerusalem and Rome, and admiring a tooth and hairs from the beard of the Profet Muhammad in Instanbul.

Let’s begin with Rome, where my apartment was near the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but also not far from an unassuming church that contains two major historical and artistic pieces worth seeing. First, San Pietro in Vincoli (literally Saint Peter in Chains) houses a reliquary with the famous chains:

Saint Peter chains

Nobody knows whether the chains are really that old, and much less so if they actually held Peter at any time. I’m pretty sure that the miraculous story of how the chains fused together is not true. According to legend, the empress Elia Eudocia (V Century CE) received one set of chains from the patriarch of Jerusalem. She sent them to her daughter, who in turn gave them to Pope Leone Magno. The Pope already had the similar chains that had allegedly held the Saint when in captivity in Rome. When the two sets were brought near each other, they suddenly and miraculously merged into the single chain we see today.

Ever since, pious Christians come to San Pietro in Vincoli to see the chains, which to them certify a supernatural occurrence that reinforces their faith.

Compare this to the very different second reason to visit the church: the Moses sculpted by Michelangelo in 1513-15, part of the sepulcher of another Pope, Julius II:

Michelangelo's Moses

People (including, during my stay in Rome, yours truly, several times) go to see the statue not because of its religious meaning (Julius was an interesting Pope, but certainly not worthy of eternal worship — he was justly called the “fearsome” and the “warrior” Pope), but in admiration of the immortal art of Michelangelo.

(Did you notice the two “horns” on Mose’s head? They are apparently the result of a translation error: Exodus tells the story of Moses returning from Mount Sinai with the Commandments for the second time. The phrase “his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord” was translated in Latin by using the word for actual horns, rather than the original Hebrew term “karan,” which means something like shining, or emitting rays, but is similar to “karen,” which actually does mean horns. Talk about being lost in translation!)

So here I was, a non religious person more or less regularly coming to visit the church, not for the reliquary (which I saw once), but for the art.

What does that have to do with philosophy, and Stoicism in particular? Well, that brings me to the second story: my visit to Topkapi Palace. Inside the palace one finds the Chamber of the Sacred Relics. If you visit it, you will see the cloak of the prophet Muhammad, his sword, one tooth, a hair of his beard, his battle sabres, an autographed letter and other relics that are known as the Sacred Trusts.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace, photo by author

Entrance to Topkapi Palace, photo by the author

Quite obviously, lots of people visit the chamber in Topkapi as tourists, like I did, but a good number go there as worshippers of the faith began by Muhammad.

Again, compare this to a very different sort of pilgrimage, which I had just done a few days earlier, to modern day Pamukkale, in Turkey. That’s the site of ancient Heirapolis, where Epictetus was born. I walked through the gate of the city (the standing wall is Byzantine, though, not Roman), and visited the splendid theater where Epictetus probably never set foot, since he was a young slave there, before being bought by a better master and moved to Nero’s court in Rome.

The author, walking through the city gate at Hierapolis

The author, walking through the city gate at Hierapolis

I did not go to Hierapolis because I worship Epictetus, or because I have developed a religious feeling for Stoicism. I went there out of curiosity for Greco-Roman history, as well as out of reverence for an intellectual giant that has influenced me personally. And that, it struck me, is the most important difference between a religion and a philosophy.

Religions, of course, incorporate their own philosophies, meaning that Christianity, or Islam, do present their practitioners with philosophical precepts, both in terms of metaphysics and, of course, in terms of ethics. But the worship of a transcendental entity of some sort is a crucial component, without which we wouldn’t recognize them as religions (which is why, for instance, some versions of Buddhism cannot be labeled as such).

When I visited Hierapolis I was in awe of the ancient site, being mindful that Epictetus walked along those streets when he was young. And I did meditate on several passages of the Discourses during my trip. But I don’t think of Epictetus as anything more than a really interesting man. As much as he was famously proud of his philosopher’s beard (Dis courses I.2), I would think it very odd if someone set up a museum featuring some remaining hairs from that beard.

More importantly, I am ready to argue with Epictetus, and Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, Seneca, Marcus, and all the others, because I think they were wrong on this or that. Epictetus leaned too far toward the Cynic spectrum of things, for example, and Seneca’s sexism is downright insufferable, even though it wasn’t at all uncommon at the time. I can do that in good conscience because I am a human being capable of reasoning for myself — and because I don’t think of them as gods to be worshiped.

42 thoughts on “On the difference between religions and philosophies

  1. 3dbloke

    As hinted in the closing paragraph, the words and thoughts of the early Stoics are not sacred and unquestionable. There are no penalties or threats to be suffered for disagreeing and failing to observe Stoic practices, other than perhaps slowing our progress toward sage-hood.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paul Braterman

    St Peter’s chains are allegedly the product of a miracle, and will have a special significance to those who believe that it happened. But I am not sure that going to see them is all that different from going to see the site of an important scientific discovery. Muhammad, of course, is not worshipped, so visiting his relics seems me completely analogous to your visiting sites because of their philosophical associations. I am not sure that the feelings aroused in a Muslim by the sight of Muhammad’s sword are all that different from what you would feel if you could see Epictetus’s stylus.

    The difference between religions and philosophies lies elsewhere, and is shown perhaps by the fact that religious believers readily accept, and may indeed consider it virtuous to accept, stories such as the one of the fusing of the chains on grossly inadequate evidence.


  3. jbonnicerenoreg

    “paying attention to what you see around you”. If the basis of your distinction is personal experience then your experience is that of a secular philosopher. It is not religious or mystical experience. I think this makes a difference.


  4. Massimo Post author

    Paul, jbonnicerenoreg,

    Good points. However, regarding Muhammed, I saw how a number of the Muslims standing in front of the reliquies reacted, and it looks an awful lot to me like veneration, if not worship. Definitely different from my reaction to Michelangelo or Epictetus.

    Indeed, superstition is part of what is at play here, but frankly I don’t think it’s a major part. There are plenty of religious people who reject the idea of miracles, for instance.

    Yes, my personal experience is biased by my own experiences, philosophical positions, and so forth. But that was just what prompted the initial observations, not the basis of the difference I am suggesting exists between religions and philosophies. The perception of that difference comes from what I hope is reasoned discourse on my part.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ali Sattar

    imho, there is functionally no difference between a “secular” veneration for certain people and ideas and a “religious” one — both are ultimately sociologically rooted. You have your beliefs because of the very specific experiences you have had — even though you may like to think of every one of your beliefs as the hard-won result of independent Reason, Objectivity, etc. No one stands outside of and apart from time and space.

    Relatedly: “religious” people are free to disagree with the fundamental tenets of their respective faiths, and do so all the time in their daily lives. They freely — and often — choose to ignore or substantially alter “core” elements of their beliefs. They just don’t make a big deal out of it because, frankly, it’s not A Big Deal.

    I feel like the idea that people are slavishly beholden to An Old Book is a very narrow and limited understanding of the actual experience and practice of “religion.”


  6. aweavermc


    Can you help with a query please? As sacredness is very important for many religious worshippers and of course this opens up the debate – is it made or found – did the Stoics recognise “sacredness”? I know I should go and study my many Stoic textbooks but you probably have this knowledge close at hand.
    Thank you.


  7. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, it IS veneration. Sunnis don’t like to admit it, especially, because of their condemnation of Shi’ites for the veneration of various saints, but it’s veneration.

    And, given strict Muslim prohibitions on images, it’s arguably hypocritical.


  8. Massimo Post author


    Forgive me, but I think the idea of a secular veneration sounds to me like an oxymoron. I admire Epictetus, I do not venerate nor worship him.

    I also never pretended to have access to universal reason, objectivity, etc.. Those expressed here are my reasoned opinions, nothing else.

    Religious people *do* in practice deviate from the official teachings of their religion, but it is not the case that there is no problem there. If one disagrees with the dictates of a god one does so at his own peril. If I disagree with Epictetus nothing follows from it.

    And I wish you were correct about the Old Book view of religion being outdated. Both in the US and in the Middle East, and in Africa, and elsewhere, there are still far too many people who not only follow The Book, but wish to impose it on others, sometimes violently. I can hardly imagine a Stoic Crusade or Jihad.


    That’s a good question. I don’t think the Stoics held anything to be “sacred” in the sense, say, in which Christians do. But most of the ancient Stoics did believe in the Logos = Reason = God = Universal Causation, and would have thought it strange, indeed foolish, not to respect its workings.


  9. Paul Braterman

    Massimo, I think there is still a real difference about philosophical and religious attitudes to belief, superstition aside. in most (all?) philosophies, it is considered virtuous to test the philosophy according to principles of reason, and be open, in principle at least, to amending man’s philosophy; the same kind of fallibilism as is ideally adopted by scientists. In most (all?) religions, there are key beliefs, such as the belief in a good and powerful creator God, which it is regarded as sinful to reject; some religious traditions, such as Catholicism, embrace rational scrutiny, but only as long as it comes up with the right answer.


  10. Nanocyborgasm

    It’s common to accuse any idea as a religion by the religious. It makes it easier to dismiss because the accuser can claim that it’s just another form of faith, and therefore another form of taste, like vanilla or chocolate ice cream. They quickly forget that their own faith is just a mere preference also by this argument, and can also be likewise dismissed.


  11. Robin Luethe

    Massimo defines how religious people define and practice their faith does not necessarily square how many religious believers do in fact define and practice.


  12. Massimo Post author


    Yes, I completely agree with your take on this. It certainly isn’t just an issue of superstition, it’s one of epistemology and/vs faith.


    Broadly speaking, you are right, but I’m not sure how your comment applies to what I wrote. Are you saying that I’m actually practicing a religion of Stoicism without realizing it?


    I think that’s an unfair criticism. First off, I was a religious believe myself, and I know a lot of religious people, so I’m not just making things up here.

    Second, I’m not “defining” anything, I’m simply providing my opinion based on reason and observation. It ain’t the truth, and it can be challenged (via reason and observation).


  13. synred

    “some religious traditions, such as Catholicism, embrace rational scrutiny, but only as long as it comes up with the right answer.”

    Yep, which is how the Jesuits mange to crank out so many atheist…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Nanocyborgasm


    No, I’m saying that that accusation, that Stoicism is but another religion, is something religious people use, whether valid or not. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion. You shouldn’t have to explain this to anyone but the most dishonest apologists.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Marco Barbieri

    This post and its discussion are very interesting. I agree on the differences between religions and philosophies, but I would like to share my point of view, as a catholic (only from recent times, to be honest).

    Religion and reason are not enemies, and personally i can say that religion helped me broaden my mind towards new perspectives and possibilities; of course, religion can be used in a bad way, but I find it very simplistic to affirm that without religion we’d live in a better world (not that somebody here said so, but I’ve heard that a lot). Bad interpretations of philosophy and other forms of thought can lead to violent actions as well.
    Taking the example of the Ancient Testament, the “correct” believer would read it and take some teaching, but not without having reflected on it before: and he would be allowed to act in such way because it is a book inspired by God (I, as a catholic, believe so) but written by men, which means it necessarily contain mistakes and imperfections.
    As a believer, I think it’s my duty as God created me with reason to use it, not the contrary. And since religion has metaphysical contents but it also is a product of society, I have the right and the duty to keep a prudent attitude towards it.

    One last thought. Metaphysics can’t be eliminated. Or maybe it can, but it would be harmful. Metaphysics is everywhere: not only in religion, but in the concepts of justice (what is wrong and what is right? Is there a moral law within us?) and art (where does the concept of beauty and sublime come from?) for istance. Trying to take metaphysics away means trying to reduce man to a mere machine, with his feelings and sensations purely explained with physical and biological arguments (es., nervous processes, ecc. ecc.). Do you really like this perspective? .

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Massimo Post author

    Hi Marco,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I definitely agree that one can be a religious and thinking person at the same time! Indeed, as I have written repeatedly, one of the best features of Stoicism is that it is a broadly ecumenical philosophy, which can be adopted by both believers of different faiths and by agnostics and atheists.

    As for metaphysics, right, I don’t think it can be eliminated, it just needs to be interpreted to the best of our knowledge. The Stoics did have a metaphysics, which was materialist in kind, in the sense that for them even God was part and parcel of the universe. And of course there are other possible models.


  17. synred


    Trying to take metaphysics away means trying to reduce man to a mere machine, with his feelings and sensations purely explained with physical and biological arguments (es., nervous processes, ecc. ecc.). Do you really like this perspective

    Are you using ‘metaphysics’ in the sense of ‘spirts’. I don’t think that generally how the term is meant by philosophers. Rather ‘meta-physics’ is about physics when Aristotle or someone like that discusses it. Like ‘meta-logic’ or ‘meta-math’.


  18. Marco Barbieri


    I use the term “metaphysics” simply as “beyond physics”, therefore beyond the sensible experience of the world and the things. My knowledge of the history of philosophy is very superficial (totally absent for a large number of fundamental philosophers) at the moment, so I can’t afford to be very precise on terminology. Not yet : ))


  19. Massimo Post author

    Metaphysics literally means “beyond” physics. Originally in the sense that Aristotle wrote *those* books after he wrote the ones on physics.

    Nowadays metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to make sense of how things “hangs together,” so to speak. Obviously, with a great deal of input from physics, but also biology and the social sciences.

    In a sense, many contemporary metaphysicians are trying to reconcile what some refer to as the manifest image (i.e., the world as it appears to us) and the scientific image (i.e., the world as science tells us it is).

    Liked by 1 person

  20. synred

    Thanks, Massimo. That is really clear. Marc’s use of the term seems quite reasonable then, my understanding was rather parochial.


  21. Eric Steinhart

    It’s an interesting question whether Stoicism was and is a religion, and it’s a matter of more than a little scholarly debate. But I doubt that any religious studies scholar would agree that being a religion requires “the worship of a transcendental entity of some sort”. If that’s true, then probably the only religions are the Abrahamic faiths. But why think that the Abrahamic faiths are the only religions? Or that they provide the standard for being a religion? It’s easy to give a long list of things that people have called religions but that don’t involve the worship of a transcendental entity of some sort (the key words being “transcendental” and “worship”). That list would indeed include Buddhism, but also Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Native American and African Traditional religions,many types of Hinduism, and many recent neopaganisms. The fact that Stoicism isn’t an Abrahamic faith hardly implies that it’s not a religion.

    But Stoicism certainly is religious, and it’s easy to give a long list of reasons why it’s religious. There’s no need to give that list here. The only question is what that means to us today. Stoicism isn’t just cognitive behavioral therapy. It never was a purely secular system in the modern sense of “secular”. Why shouldn’t Stoicism be classified as a religion? Stoicism can provide a very different (non-Abrahamic) standard for religion. In the US, it could be very helpful, as it would provide Stoics with many legal benefits.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Massimo Post author


    I’m going to respectfully disagree with a number of your points. First, several of the religions you mentioned do engage in worshiping of transcendental entities, it’s just that those entities do not take the form of a single God. Animistic religions, such as African and Native American ones, clearly worship transcendental “entities.” Even some form of Buddhism do.

    When they don’t, then they are either forms of mysticism, or philosophy — as in the case of Confucianism, or Secular Buddhism.

    I’d like to hear your long list of reasons why Stoicism was a religion. Before coming to the US, growing up in Italy where I studied philosophy in high school, I never heard of anyone thinking that Stoicism was anything other than a philosophy.

    What the US needs, in my mind, is an ecumenical philosophy of life, which can accommodate both religious and secular metaphysics without being distracted by metaphysical debates that are, ultimately, irrelevant to the practic of virtue and the conduct of one’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Eric Steinhart

    Terms like “transcendental” and “worship” have pretty specific meanings in both religious studies and philosophy of religion. And most folks in those disciplines aren’t going to agree with you at all. Those concepts are almost always associated only with the Abrahamic faiths. (A god or goddess, orixa, kami, or spirit, acting wholly within the world is not transcendental; nor do all practices concerning those entities constitute worship.) But this might just be an academic debate.

    Gisela Striker, in “Following Nature: A Study in Stoic Ethics” argues that “the foundations of Stoic ethics are to be sought, as Chrysippus said, in cosmology or theology, and not in human psychology” (p 13). Bauer did a Masters Thesis arguing that Stoicism is a religion. Jedan has an excellent book Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics. Algra has a nice essay “Stoic philosophical theology and Graeco-Roman religion”. And this short list can be expanded.

    Why think ancient Stoicism was a religion? It certainly had a sophisticated theology at its core, including the earliest design arguments, degrees of perfection arguments, and something close even to Anselm’s ontological argument. It had a Capital-G cosmic God and embraced gods and goddesses. It had hymns and prayers. It defines ways humans relate to the gods (mimesis and theosis). It has practices (askesis). And it was arguably fitted into Greco-Roman religious culture (though I’m no classicist, so I have to take that claim from others). None of this is Abrahamic, which is precisely what makes it religiously valuable. For instance, the Stoic concept of petitionary prayer is a fascinating way of thinking about such prayer.

    I agree entirely with you that Stoicism can be developed today in both religious and secular ways. But I won’t agree that the metaphysical debates are “irrelevant to the practice of virtue and the conduct of one’s life”. One of the brilliant things about Stoicism, which differentiates it from mere psycho-therapy, is that it does ground the practice of virtue and the conduct of life in a metaphysical system. Stoicism, to say it again, isn’t just cognitive behavioral therapy (or REBT or ACT therapy etc.). It goes far deeper than they do.

    I think the best question is whether Stoicism ought to be developed religiously in the US. There are serious questions here about First Amendment rights and legal classification as religion.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Massimo Post author


    Again, you make good points in terms of the diversity of concepts of religion. But it remains a fact that any entity not grounded in the physical is reasonably considered transcendental, and that the Stoics did not believe in any such entity. I also insist in maintaining that if there is no worshiping, at the least in a broad sense, of such an entity, one cannot sensibly speak of religion. The fact that some philosophers of religion do is, I think, unfortunate.

    Take Ethical Culture, for instance. They consider themselves, officially, a religion, But even their members are uncomfortable with such a definition. Why? Because they don’t worship any transcendental entity.

    At a very minimum, my contention was that worshiping transcendental entities is far more widespread than just the Abrahamic religions, and I think this is a fact.

    As for Stoicism, I know the literature and the arguments, and I find them largely unconvincing. Yes, the Stoics believed in a god, and “providence” played a major role in their metaphysical system. But:

    I) that God was material and diffuse in the universe, analogous to Spinoza’s or Einstein’s “God.”

    II) it was not worshiped, despite the poetic bit known as Cleanthes hymn to God, which is the only example of a Stoic “prayer” I can think of — and compare that to Zeno’s writing, in his Republic, that religion would not be allowed in his ideal state.

    III) Stoicism is always taught in philosophy, not comparative religion, classes, we ought to give us a hint.

    That said, I didn’t mean to suggest that metaphysics is irrelevant to ethics, I should have said that it significantly underdetermined it, so that one can — as plenty of people have done — interpret the Logos as a personal, Abrahim-type, God; or as immanent in the universe, pantheist-style; or as simply the fact that the cosmos are organized in a way that makes it possible for creatures capable of reason to understand reality, at the least to some extent.

    Finally, as I already explained, I don’t think the US needs another religion, so I reject the notion that Stoicism ought to be re-developed along those lines. It is time for us all to grow up and move from religion to philosophy.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Eric Steinhart

    I think it would be prudent for you to be concerned about whether your claims about religion are going to be taken seriously by other scholars. On your definition that religion requires worshipping a transcendental entity, many groups in the US would lose legal rights. Your definition would be legally catastrophic, and your definition is exactly the one that many groups have legally fought against in the US in order to gain equal rights with Christians. You’d leave the Abrahamic religions as the only legally recognized religions.

    The legal rights granted to religions in the US are extremely valuable, including things like tax exemptions, the right to speak at public assemblies, the right to be excused from military service, the right to representation through counselors, the rights to perform weddings and other legal ceremonies, the right to representation in prisons and in the military, and this list goes on.

    Humanists and Atheists have fought hard for the same legal rights as Christians and other theists. They have consistently argued that protection under the First Amendment does not require belief in any God or worship of any transcendent entity. Given the proliferation of recent religious freedom acts at the state level (based on the Federal RFRA), securing these legal rights is even more important.

    Humanists recently won a lawsuit to allow humanism to be practiced in Federal prisons (American Humanist Assn v. United States, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154670). This allows humanists to form study groups, to have counselors, etc. It frees them from legally enforced Christianity. Pastafarians just lost a case (Cavanaugh v. Bartelt), in which the US District Judge Hon. John Gerrard ruled that a prisoner did not have the right to practice Pastafarianism because it is not a real religion. Much of Gerrard’s unfortunate ruling is based on a definition much like your own. Or consider the recent efforts of the Satanic Temple (an atheist group) to hold meetings on school properties, to put up their own statues besides 10 Commandment statues at statehouses. All of their efforts depend on their classification as a religion.

    The question concerning the religious status of Stoicism is not merely intellectual. It has real legal consequences. I think it would be beneficial for Stoics to have the same legal rights as Christians in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Massimo Post author


    I’m aware of all of that, but I think it is entirely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. I have counseled many times atheist and humanist groups not to go down that road. Yes, I know that officially recognize religious groups can claim more privileges than equivalent secular ones, but the way to redress that is not to turn secular humanism, atheism and the like into religions. It is, rather, to abolish the special status of religions and make them comparable to any like-minded group, regardless of transcendental beliefs or lack thereof, worship or not, and so forth.

    As for being taken seriously by other scholars, there are plenty who agree with both my position, and frankly I am not too concerned with what a small group of academics think, if I need to publicly disagree I will. It’s not like we are debating matters of facts, we are disagreeing on concepts and (arbitrary) definitions.

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