Philosophy of Religion – Symbols, Beliefs, and Values


Religion is more than just an inner state; it is also a system of symbols, practices, and social organization. Religious symbols are usually derived from the objects of sense perception, but are often reworked by people who experience them emotionally or rationally. Such transformations can result in symbols that are abstract, simplified, and focused on a single object or event. Symbols and pictures are then used in the religious world to express beliefs, feelings, and values and to organize social groups.

Symbolic interactionists, such as Rudolf Otto and Talal Asad, argue that religious experiences include a wide range of emotions and activities. They may involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, and a sense of oneness with those around you. For Otto, this experience of the numinous is the heart of religion.

Functionalists, such as Emile Durkheim, emphasize the function of religion in a society. According to them, any group of beliefs and practices that unites members of a society into a moral community can be considered a religion.

Some philosophers are critical of functional approaches to religion, arguing that they have no defining characteristics. It is even possible to use a computer program to sort bacteria according to their properties, and yet still have some that seem similar to humans. These critics want to see the category of religion viewed as more of a family resemblance concept than a functionally distinct kind of form.