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What is the Difference Between Religion and Philosophy?

Yoga | Yoga for Beginners

This question is a daily topic on my mind as a yoga teacher, because I often face the question: is yoga a religion? Sometimes I turn to the person and ask back: would you like it to be? Or do you prefer if it wasn’t? These are the most fascinating conversations a practitioner can have.

The word “religion” is extremely loaded in our society. Similar to words like race, freedom, money, and sex. We avoid them as if they don’t even exist or matter, but the truth is: they are the most important topics in our life. The driving forces behind everything we do.

So let us think a little bit together and converse about this aspect of yoga. Is it a religion? Or is it a philosophy? And what is the difference after all?

Here are three main differences between these two ways of thinking:

1. Belief vs. Examination

The human brain was designed to be a sorting machine, just like a computer. Information comes in and we sort it. Right away. YES, NO. AGREED, DISAGREED. This is a highly beneficial function; it supports our survival. All religious ideas use this very well, by simply laying down rules.

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By joining a religion we don’t need to think too hard. The rules are written, they are clear. If we just follow and play by the rules, the reward must be waiting at the end.

The first and most challenging step philosophers take is to commit to a different way of thinking. By slowing down the mechanism of continuous and automated “sorting,” they commit to being neutral. Instead of judging and labeling everything, they put ideas into the “neutral” box for later examination. “Time will tell if this works or not.”

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The reason why they don’t take sides right away is the simple truth that the “object” we think about, talk about, or wish to examine is something no one can really know for sure. And knowing that no one knows for sure is more important than being right. God, nature, human emotions, life after death, etc.

If there is no proof, why the hurry to know? How could we know for sure? That would be belief, which is great, but it’s not the way of philosophy.

2. The Spoken Word

Religious knowledge is based on the written word. Books like the Bible, the Koran, etc. Different people translate things differently, but at the end you can sit down and read what is clearly explained. It’s great.

The father of philosophy, Socrates, never wrote down a single word. Everything we know about him we know from his disciples and other people around him who took notes of his words. He was the greatest thinker of his time, and perhaps still is. He believed and often said that the spoken word has power; once you write it down it’s half dead.

The ancient teachers of yoga taught solely in person. Nothing written, but everything taught by words, practice, and experience.

3. Responsibility

In most religious teachings not only is it discouraged to make our own choices, but not even an option. Remember, as long as we follow the way, they will take care of us. We are safe. If we move out of this box, they cannot take responsibility for us anymore.

Philosophy asks bold and dangerous questions: what do you think about this? Do you have any opinion? Have you tried this? What is your result? What do you know for sure? Can you take responsibility for it?

There are more questions than answers at first, but the answers we find will be ours alone.

In my opinion, the way to true happiness is walking the path of spirituality as well as fulfilling our bodily, emotional, and mental needs.~Orsi Foldesi

There are many ways to do this, and no way is better than another. I believe that all religions lead to the same God, and all philosophy concludes human goodness. But that is just my belief.

It seems there is a really fine line between religion and philosophy, and maybe it depends on us which category we choose. I hope we choose well and enjoy the ride. I’m on the journey with you and therefore I’m grateful.

So what do you think? Is yoga a religion? Or is it a philosophy?

Title Image Credit: Erin Wallis

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