Is Stoicism a Religion?

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Is Stoicism a religion? It really depends on what you mean by religion.  But if you ask a person who takes Stoicism seriously as a philosophy, they’ll probably get indignant and be like, “Stoicism is not a religion! It’s a philosophy!” And they’ll be ironically quite religiously zealous about that fact. 

Religion to many in the West is tainted by the existence of monotheistic religions that tell you that you have to believe in their deity and that belief in their deity, by itself, is actually a virtue.  So even though you could probably find a sociological definition of religion that is so wide that Stoicism could fit in it, just like the Super Bowl with all of it rituals could, it’s not practical to say that Stoicism is a religion. 

Stoicism is a philosophy and, like a religion, it does have tenets that if violated won’t put you in hell, but will prevent you from being a Stoic. Let me give you an example of Stoic beliefs that one must basically have to be a Stoic.  You must believe that virtue is the only good.  Does this mean that if you don’t believe this, then you’re a bad guy?  No, of course not.  I mean, according to Stoicism everyone is bad except for the Sage.  But if you don’t at least believe that virtue is the only good, then you can’t really call yourself a Stoic.  I mean, you can if you want to but you’re not a Stoic in the sense that Chrysippus or Zeno was a Stoic.  Since it’s America, or some other free country, you can call yourself a Stoic even if you’re wrong. No offense. 

If you have successfully made the case that Stoicism is a religion by now, good for you.  But it’s not going to be a very convincing religion when you consider the next tenet of Stoicism:  virtue is sufficient for happiness. This is by far the hardest thing to swallow and makes people want to avoid Stoicism as a belief system.  Some Stoics avoid the word happiness and simply use the word eudaimonia. But I think the word happiness, like the word love, is so gigantic in English that it encompasses the word eudaimonia, translated as the good daemon or good spirit.  That’s why sometimes you see the phrase eudaimonic happiness, which is specifying the kind of happiness.  Eudaimonic happiness is simply the kind of rational happiness a virtuous person would have, the kind of happiness one would have when they’re not disturbed (in a state of apatheia).  Eudaimonic happiness is everlasting unlike hedonic happiness, which comes and goes like the tides of the seas.  But to me, this suggests why most people have a problem with thinking of Stoicism as a religion.  The monotheistic religions promise you an afterlife and rely on rewards in the afterlife.  But Stoicism is saying something radically different than these religions by making one’s reward in the here and now and not promising an afterlife.  Stoicism is saying, counterintuitively, that if you can be a good person in the here and now, then you can be happy.  And that doesn’t mean the kind of happiness where you’re like, “Oh I’m having an orgasm right now!”  It’s the happiness that you have when you feel calm while all of your friends are losing their minds because your house is on fire.  It’s the inner calm.  It’s like you’re always in the eye of the hurricane, while those around you turbulently orbit you.

So I think Stoicism could be called a religion and there’s a pretty good case for making that claim. But I wouldn’t call it a religion because Stoicism makes no promise of an afterlife, since an afterlife can’t be guaranteed. And for that reason, I call it a philosophy.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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