in Skepticism & Post-Faith

Idealist or realist? On religion

Religious, metaphysical, and ethical beliefs are greatly influenced by whether a person is predominantly an idealist or a realist.

This post contrasts idealists and realists and their worldviews, and aims to better understand ourselves and others, and to explore the impact that idealism and realism has on our thoughts and behaviors about religion, metaphysics, ethics and more.

It is important to clarify upfront that few people are pure idealists or realists. Most of us land somewhere between the two conceptual extremes of pure idealism or realism. We will examine this further below, but first let us define what we mean by idealist and realist.

Definitions: Idealist and Realist

First, let’s define Idealists and realists. Each have different perspectives; with idealists tending to focus on ‘what could be’, and realists focusing on ‘what actually is.’1

Idealists typically see the world, life, and people as moving towards some ideal or perfection. Realists, on the other hand, tend to see things in a more practical or actual “as is” view of the world or situation, and may be overly pessimistic.2

The Idealist-Realist / Realist-Idealist Continuum

Most people land somewhere between the two conceptual “pure” ends of idealist or realist. In other words, few people are pure idealists or pure realists but are a combination of the two to one degree or another. People tend to be either an idealist-realist or realist-idealist depending where the land on the continuum of idealism and realism: an idealist with stronger or weaker worldview of realism, or, a realist with stronger or weaker beliefs about idealism.


The Idealist-Realist Continuum graphic depicts, conceptually, that idealists and realists are actually a mix of both on a continuum. Both idealists and realists often hold religious or scientific-oriented beliefs. Some realists may adhere also to a weaker or stronger form of idealism that could include religious beliefs. While some idealists, on the other hand, may harbor beliefs that, for instance, science can help achieve world peace or human utopia. Most people are somewhere on a continuum between the two contrasts of pure idealist and pure realist.

Contrasting Idealists and Realists

Pure or strong idealists and realists are a stark contrast in terms of worldviews of religion, metaphysics, and ethics.

Idealists are often much more religion-friendly, and sympathetic to otherworldly ideas. Realists are often much more science-friendly, and tend towards a this-world emphasis.

Below is an itemized list3, gleaned from Dr. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, that contrasts idealist’s and realist’s beliefs about metaphysics, knowledge, human nature, religion, ethics, and liquor.

View of Idealist Realist
Metaphysics Supernature

(higher, superior realm, or realm of the spirits, gods, or goddesses)

Knowledge (epistemology4) Mysticism, revelation (direct communion with higher realm or god), faith, (occasionally “pure” reason) Integration of senses, reason, interaction with this world


Human nature Dualist

(spiritual and physical are two distinct substances, often in conflict with each other)

Badness: original sin


(mind and body ordinarily function together, no opposition between the two)

Tabularasa (born with blank slate) or some may argue born with original goodness

Religion Human is microcosm (lower) of macrocosm (higher) realm, distaste for natural lower/physical world

Born with predestined abilities/capacities [eg. Karma, original sin]Religionist: God didn’t make world according to strict laws but according to His/Her wishes and whims, a God who intervenes through miracles, answering prayers, god may be angry, punish, or destroy (Noah’s flood)

Born with unlimited moral and mental abilities/capacities (eg. tabularasa)

Religionist: God made an orderly world, nature just like scientists find. Not a whimsical god. Often is a more hands off kind of god (eg. there had to be some sort of Divine Being or Intelligence before the Big Bang)

Some may say it’s immoral to act on “faith”. God gave us our senses and reason to act in physical world. God doesn’t want us to be antagonistic toward science but use it to come to better understanding of His universe and to appreciate Him.

Nothing wrong with our bodies, God made mind and body. God wants us to enjoy our bodies and natural world.

Ethics Mind or spirit values (often disparagement or denial of physical body and sensual pleasures: food, money, sex)

Motivated primarily by duty and obligation (sacrifice of self for higher authority or duty, often for happiness in next life)

Mind and body values

Motivated primarily by pursuit of happiness in this life, living a flourishing life, liberty

Liquor Leads to weakening of body and morality (temptation to resist, exists in the world as a test of our character or from a bad force, eg. devil) Ben Franklin, religious realist: “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The contrast and continuum of idealists and realists may give insight into ourselves and others.

Most people are somewhere on the continuum between two extremes of pure idealist or pure realist. A person may, over time, flip from idealist to realist or vice versa. Case in point, I flipped.

I used to be a strong idealist, especially during the decades I was an ordained, meditating monk in the cloister of Self-Realization Fellowship. As a strong idealist, I devalued the natural, physical world and overemphasized the value of the higher or spiritual realms, beyond this world. True knowledge and wisdom supposedly came to me through intuition, meditation, and revelation from a guru, from Supernature or Divine Intelligence. During those days I never touched a drop of liquor and imagined pleasures of the flesh to be harmful, spiritually dangerous.

I used to be a strong idealist. Today, I am a strong realist and weak idealist. I believe that human flourishing arises from letting go of overly idealist beliefs and embracing nature, reason, and human experiences in this world. I am optimistic that we humans have the capacity to learn and develop, but am concerned that strong idealists put us at risk of danger by overemphasizing imaginary otherworlds.

Hopefully we humans can bridge the chasm between strong idealists and strong realists, rather than destroy each other and the planet. I could improve by being more patient when listening to some strong idealists, and watch that I don’t step into the dogma of a too strong realist.

Where are you on the idealist-realist continuum? Strong or weak idealist or realist? How can the contrasts be used to improve ourselves and others?

1 The DifferenceBetween website elaborates further on the “Difference Between Idealism and Realism”

2 A short video Is This Glass Half Empty?

offers insights from science about idealists, “glass as half full” types, who tend to be more optimistic. Whereas, realists who may see the “glass as half empty”, though not necessarily as a negative, may view situations as less optimistic or maybe even as pessimistic.

3 The list was gleaned from an excellent YouTube video series presented by Dr. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University. For Professor Hicks’ brief introduction to the Idealism and Realism watch Introduction: Contrasting Realist to Idealist Philosophy, Clip 1 To jump straight to the beginning of Professor Hicks’ white board discussion of contrasts between idealists and realists start with Clip 2.

4 epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is the study or philosophy of how we come to know or believe that which is important, true, and real of the world or the realm beyond us. Read Wikipedia Epistemology

Leave a Reply

  1. Scott,

    I like this post. I think these are the kinds of concepts that can get people to discuss their beliefs in productive ways.

    One point I find interesting and important: it’s possible to be an idealist in one part of the table you posted, and a realist in another. For example, it seems to me that Plato was a metaphysical idealist, but an epistemological realist: his ontology is based on his concept of the Forms and he believed knowledge is gained through reason. A similar claim could be made about the Buddhist analysis of causation in the 12 Nidanas or the Abhidharma mental model: emptiness being an idealized concept of what exists, and self-observation as a realist epistemic tool to understand that ideal ontology/metaphysic. Often, people are conceptual dalmatians, so to speak: we pick and choose different “isms” to use in different parts of our lives.

    You wrote a post about the phrase “I don’t know”, and I wonder what your thoughts are about how that phrase fits into this spectrum: it seems like this two-dimensional model requires a third axis to understand folks who don’t have an opinion that is neither idealist or realist.

    Thanks for writing,

  2. @My Other Feet/Greg:

    I agree. Plato’s philosophy was fundamentally idealist. His notion of supernormal-type knowledge comes through in his allegory of the cave, in The Republic. The protagonist goes outside of the dark cave, “sees the light”, and then goes back inside the dark cave to enlighten all the people limited by the darkness inside the cave. Plato also has a theory that humans had a corporeal “soul”. See my post Souls, Selves, and Afterlife Contradictions. Plato’s philosophy of soul is outlined briefly in several quotes.

    I’m not familiar with the Buddhist 12 Nidanas or the Abhidharma.

    I googled it and the concepts seem complicated, as most theology is. Underneath the Buddhist theory seems to be the notion that senses and mind (ordinary human perceptions) must be transcended to eliminate suffering, attain nirvana, become moral, like a buddha, etc. Seems to me this is fundamentally and strongly idealist philosophy, no?

    That’s my conclusion thus far with your suggestion of the Buddhist Nidanas. As far as “I don’t know” fitting in with my idealist-realist continuum theory I put forth in the post. I would be interested in knowing what you mean, if you can explain succinctly, in lay person’s terms.

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your feedback.

  3. Most of us tend to be rather complexly compartmentalized — we are superstitious for some things, and not others; highly emotional on some items but not on others. I think this fits for idealist vs. realist: depend if it is our view of family, love, politics, religion or any number of other things. I doubt it is a pervasive personality trait.

    This sort of touches on what “Other Foot” said too.

    Lastly, “Tabularasa (born with blank slate) or some may argue born with original goodness” — Many realists do not hold this at all. Have you read Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” — he was a Noam Chomsky student and you know Chomsky’s linguist opinion on that, don’t you.

    Anyway, fun categories, and as Other Foot states, useful to stir conversation perhaps, but to think of them as real categories would be a bit too idealistic! (smile) Once an idealist, always an idealist, eh?

    [your sources were fun too, thx]

  4. @Sabio: Good points. I developed my idealist/realist continuum theory to stimulate thinking and discussion about why many people may “lean” more or less either towards idealism or realism: especially on religion or morality concerns. I don’t take too much stock in personality tests. But they can be fun as one way of looking at various aspects of people or ourselves.

    Thanks for your comments

  5. Scott,
    I agree with you about Plato’s ontology: he believed there were other-worldly objects responsible for what we know and experience. However, he never claimed that we need a supernatural way of perceiving or knowing these things, such as revelation or enlightenment. The same is true with the Buddhist ontology and epistemology I referred to. According to Plato and the Buddhist authors both, it’s possible to know these things through reason alone, a rationalist approach to how we know things, even if the things are ideal.

    Perhaps my question about not knowing isn’t useful to the discussion, but I was driving at this: the model of knowing that we’re discussing is positive. We can only talk about knowing things insofar as we can say things about them: “The chair is blue.” “The number 5 is an abstract concept.” — However, we have experiences that we can’t explain in terms of idealist or realist propositions. We may have hypotheses or theories that attempt to explain these experiences, but I don’t think that means we know what they are: I’m thinking of ancient reports of comets or the contemporary problem of scientifically describing subjective psychological states. If all we can say about an event is “I don’t know”, does it count as a kind of knowledge, or is it something different?

  6. Hey My Other Feet,
    Replying to your last question: I don’t know. I could speculate, but you probably can speak on this topic of “knowledge” better than I. You were educated in philosophy and religion!

  7. Greg:
    I have to read the books again but if I remember correctly Plato uses reason but Neoplatonism thought that his meaning was using reason to suppress itself and obtain silence. What do you think about silence like insight?
    Stoicism has cataleptike phantasia, a revelation that comes after a long time of suspending judgment, our own prejudices.

  8. @ S.M. — speculation is the start of knowledge, I think. The key to speculation is not wagering more than you can afford to lose, which is easy in philosophy, since nobody’s died from philosophy (directly, anyway).

    @ Naty — Interesting point. Ancient Greek philosophy wasn’t my concentration. Philosophy of Science and South Asian religions are my strongest areas, so I’m not familiar with the Neoplatonists theory of knowledge. However, the idea seems similar to the debates about meditation and knowledge that the Hindu and Buddhist thinkers had in the first few centuries A.D. I think there’s something to that idea, that knowledge can comes from a cognitive vacuum, so to speak, but I don’t know how to describe that process in terms of knowledge. It’s like, “… and then a miracle happens…”, which is unsatisfying — that’s the source of my question to Scott: how do we describe, and account for, this kind of knowing?