Inventing Religion

by Mark English

Nouns and adjectives like ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ can be seen as more or less useful classificatory terms. More – or less – useful, as I say.

The standard view is that there are various sets of practices (customs and rituals) and grand narratives and beliefs (concerning spiritual or magical beings and powers) to which different human groups adhere (or have adhered) that can be usefully classed as ‘religions’. The term purports to pick out integrated sets of cultural elements from various cultures, abstracting them from the broader culture of which each set of elements constitutes a part. But in some ways, this process is problematic.

Compare the concept of religion with the concept of language. Like ‘religion’, the word ‘language’ picks out particular aspects of the broader culture. Human language is only instantiated as particular instances of language use, but the idea of language — and  specifically of a language (which allows us to assign particular instances of language use to theoretical constructs which we call languages or dialects) — has proved to be not just useful but indispensable.

Why should not religion be seen in a similar way? Because, I suggest, religion is a much less clear and robust concept than language. Linguistic phenomena are relatively easily and uncontroversially identified and, though they exist and operate alongside other cultural elements and are not self-contained, they have a unity and coherence which has been recognized throughout recorded history.

This is not the case with religion. While the speakers of a language virtually always recognize their linguistic system as a distinct component of their broader culture, many people do not see what an outside observer might class as their religious practices and beliefs in these terms at all. Seen from “within,” these practices and beliefs are not distinct from other practices and beliefs in any patterned or meaningful way but suffuse the individual’s life in both social and psychological terms.

In fact, though the word ‘religion’ has Latin origins, the concept is of relatively recent origin. Arguably it is a modern construct masquerading as an ancient and well-established one and its prevalence leads to a distortion of social and psychological realities.

Folk etymologies are generally harmless, but not always. They can confuse our thinking in serious ways. Just read Heidegger. He elaborates dubious etymologies with abandon, furnishing an abundance of pseudo-empirical evidence to support his extravagant claims about the specialness of the German language and its unique kinship with ancient Greek.

There are tendencies both to overestimate and to underestimate the significance of etymology for meaning. Less well-educated people are often persuaded to see the etymology of a word as pointing to its “true” or “real” meaning; at the other extreme are those who are inclined to pooh-pooh the idea that etymology has any semantic significance at all (other than causal-historical). It does have semantic significance, however, not only historically but also because a speaker’s beliefs about a word’s etymology affect his or her view of its meaning (especially in terms of connotation).

Now, I always thought that the term from which religion derives, the Latin word ‘religio’, meant ‘religion’ and was derived from the word ‘ligare’, to bind.

Apparently, it does derive from ligare, but the ancient meaning of ‘religio‘ is not what I thought it was. At one point, Julius Caesar used the term to refer to the binding force of an oath, and when, in his account of the Gallic Wars, he discusses religious and other aspects of the culture of the Gauls and the Germans, it is clear that he does not have a conception of religion as such. He makes no clear distinction between religious and non-religious areas of Gallic, German or Roman life.

In the ancient world, religio was seen as an individual virtue and not in the modern sense of a set of specific ritualistic practices and spiritual beliefs. It referred to broad social obligations towards family, neighbors, nation or rulers, as well as to perceived obligations to the gods or to destiny or fate.

The relationship between religio and the modern concept of religion parallels to some extent the relationship between the Latin words ‘pius’ and ‘pietas’ and their English derivatives ‘pious’ and ‘piety’. The hero of Virgil’s Aeneid was referred to as ‘pius’ because he was dutiful. The duties in question were mainly familial and patriotic. The gods played only a subsidiary role.

For example, when Aeneas, romantically involved with Dido, Queen of Carthage, was tempted to stay with her in North Africa, the god Mercury appears and reminds him of his patriotic destiny to locate a new homeland for his people, to found a new nation. Personal romantic attachments don’t rate highly in the classical scale of values. So off he goes, and his devastated lover, calling down curses on his head, kills herself with a sword Aeneas had given her. From their departing ships, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans see an ominous glow on the horizon as Dido’s body burns on a giant funeral pyre.

Another relevant Latin word is ‘superstitio’. This word was used pejoratively of individuals who gave themselves over to forms of worship and belief involving excessive emotion and self-abasement and often involving prophecies. The focus of the term was not (like the English term ‘superstition’) just false beliefs of a certain kind but also the lack of balance and moderation, proper pride and dignity which was perceived to be associated with extreme views and fanatical commitments. Women and foreigners were seen to be especially prone to ‘superstitio’. The term was often applied to the attitudes of the early Christians.

The main point here is that the Latin term ‘religio’ did not mark out a separate (“religious”) sphere of life. This compartmentalized view of life only arose in the modern era (from about the 16th century) and is now reflected in the meaning of the English word ‘religion’ and its cognates (and equivalents in other modern European languages).

Paradoxically, you could see the invention of “religion” as a mark of the secularization of the world. Previously life had been lived in a more unified and integrated way, but now certain aspects of life were being bracketed off from ordinary personal, social, and political affairs. Church was gradually separated from state, giving rise to various freedoms, including freedom of worship, or freedom of religion as it is usually called today. But, as I suggested, I am inclined to think that “freedom of religion” may actually portend the triumph of secularism and the inexorable rise and expansion the secular state.

The Reformation was marked by attempts to return to Christian origins and a rejection of the classically-oriented Catholic tradition in which the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and other classical thinkers often overshadowed the original texts and narratives concerning Jesus of Nazareth and his purported messianic role. But the very concept of religion – upon which calls for religious freedom were necessarily dependent – was totally alien, not only to the wider classical world but also to the views of the early Christians themselves.

I am just floating some ideas here and haven’t tried to draw out the implications of questioning or rejecting the modern, Western notion of religion. Obviously these ideas can be (and have been) developed in various ways. The devil is in the detail.

One positive consequence of any wholesale rejection of the concept is that groups promoting exploitative or violent behavior would no longer benefit from the protection which religious status currently provides. But challenging current practices and assumptions on these matters also has the potential, if not very carefully handled, to lead to excessive political control and even perhaps to new forms of persecution.

20 Comments »

  1. Mark, this is excellent and spot-on. It is, in good part, why people always seem to misunderstand Judaism, which of the Western religions is the least amenable to the modern “religion” treatment. As for the Protestant Reformation, its claims to representing a return to ancient Christianity were always disingenuous, as it has always been a modern version of Christianity through and through.

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    • Thanks Dan.

      “It is, in good part, why people always seem to misunderstand Judaism, which of the Western religions is the least amenable to the modern “religion” treatment.

      I tend to agree.

      “As for the Protestant Reformation, its claims to representing a return to ancient Christianity were always disingenuous, as it has always been a modern version of Christianity through and through.”

      It’s modern, it has to be. But concentrating on NT and OT texts (to the exclusion of Greek-style philosophizing) does mean that certain old ideas and ways of thinking are revivified and kept alive (albeit in altered or distorted forms).

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  2. Dan,

    In what sense is judaism the least amenable to the modern religion treatment? Why is it less amenable than islam?

    I’m an apatheist (although probably culturally catholic) and for me islam and judaism have a few fundamental things in common – not in the actual practices and beliefs, but in the way that “living the religious life” is defined: practice as prescribed, and you’re a jew (or a muslim). In christian religions there’s a lot of metaphysical baggage that seems to be less important in islam or judaism.

    Personally I think religion – as it is commonly understood now – is essentially a christian concept that shouldn’t applied to non-christian practices, beliefs etc. A bit more controversially, I also believe secularization is an essentially christian concept, intimately tied to a specific historical and Western-European context (although colonization spread it all over the world).

    To be clear: I don’t think religious tolerance etc. are essentially christian. According to the IHEU (the International Humanist and Ethical Union) Taiwan is one of the best countries for atheists. The IHEU notes that Taiwan is “demographically much more religious” (than countries like Belgium and the Netherlands), but also that it’s a “relatively open, democratic and tolerant society” with no evidence of “laws or social discrimination against members of the non-religious minority”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • couvent2104

      “Personally I think religion – as it is commonly understood now – is essentially a christian concept that shouldn’t applied to non-christian practices, beliefs etc.”

      This is a commonly-held position today but I don’t see religion as a Christian concept as such, though it certainly is a concept which developed in a broadly Christian (actually Christian-Platonic) cultural environment.

      “A bit more controversially, I also believe secularization is an essentially christian concept, intimately tied to a specific historical and Western-European context (although colonization spread it all over the world).”

      Certainly the concept of secularization is dependent on the idea of religion, as the secular is whatever stands outside of the zone designated as religious.

      “To be clear: I don’t think religious tolerance etc. are essentially christian…”

      You could argue, in fact, that Roman polytheism, which had little interest in what people believed and which allowed foreign gods to be incorporated into the pantheon, was more tolerant than many scripture-based traditions. (The extract from the Spinoza excommunication document just posted by Alan Tapper underscores this point.)

      Catholicism is less scripture-based than Protestant denominations of course. It inherits many elements of the old Roman system (e.g. the pontifex maximus, and the funny hats) as well as a lot of Greek philosophy.

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  3. Mark,
    pretty much agree with Dan here.

    “But the very concept of religion – upon which calls for religious freedom were necessarily dependent – was totally alien, not only to the wider classical world but also to the views of the early Christians themselves.” Yes; there’s the irony, isn’t it?

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  4. It seems some traditional starting points for discussion of our current concept of religion are a) the Maccabean Revolt b) Cicero’s dialogues c) Eusebius of Caesarea d) rise of Islam (Nongri Before Religion). In two of those cases, I see a pattern that warfare is not based on the usual reasons, but for a specifically non-pragmatic reason. Ibn Khaldun defines four types of war: between tribes and families, by barbarians for loot, dynastic succession/secession, and jihad. Akhenaten might be the earliest example I can think of changing religious but not other practices.

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    • David

      Thanks for the Nongbri reference. I was pleased to see that much of what he says accords with, or at least is not in conflict with, my (much less developed) views. I was particularly interested in his references to the role that Renaissance neo-Platonists and Deists played in creating the modern concept.

      “… I see a pattern that warfare is not based on the usual reasons, but for a specifically non-pragmatic reason. Ibn Khaldun defines four types of war: between tribes and families, by barbarians for loot, dynastic succession/secession, and jihad. Akhenaten might be the earliest example I can think of changing religious but not other practices.”

      You’re going back a long way here. I would be wary of any analysis which drew on the modern concept of religion.

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      • Hi Mark.

        Except that the accusations against Socrates specifically include “not acknowledging the gods the city acknowledges, and introducing other, new powers (daimonia)”. Accusations of atheism (atheos) at that time were generally against people who annoyed the ruling classes eg Euripides, Critias, Diagoras, Protagoras [The Cambridge Companion to Atheism]. Nevertheless, for the actual charge to be taken seriously, one needs a religious cast to the impiety. So we end up with a word religion, even though “the folk” have no need to split off social nonconformity from spiritual or philosophical nonconformity – it’s all godless freethinking.

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  5. The big difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism is based on being born Jewish, not on you having
    decided to adopt a faith or a doctrine.

    Once you’re born a Jew, you can’t escape it. I’m an atheist and I haven’t set foot in a synagogue for about 55 years, but I’m still a Jew. If you’re born a Christian and you become an atheist, you leave the whole business behind you.

    You just can’t escape being Jewish. The so-called holiday season is upon us, and every December well-meaning gentiles will ask me how I spend my Christmas. If I tell them the truth that Christmas means absolutely nothing to me except a day when the supermarkets don’t open, they look at me as if I had spat on their mother’s grave.

    So to be Jewish is to be a bit weird in a predominantly Christian culture, while Christians are at home, never weird, in all Western countries.

    Also Jews don’t try to convert gentiles to their culture, not at all. Christians and Mormons believe that they are in possession of some kind of special truth and that they are doing you a favor when they bore you beyond tears trying to convert you to their faith. Jews don’t try to convert anyone and if you go to a rabbi and ask to become a Jew, they send you to a psychologist. So Judaism isn’t some great Truth that we are trying to lay on the benighted masses.
    Even if I, an atheist, tell a rabbi that I’m an atheist, she’ll probably change the subject instead of trying to save my soul.

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    • s. wallerstein

      “Once you’re born a Jew, you can’t escape it. I’m an atheist and I haven’t set foot in a synagogue for about 55 years, but I’m still a Jew.”

      I think that if you convert to Christianity some Jewish groups disown you however.

      “Also Jews don’t try to convert gentiles to their culture, not at all.”

      There were periods (early Roman empire?) when there was a lot of interest in the Jewish God on the part of gentiles and many conversions.

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      • Spinoza was excommunicated, but he’s still a Jew in the eyes of the rest of humanity and was seen as a Jew by others during his lifetime.

        Marx and Wittgenstein were both raised as Christians and actually wrote anti-semitic texts, but everyone considers them to be Jews.

        Jews converted to Christianity ended up in Auschwitz because they were considered to be Jewish.

        I’m fairly sure that Israel will accept you as a Jew even though you converted to Christianity.

        You can’t escape it (even if some Jewish groups disown you), so why even try?

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  6. Hi Mark:

    I happened to be reading a Matthew Arnold essay on Spinoza. Quote:

    “By the sentence of the Angels, by the sentence of the Saints, we anathematize, separate, and curse and execrate Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of the Ecclesiastical Tribunal, and with the consent of all that holy community before the holy Sepharim, with their six hundred and thirteen precepts that are written in them, with the Herem with which Joshua cursed Jericho, with the malediction with which Elisha cursed the children, and with all the maledictions that are written in the law: cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night, cursed be he in his sleeping and cursed be he in his uprising, cursed in his going out and cursed in his entering in; may the Lord refuse to know him, may the fury of the Lord and his jealousy be hot after that man, and lay upon him all the maledictions that are written in the Book of the Law; and may the Lord blot out his name from beneath the heavens, and may the Lord separate him for evil from all the tribes of Israel, with all the maledictions of the firmament that are written in the Book of the Law; and you, cleaving to the Lord your God, may you have life!

    But take notice, that none may speak with him by mouth, none by writing, none show him any favor, none be under the same roof with him, none within the distance of four ells from him, none read any document made or written by him.”

    (The Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam, 1656.)

    I was going to say flippantly that they don’t make religions like that anymore — but of course they do.

    Alan

    Liked by 1 person

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