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.