Brandon's Notepad

September 16, 2014

Religion Defined

Filed under: Religion — Brandon @ 4:13 pm
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Home > My Research > Religion/Philosophy > Religion (General Topic)

Religion. It is a deceptively simple word. It means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

I have stubbed out this page for notes as I explore the meaning of this very important word. If you would like to participate in this exploration, please tweet your thoughts to me anytime @brandonsnotepad.


After surveying the definitions of the word religion at Merriam-Webster,, Wikipedia, and others, it seems that it can be defined, at a minimum, as a belief in a higher power. Most definitions describe this belief as organized, note that it gives rise to specific ritual practices, and makes an allowance for one or more deities.


Sources consistently trace the etymology of religion through English and Old French to the Latin word religionem, which more or less refers to respect for or devotion to the sacred. This word was used early to describe monasticism, a full devotion of one’s life to God. Most sources agree that religio (nom.) is derived from religare, “to bind”, though a few other possible origins exist. This etymology could simply imply that one chooses to bind oneself to God voluntarily, but may also be interpreted to mean that reverence to God (as creator of all) is an intrinsic obligation of man (as the creature). These are not mutually exclusive, as the devout church-goer and the cloistered monk are both religious, but to differing degrees.

Negative Connotation

Religion is often used as a pejorative term, especially by English-speaking Christian Fundamentalists who wish to equate traditional Christian practices to those of the Jews in Jesus’ time. Contrast the following examples as they appeared at the time of this writing. The Online Etymology Dictionary (OED) entry for religion offers the following explanation for religio:

“respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods; conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation; fear of the gods; divine service, religious observance; a religion, a faith, a mode of worship, cult; sanctity, holiness”

The Wiktionary description for the same word is quite different:

“scrupulousness”, “pious misgivings”, “superstition”, “conscientiousness”, “sanctity”, “an object of veneration”, “cult-observance”, “reverence”

In this case, reverence is the very last in a series of otherwise disparaging terms. Consider the following comment from Tentmaker author Gary Amirault on the etymology of religion:

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary traces the word back to an old Latin word religio meaning “taboo, restraint.” A deeper study discovers the word comes from the two words re and ligare. Re is a prefix meaning “return,” and ligare means “to bind;” in other words, “return to bondage.” Do you still want some of that “old-time religion”?

There are two issues with this translation. First, the OED entry makes it clear that the re- prefix is used here in the intensive form; thus, it means thoroughly and not again. Second, ligare is not a Latin word for slavery, as are servitus and famulatus. If the blatant mistranslation of the words is not convincing evidence that the author intends to lead the reader to a negative connotation, then consider the last line. The phrase Old-Time Religion alludes to the Southern Gospel music and black spirituals of Nineteenth Century, evoking images of slavery in America. This excerpt is followed by the opening words of Galatians 3, the underlying premise being that religion places the Christian in spiritual chains in the same way in which the Judaizers bound believers to the Law through rituals.

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