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"Origins" of Religion

"Origins" of Religion

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss different accounts of the etymology of "religion," as well as some of the early manifestations of religion.

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Source: Image of The Death of Socrates, Public Domain,

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Hello. Welcome. Today we're going to address the often confusing idea of religion itself. We're going to look at the roots of the word, itself, to get even more tangled and confused. But no matter how complicated it gets, we can be sure that religion, as we most likely understand it today in our modern global culture-- it's very different from how it was understood in the past.

The field of religious studies as an academic discipline really began in the 19th century. It's an approach to studying religions which usually places itself outside of the traditions for the purpose of objective comparative study. Friedrich Max Mueller, a philologist, and one of the well=known founders of comparative religion, traced the word "religion," our English word, back to the Latin "religio," meaning piety or reverence toward the gods.

However, the English word religion can also be traced to the Latin verb "ligare," which means to bind and bring together. And you could also trace it to the French "religion," the old French religious community, or the Anglo-Saxon "religion," also religious community. So etymology, the study of where words come from and develop through time and culture, their roots-- it's a lot of fun and can give you the feeling that you're getting closer to something, which might be true.

However, there is a difference between religion as it is studied through etymology and comparative religion, and the difference between that and how it was lived and experienced in history. For example, in Hebrew language, there is no word for religion that is comparable to our English word religion. And it was and still is for many, perhaps, fully integrated into their lives of politics and society and cultural exchange in general.

And then the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent along the ancient Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, roughly including modern Iraq, as well as parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and in ancient Egypt and Greece, as well, law and their overall structure-- these societal institutions were manifestations of a religious sensibility and perspective and world view. Religion could not be isolated and separated from life.

For example, in ancient Greece in 400, Before the Common Era, the trial of Socrates was an example of a trial that occurred within the context of a society that was governed by their world view and reverence for the gods. Socrates was accused of offending the gods and corrupting the education of the youth by encouraging a new form of thought and inquiry. The law of the gods was taken into the hands of society, and after the trial, poison hemlock was the sentence.

So let's review. We began with the idea that religion is indeed hard to define. And the philologist and comparative religion scholar, Max Mueller, traced it to the Latin word "religio," meaning piety or reverence toward the gods. But it can also be linked to the Latin verb, "ligare," to bind, to bring together.

In any case, in history, even in some perceptions of "religion" today, perhaps, like in the culture of Judaism, for example, religion wasn't something separate from the life and the structures of society, like law. It can be challenging, then, to navigate this apparent divide between religion as it used to be-- as it used to be understood-- and our modern, perhaps more compartmentalized, understanding of religion.

For us today, then, using etymology, the vocabulary, the actual letters and words of religion to trace their roots and see how they may have been used and understood in the past, well, this is a great way to shed light on the potentially confusing terrain of religion and religious studies. It serves to bind, to help, and we are the only creatures endowed with this creative capacity for language, and the only creature with religion, whatever that may be, for an epic, for a time, a culture, for a research paper, and for you.

Notes on "'Origins' of Religion"

Image of The Death of Socrates, Public Domain,

Terms to Know

The study of word origins.


An ancient region encompassing the areas served by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, including modern Iraq as well as parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey.