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"Origins" of Religion

"Origins" of Religion


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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Welcome to this tutorial on the origin of the word religion. Let's take a look at the etymology of religion-- that is, the study of the origins of the word.

No one is really quite sure where the English word religion came from. Maybe it comes from the Latin word religio, which means piety or reverence towards the gods. This was put forward by the scholar Max Mueller. Or maybe it comes from another Latin word-- the verb, actually, ligare, which means to bind. So religion could be a binding together. This has given rise to lots of speculation that maybe it's binding together the gods and human beings and so forth. Or maybe it comes from the old French word religion, which refers specifically to a religious community. Or perhaps the Anglo-French religium, which has much the same definition. So basically, there are lots of potential root words out there, but no one is really sure exactly where the English word religion comes from.

Well, maybe if we take a little bit of a closer look at history we can untangle this mystery. The Hebrew language has no exact equivalent for the English word religion. And when we go back to these ancient societies in Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and Israel, and Greece-- Mesopotamia is the Fertile Crescent, the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys, where some of the oldest human artifacts have been found. This is in present day Iraq and also parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Or if we look at ancient Egypt, which has very ancient civilization, or perhaps Israel and Greece as well, we don't find a separate category for religion. Rather, religion is simply interspersed throughout law, throughout politics, throughout daily life.

In ancient Greece, if you threw a rock, you were likely to hit a statue of a god, because they had a ritual for absolutely every part of life. And the same is true for these other ancient religions, as well. They just didn't separate out religion the way that we do today. So it's hard to look for some kind of ancient context for this word religion. The struggle that we're going to have when we try to define religion is wrestling with uncertainty, with this elusive quality that the word religion has, the fact that religion is fairly ambiguous.

I think I mentioned in another tutorial, why couldn't baseball be a religion? It has special costumes. It has belief systems. It has superstitions. It has everything that we might qualify as religious. I even think about how some people tend to get offended when there are ethical scandals with sports figures. A lot of people say, yeah, baseball is a religion. So there's this inherent ambiguity.

There's also the added complication that simply by defining religion, we already changed the meaning of the word. Just by making the definition, we're already going to be slanting the evidence to fit with whatever definition that we put forward.

That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't try to define religion. It's always a good exercise to work towards that definition. And it's also just good scholarly practice to define your terms before beginning to work. So as we attempt a definition of religion, we really begin to get into scholarship. And we have to begin to put forward a theory of what religion is.

Welcome to this tutorial on an origin for religion. We said that the origins of the word religion are in doubt, and that several different proposals have been advanced. Max Mueller said that religion has its roots in the Latin religio, means reverence for the gods. Other say it stems from the verb lagare, which means to bind together. And possibly comes from the old French religium.

Complicating matters is the idea that several different ancient cultures didn't really have a word for religion since they considered religion to be an integral part of every aspect of life. These cultures include the ancient Hebrew, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cultures. Mesopotamia is one of our vocabulary words. It refers to an ancient region that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys, which would today be in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.

We said that any attempt to reach a definition for religion really extends into the realm of scholarship, and we have to begin to talk about what religion is and what we mean by it. So simply to advance a definition is to become a religious scholar. We just had one other vocabulary term, which is the word etymology, the study of word origins.

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.