Understanding religion

The etymology of the term “religion” is controversial. The very idea of religion may inspire respect and interest, or on the contrary, arouse rejection. These contrasting attitudes are related to the way individuals have experienced religion, and to their knowledge of a given religion’s history. It is also difficult to assess religions without taking into consideration their historical expressions.

The ubiquity of the religious phenomenon throughout history has provided enough material to reflect on the essence of religion. What we know about the origin of the word comes down to little, but deserves to be remembered. It is commonly accepted that the word “religion” originates from the Latin word “religio”, and the verbs “ligare” and “religare”, which mean respectively “bind” and “connect”. According to this first etymology endorsed by authors such as Lactance and Tertullian, religion designates the way human being connects and enters a relationship with the divine. This has become a commonly accepted opinion.

Another rarer etymology derives the term “religion” from the Latin “legere” and “relegere”, which means respectively to gather and to examine / to meditate. This explanation, endorsed by Cicero, refers to the fact of gathering one’s thoughts / to examine.

The two etymologies provide very different insights on religion and its practice. While the first denotes a relationship instigated by the individual, the second denotes a relationship to intelligence in itself. These two etymologies shed light on two different conceptions of religious life.  In the first case (religion / religare- to connect with the divine) is a form of communication, in the second case (religion / relegare- to collect, to examine) refers to a spiritual attitude that precedes any membership. This semantic difference modifies our understanding of religion. Indeed, admitting the usual definition of religion as a “system” of beliefs and practices allowing one’s to relate to a higher principle, this “system” would change dramatically depending on whether it is based on already established principles or on a permanently evolving re-examination. It seems that the first definition defines the dogmatic systems, while the second conception enables to inject a critical dimension to the religious. Let’s go one step further. In recognizing that the most irreducible characteristics of religion is the recognition of the existence of a superior principle, the whole question then zeroes-in on one’s interpretation of and approach to this very principle. This is on these bases that religion can – when understood as a critical examination – then open up to the possibility of metaphysics, without any repression of a personal reflection.

In fact, what allows us to assume that there is a superior principle, the values one’s can reasonably infer from this examination and the objective reasons for this hypothesis constitute a rational approach to “beliefs” and “practices”. The methodology used to deal with questions such as: is the universe absolute, was it engendered alone or is it sufficient in itself? Is the universe eternal, or does it have a beginning? Is there an end goal for everything that exists? determines whether the principles put forward by a given religion are admitted as being true or are regarded as simply “beliefs”. In this regard, idealism (or pantheism), materialism, monotheism should not be assessed as ‘’beliefs’’ since all can be evaluated through a rational methodology and determined are false or true given what science teaches us today about the structure of the universe.

A rational methodology can, therefore, foster a true consensus.  From this perspective, what is regarded as “religion” is not an individual preference or a cultural automatism. Given all the above, speaking of religion should not prohibit to think.

University Professor, philosopher, France