Etymology and the Study of Religion


Etymology and the Study of Religion

More than any other time, there is an increasing global awareness of the importance and crucial role of religion in human life and society.

Contacts between and among cultures and societies have made it possible for traditional and modern, developing and developed societies to become globally aware of different kinds of religions.

This awareness has developed a great appreciation for other people’s religions and religious values. This great awareness has resulted from such factors as development of extensive trade, tourism, economic interdependence, efficient transportation, rapid means of communication and technological advancement.

For instance, instead of the old-fashioned way of sending messages, you can now use the Internet services to send mails electronically. You can now browse on the Internet to search for information on subjects of interest. 

People of different faiths who want to advertise or give information about their religious traditions post them on the Internet. Millions of these could be downloaded from the Internet.

Fast and efficient search engines are available for use as will. A few examples of such search engines are,,, etc.

There is also available a constant stream of journals and books, documentaries and films. It is important to note that apart from hard copies of these materials, most of them are made available online. It is also noteworthy that this century has been witnessing crises, wars, and disasters from politics, economy, ethical and social issues including: family, marital and sexuality issues, terminal diseases and sexuality related diseases including HIV/AIDS. 

Most of these issues, on one hand, are linked to religions.

On the other hand, most people particularly in traditional societies seek for religious explanations to certain issues that defy commonsense or medical explanations.

In contemporary times, modern western societies have begun to realize the imposing influence of religion on human social life.

Hence, pertinent questions of religious and spiritual concerns have been posed as solutions to human wellbeing, peaceful coexistence, interpersonal relationships, international politics and relations.

In so many cases, answers to such questions focus on religious ideas and ideals. It is these concerns that make the academic study of religion to be of much significance within the local and global contexts.

It is hoped that by the end of this article, you should be able to explain the etymology of religion, give reasons for problems in defining religion with precision and identify the two perspectives in the definition of religion.


Etymology of the Word “Religion”

When you come in contact with a word or phenomenon or concept that engages the attention of a person or group of persons, and the word is used in diverse ways, or the word is applied to so many situations, it is natural for an inquisitive mind to ask for its origin.

Such questions that are asked are: “what is the source of this phenomenon or concept?” That is, how did it begin? Who was the first person who used the word or phenomenon? Where was the word or phenomenon first used? How did the word gain its prominence and what transformations had occurred to the word or phenomenon that have given it the current usage and application? The question of the source calls into mind the time of origin.

Philologists, that is, specialists dealing with the origin of human language would provide helpful hints by going into the root or roots that explain the word. It needs to be stated however that confusions may arise from such inquiry or searching into the roots of words. H.F. Hall, in his The Hearts of Men identified two difficulties in searching for the roots of words:

(1) People often use words in different senses

(2) They may not have clear idea themselves of what they mean by the words.

This would not stop us from attempting the find out the etymology of religion. A.C. Bouquet argued in his book, Comparative Religion that the word ‘religion’ is of European origin and that it acquired a lot of meanings in Europe. He however observed that scholars in the ancient world did not agree on the etymological connotation of the word.

Some scholars connected religious with other Latin terms relegere which means to reread; relinquere which is to relinquish; or religare which means to relegate, to unite, to bind together. Bouquet examined the two of the various views:

The Roman Cicero, and Roman writer Servius Cicero took the word from relegere, to gather things together, or to pass over the same ground repeatedly. Another possible meaning, according to Cicero, was ‘to count or observe.’ Cicero focused on the term ‘observe’ to be appropriate in understanding the term ‘religion’.

Using the word ‘observe’ would have religion interpreted as “to observe the signs of divine communication.” For Servius and most others, religion was to be associated with the Latin religare, to bind things together.

The possibility of accepting this root origin is obvious in that this notion expresses the most important feature of religion. That is, “religion binds people together in common practices and beliefs, drawing them together in a common enterprise of life”.

 This notion shows religio as pointing to relationship. Bouquet strongly felt that both roots could be combined to give the sense of the meaning of religion: “a communion between the human and the superhuman. Thus, he interpreted religion to mean “a fixed relationship between the human self and some non-human entity, the Sacred, the Supernatural, the Self existent, the Absolute, or simply ‘God’.

Religio therefore implies a relationship between human beings and some spiritual beings. As we shall see in our study of religion, religion involves relationships both in essence and functions.

Read on: Eastern (Asian) Philosophical Tradition

Problems in the Study of Religion

Everyone, both those who are engaged in the study of religion and those who are not, think they understand the nature of religion, and hence its study.

Thus, each explains or describes religion using his or her own bias whether positive or negative. More than all other endeavours, people seem so much familiar with religion that they do not feel they need to learn or be tutored in a formal, structured and academic way.

To some, the word appears to be self-explanatory since everybody seems to belongs to one religious tradition or the other, or that he or she daily encounters people who belong to some religious traditions. The situation could be captured using the famous Indian legend The Blind Men and the Elephant. The version of this Hindu parable by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) runs thus:

Six Blind Men & the Elephant

It was six men of Hindustan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfys his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

"God bless me! but the Elephant Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk Cried,

"Ho! what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me 'tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up he spake:

"I see," quoth he,

"the Elephant Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee:

 "What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain," quoth he;

 "'Tis clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

 Said: "E'en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope.

"I see," quoth he,

"the Elephant Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Hindustan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I won,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen.

This parable reveals the different perceptions of the incapable individuals in having a full grasp of the whole phenomenon of religion. In fact, the last verse which shows the moral in the parable exposes the whole idea in the parable.

That is, that people dispute endlessly in ignorance of the elephant which exists but the sense of which each has not been able to decipher though explained in different ways. Their ways of explaining the different parts felt show that each is informed of an idea about something each is familiar with.

Our societies have so much tenacity to religious ideas and ideals. The person who explains religion as a concept bases his or her idea mostly on personal religious feeling, experience or practice of the people who are involved in some religions.

We need to emphasize that religion is not as easy to understand as subjects like economics, political science, sociology, philosophy, science, etc.

It defies precise definition because it carries different meanings for different people within different social or cultural contexts and at different times.

The following are some of the problems that make it possible for understanding the phenomenon of religion.


The nature of religion

Religion belongs to two worlds: the profane and the sacred. It will be necessary for us to combine the senses of the two worlds to be able to understand religion. There are many elements across different human cultures that constitute the subject matter of religion. These are so wide and diverse.

Not all of these elements are observable.

For instance, most religious traditions recognize the existence of spirits or gods and spiritual beings. There are religious experiences which are inexpressible in human language. Examples of such experiences are meditation, mysticism, glossolalia, dreams, visions, etc.

 Such practices as healing and miracles have no systematic descriptions. Thus, most descriptions or explanations that are given in current books express ambiguity, insufficiency, inadequacy or bias. In attempting to understand religion, therefore, all important elements such as mentioned, and countless others, have to be included and made intelligible and accurate.

Also read: Issues in African Philosophy

Theoretical Explanations and Descriptions

Most scholars who attempted the descriptions and explanations of religion did not focus on actual participation and experience of religion but from mere academic deductions of people who have neither been emotionally or spiritually involved.

Each provided different explanations and descriptions from personal biases, most of which are negative and one-sided. They drew upon a few cases to generalize, making explanations and descriptions more dangerous than revealing of the phenomenon of religion.

Most of them were not scholars in the discipline of religion, but economists and social scientists and political analysts like Max Weber, Karl Marx, etc., and psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Justav Jung.

There were yet others who did arm-chair researching.


Human Social Locations and Time-Space Contexts

It is important to state that religion is a dynamic discipline. It is as dynamic as human culture and society. Religious ideas, ideals and elements change with time.

For instance, if you read about a particular indigenous community, say of the 18th century, and you have to observe the same community in the contemporary time, you would perhaps feel that what you are reading of that 18th century community did not exist.

The fact is that the community has undergone and will still undergo changes. This also affects one’s understanding of religion.

Furthermore, let us imagine an indigenous community and a western society, and examine their religious ideas and ideals, we will see how different our perceptions of those two communities will be. All these necessarily influence what we understand as to be religious, and religion.


Ideological Problems

Some scholars who offered some descriptions and explanations of religion do so from their personal ideological standpoint. For instance, explanations from an atheist, an agnostic, or a theist would reflect such ideological positions.

We can note a good example from the definition of Karl Marx. Unfortunately, their readers would not take time in reading through their political contexts and ideological stances. It is noted that because of their imposing influences, many uninformed readers of their materials get easily carried away and use their explanations as the truth.


Perspectives in the Study of Religion

We shall list some perspectives from the scholars who have attempted to explain and study religion. We shall discuss these fully in another article.

The following are some of the perspectives that we have noted in the explanation and study of religion:

(a) Anthropological Perspectives focus on religion as the bedrock of the relationship of the human beings to their cultural environments.

(b) Sociological Perspectives examine the impact of religion and social institutions. They focus on religious groups.

(c) Psychological Perspectives centre on the role of emotions and feeling in the practice of religion.

(d) Historical Perspectives deal with the development of religions in time and space.

(e) Theological Perspectives focus on the different levels of relationship of God to human beings, which emphasize among others the attitudes, faith, and assumptions of human beings about God.

(f) Ethical Perspectives emphasize human being’s interpersonal relationships.

(g) Philosophical Perspectives focus on rational explanation of religious behaviours and ideas. It asks questions about the universe and the place of human beings in it. It seeks intellectual explanations to human religiousness and religiosity and thus allows no role for faith or revelation.

(h) Phenomenology Perspectives describe religious ideas as one observes them, and as they appear to the practitioners.

Read on: Western Philosophical Tradition: Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Periods

Conclusion on Etymology and the Study of Religion

Religion is a universal phenomenon. It is as old as the existence of humankind in the world. Religion is as diverse as human cultures, historic and prehistoric, western and traditional or non-western. It is wide and thus difficult to define with precision.

However, there are certain basic facts which we have to bear in mind if we attempt to give precise definition. It is essential to human life as it has several functions it performs for individuals and societies. 

Different scholars from different disciplines and ideological positions have contributed to the definitions of religion which we can begin to examine and assess.

Moreover, we observe that the word religion has its etymology from the Latin religio and is thus of European origin. Whether or not the etymology fully expresses the concept of religion, religion has assumed such meanings that are universal and comprehensible to inquiring mind.

It emphasizes relationships between the human being and the divine, and between the human being and his or her environment, the several forms notwithstanding.

Oseovo Onibere points out that the continued use of the word ‘religion’ is “in order, more so as it refers to the outward form of faith, the practical expression being no hidden fact”.

We have explained the etymology of religion; we have examined the perspectives in the definitions of religion and major classifications of the definitions of religion.

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