What Is Religion?

Posted: March 2, 2015 in End of Religion
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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” [Inigo Montoya]

Introduction –

One of the most common questions that often arises early in the “religion versus relationship” discussion concerns the definition of the word religion.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines religion as:

  • The belief in a god or in a group of gods
  • The service and worship of God or the supernatural
  • An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
  • Commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
  • An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group
  • A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

These definitions are all correct in a broad and general sense because they are the definitions most commonly used and recognized today. The irony however, is that these are the modern definitions of the word religion that developed over time, and bear only the vaguest resemblance to either the historical or etymological definitions of the word.

One of the many benefits of dead languages is that the definitions of the words in that language are no longer changing as part of a living dynamic culture. In other words, when we examine how a particular word was used when a language was alive and in common use, we know quite precisely what that word genuinely means, thereby eliminating or at least greatly reducing confusion, debates, and arguments.

Such is the case with the word religion.

We will get to the etymological definition of the English word religion in just a moment, but first some historical background.

Ancient Greek-

There are two ancient Greek words that are commonly translated religiondeisidaimonia, and threskeia. Both are used in the Bible, but only a very few times.

Deisidaimonia (Strong’s #1175) is a noun that means “fear of pagan deities.” The adjective form is deisidaimonesteros (Strong’s #1174). Both are compounds of Strong’s #1169 deilos, meaning “fear,” and #1142 daimon, which is properly translated “demon.” Hence the etymological definition of deisidaimonia is “fear of demons.” The noun form is used only once in the Acts 25:19, where it is translated superstition in the King James Version, or religion in the New American Standard Version. The adjective form is also used only once in Acts 17:22, where it is likewise translated superstitious in the KJV, and religious in the NAS. Historically the word was used to refer to the fear-based “worship” of pagan deities. Practitioners were driven by confused ideas about “God” that produced sincere but misguided doctrines and practices. Deisidaimonia was used in secular Greek literature in a positive sense by Xenophon, Cyril, and Aristotle, but in a negative sense by Theophrastus, Diodorus, and Plutarch. Whether used in a positive or negative sense, it was always a mark of heathenism. Historically, the word religion as a translation of deisidaimonia is accurate, although in modern understanding it would be better-translated superstition.

Threskeia (Strong’s #2356) is a noun that means “ritual or ceremonial acts of worship.” The adjective form is threskos (Strong’s #2357). Both are from the root throeo (Strong’s #2360) that means, “agitated, unsettled, or troubled.” It is used four times (Acts 26:5; Colossians 2:18; James 1:26, 27), where it is usually translated religion in both the KJV and NAS; it is translated worship in Colossians 2:18. Threskos is used only once in James 1:26, where it is translated religious in both the KJV and the NAS. Historically, in secular Greek literature it was used to refer to the externalization of a person’s internal beliefs whether positive or negative. Threskeia therefore, refers to the external ceremonial and ritual practices that may or may not be connected to any genuine faith.

James’ use in his epistle is best understood in light of the immediate context contrasting “doing” and “hearing” (only), and the extended context of faith and works. James’ epistle focuses on his hypothesis that genuine faith will produce corresponding righteous works, but that a “declaration of faith” only without corresponding works may well be empty (disingenuous) “faith,” and, that external works without inward faith are just that—(empty) external works. James’ use of the word threskeia clearly reflects his idea that external “religious” acts are pointless unless they come from genuine faith. As such it is in keeping with the historical definition of the word threskeia. James is not calling people to religion—he is calling them to faith in Christ that will produce an external expression (threskeia).

Historically and biblically, threskeia refers primarily to external, ceremonial, and ritual practices, and only secondarily (if at all) to the inward beliefs.

In English Please-

Etymologically, the English word religion comes from the Latin religare. Religare is a compound of re, meaning “to repeat, or to return,” and ligare, that means “to tie or bind.” In a positive sense, religare can mean, “to return to restraint,” but in the negative sense means, “to return to bondage.”

Christianity Really Isn’t a Religion-

In conclusion, clearly, the vast majority of the time people use the word religion to describe Christianity they are not referring to the word desidaimonia—most likely they are totally unaware of the association—(unless of course, some skeptic is deliberately calling Christianity a superstition).

Furthermore, the definitions of threskeia and religare refer primarily to external expressions and only secondarily to internal realities, if the internal realities are even in view at all.

Therefore, although often used that way, the phrase “Christianity is not a religion—it’s a relationship” really is not just some clever quip—it truly is not a religion because it is not about the external trappings, but the internal reality of the new creation.

The irony and tragedy however, and the pressing need, is that the contrasts between “religion” and “relationship” do not seem to be understood as well as they can or should be—this is the purpose of The End of Religion blog.

Stay tuned.

  1. […] when we use the word religion in this statement—for example, in the posts Defining Religion, and What Is Religion. So now we should probably begin to define what we mean when we use the word relationship is this […]


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