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The Beginnings Of "religion"

The English "religion" has equivalents in other modern languages; for example, in Germany the academic study of religion is known as Religionswissenschaft (Wissenschaft systematic study) and in France it is known as les Sciences Religieuses (in nineteenth-century Britain the academic study of religion was sometimes called Comparative Religion or the Science of Religion). A cursory comparison reveals that lexicons influenced by Latin and, later, European culture possess something equivalent to "religion." This means that for pre-contact cultures, or those few that remain unaffected by Europe and North America, there was no necessary equivalent term.

Consider the case of modern India; although "religion" is not a traditional concept there (i.e., Sanskrit long predates the arrival of Latin-based languages), British colonialism ensures that contemporary English-speaking citizens of the Indian nation-state conceive what is called "Hinduism" as their "religion"—although, historically speaking, that which world religions textbooks now call "Hinduism" was understood by its practitioners as sanatana dharma: the cosmic system of obligations that impacted all aspects of samsara (the almost endless cycle of births and rebirths). Consider another case: even the New Testament is not much help since its language of composition—common, or koine Greek—also predated Latin; its authors therefore lacked the roots from which in the early 2000s are derived the word "religion." So, although English translations routinely use "religion" or "godliness" to translate such Greek terms as eusebia (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:5), or threskia (Acts 26:5; James 1:26, 27), these ancient Greek terms are much closer to the Sanskrit dharma, the Chinese li, and the Latin pietas—all having something to do with the quality one is thought to possess as a result of properly fulfilling sets of social obligations, expectations, and ritual procedures, not only toward the gods or ancestors but also to one's family, peers, superiors, servants, and so on. Despite "piety" currently meaning an inner sentiment or affection, to be pious in ancient Athens—what Socrates was accused of not being, as the story is told in Plato's dialogue on defining piety, Euthyphro (c. 380 B.C.E.)—meant recognizing and publicly signaling differences in social status. This, of course, is the great irony of the Euthyphro: Socrates' accuser is a young upstart, and Socrates' teacher is an outright braggart; by their behavior the ancient reader would have known that neither can judge either eusebia or Socrates.

If by religion is meant a matter of belief, separable from forms of action and political organization, signified by one's assent to a creed and enacted in certain ritual behaviors (i.e., worship), then even in Latin the modern term "religion" has no equivalent. For its precursors are thought to have meant, "to bind something tightly together," "to re-read," or "to pay close attention." Recognizing that the term's history holds no clue concerning how it ought to be used, scholars find a number of questions in need of investigation: If a culture does not have the concept, can "their religion" be studied? Should scholarship only employ concepts local to the group under study? Is the thing to which this word points shared by all people, regardless of their self-understandings (as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet")? Is using the local term as if it were a universal signifier an act of cultural imperialism?

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.… In showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from the idea of a Church, it conveys the notion that religion must be an eminently collective thing. (Durkheim, p. 44)

These are important questions for those who attempt to develop a cross-culturally useful definition of this concept, distinguishable from its popular or folk definition. Just as chemists develop a technical vocabulary that enables them to talk about "H2O" instead of "water," so too scholars of religion attempt to develop technical categories capable of working with cross-cultural data. As with anthropologists who study "culture"—yet another Latin-based term—the challenge, then, is to take a contextually specific word and use it in diverse historical and geographic settings.

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