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The Historic Approach: The Origin of the word Religion





To explore definitions of and methods for studying religion it is essential to briefly demonstrate where the word ‘religion’ originates. The origin of the English word Religion can be traced back first to the Middle English word religioun and ultimately to the Latin word ‘religio’, and this is believed to be an adaptation of the word religare or relegere (Webster’s Dictionary 2001). The actual meaning of religion has changed significantly in the two millennia through which we can trace its existence, and if its meaning continues to change this will affect any study concerning religion. Even in the late Republic era of Roman history there were orations and debates upon the words used to define religion. Cicero argued that it originated from relegere, which is a verb meaning to re-read, and thus he thought this meant that religion was a tradition that was passed on from one generation to the next. Lactanius asserted that the word religio came from religare, which means to restrain, tie back or bind fast. Gavin Flood considers this to equate religion with the concept of a tradition that binds people to each other and to the gods of the Roman state (Flood 1999:44).


Early Christians used the word religio or religion to refer to pagan religions and not Christianity. However, by the seventeenth century it had come to mean communities of people who had devoted their lives to the service of God (Flood 1999:44). Our understanding of the word religion is detached from the Latin word ‘religio’ and instead has risen out of the Enlightenment period as an abstraction for understanding and criticising Christianity.[i] The result of this is that certain understandings of the term religion are useless when not commenting on monotheistic religions, especially Christianity. In many non-industrialised communities, there is no word equivalent to the English ‘religion’. Anthropology has moved the primary study of religions away from the monotheistic, but this can be criticised as causing a comparative effect when studying non-Western religions, that is, comparing religions to Christianity.[ii] However, the contemporary comparative study of religion is rather different from modern anthropological approaches.


There is also the argument that religion as a concept has no value beyond our western culture and cannot coherently be applied to non-western or ancient (or prehistoric) religions:


Past (or non-western) forms of what we would identify as ‘religion’ operated in terms of mechanisms and self-understandings that we no longer associate with religion as such. … The concept as we understand it (and hence, tend to define it) is a by-product of the special historical and political circumstances of Western modernity (Asad 1993:28-48 and Arnal 2000:30-1).

What this means to anyone attempting to study prehistoric religion is that the values assigned to religion in modernity and post-modernity may not be the ones that were essential in the past. And, therefore, many definitions derived from contemporary religions, will be inadequate in the study of ancient or prehistoric religions due to a misunderstanding of the focus of religion. Consequently, any definition derived for the study of prehistoric religions may differ from that used to study more contemporary religious expressions, such as, New Religious Movements (NRM), because of the evidence used in studying the religious phenomenon.


It would be impossible, within the confines of this thesis, to explore all the theories, ideas, and definitions that are available for studying religions. However, an attempt has been made to cover those definitions that are most relevant to what has shaped our understanding of religion from an archaeological viewpoint.


In the modern era, drawn from roots in the Enlightenment, there is a tendency to ‘deconstruct’ any given highly complex process or phenomenon, to study it in the form of its basic component parts. Many scholars have deconstructed religion in this manner, claiming religion to be, for example, explainable as a belief in the supernatural, to be a purely social phenomenon, a by-product of economics, or a mental illness. In many ways, these deconstructions and reductions are viewed differently by different disciplines. In this section we consider the definitions and methodological approaches offered by the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and phenomenology, reviewing their relevance for the study of prehistoric and ancient religions. In gathering this information, I make one major omission, that being, the theories developed in the discipline of theology. This is because this discipline is often argued to be only applicable from what is called an ‘insider’ perspective, that is, when a believer in the religion studied or with access to believers. Clearly this method is not practical when studying prehistoric or any other long dead, religions.[iii]


[i] That is, the Latin is inclusive of all forms of religion, pantheist and monotheist, whereas by the Enlightenment, the term religion had a more single minded, monotheistic interpretation.

[ii] This can be observed by the concentration of many scholars on religious text when trying to understand other religion because the Bible is so central to Christianity.

[iii] Although the discipline of theology, and especially reception studies, has some useful ideas for the study of religions they are not very applicable to this work although they were considered in the original literature review of the thesis.

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