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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

The Name:

The Name:

I. Derivation.

The popularly accepted derivation of the word religion is from the Latin word religare, signifying "to bind bach or behind, to bind fast." If this derivation is correct, the word would seem etymologically to contain the idea of bondage, as its root-meaning; and consequently the use of it in connection with any word suggesting liberty, as in the phrase "Free Religion," must be condemned, as one of those attempts to put new meanings into old theological words against which every true radical instinctively and on principle protests. Should ripe and impartial scholarship ever pronounce in favor of this derivation, I for one should be disposed to abandon the word religion altogether, while still cleaving to that which to my mind it now fairly and fitly expresses. Far be it from any intrepid thinker to seek to avail himself of the prestige of any word to which his honest and unbiassed thought does not justly entitle him! Let him trust the cause of truth to itself for its final vindication in the eyes of mankind.

At the same time it should be noted, in any thorough discussion of the subject, that the verb religare not only means to bind fast, but also, in poetical and past-classical Latin, to unbind, as in the line of Catullus [lxiii. 84]:—

"A it hæc minax Cybebe, religalque juga manu."

It might be not unreasonably urged that warrant could be found, even in the vulgar derivation of the word religion, for its appropriate conjunction with the word free.

But there is no occasion to rest the case on any doubtful or questionable grounds. The best authorities are in favor of deriving the word religion, not from religare at all, but from relegere or religere, signifying "to go through or over page 7 again in reading, in speech, or in thought that is, to review carefully and faithfully, to ponder or reflect with conscientious fidelity. If this derivation is the correct one, then there is nothing in etymology to forbid or discourage the application of the epithet free to religion,—nothing to suggest, even, the idea of bondage or arbitrary obligation. The root-meaning of the word would be the application of the intellectual faculties under direction of the conscience to any subject in general, or more especially, by popular association merely, to the subject of man's relation to God or the gods.

Now this question of the true derivation of the word religion is so closely connected with the profoundest problems of modern religious thought, and particularly with that of the real relation of religion as an historical phenomenon to the belief in God, that I beg your indulgence for presenting to you some of the most important evidence on both sides of this question. At the risk of being dry and uninteresting to a popular audience, I wish to give in some detail such testimony as my note books furnish concerning the verdict of modern scholarship on the true derivation of the word under discussion.

The Derivation From "Religare."

Lactantius, the distinguished convert to Christianity who in the first quarter of the fourth century taught and wrote at Nicomedia, in Bithynia, was the first [Divin. Instil., iv, 28.], so far as I know, to derive the word religion from religare, referring to "the bond of piety by which we are attached and bound to God [a vinculo pietatis quo Deo obstricti et religati sumus]." Augustine, one of the most influential of the early Church Fathers, who flourished about a hundred years later, adopted the derivation of Lactantius. ["Uni Deo religantes animas nostras, unde religio dicta creditor." Retract., i, 13.] It was also adopted by Servius, in the fifth century, in his annotations on Virgil [ad Æn., viii, 349]; and it has been sanctioned by later writers who, in my judgment have either given too little attention to the subject, or have been biassed page 8 by theological preconceptions to acquiesce in what chimed in with their own dogmatic systems. For instance, J. A. Hartung [Die Religion der Römer nach den Quellen dargestellt: Iter Theil, S. 140. Leipzig: 1836] assumes it apparently without investigation as the true derivation; as do also the Rev. Samuel Real [Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese: p. 152. London: 1871] and other writers. But the secret of the predilection for this derivation shown by many scholars is very aptly exposed by Bretschneider, who says: "Lactantius rejected Cicero's etymology, not on philological, but on dogmatic grounds. Religion was to him dependence upon God, unconditioned subjection under his law and revelation; therefore he hunted up the derivation from religare, which for similar reasons suited Augustine also." [Handbuch der Dogmatik der evangelisch-lutherische Kirche: Prolegomena, p. i. footnote. Leipzig: 1838]. This judgment by Bretschneider I consider as just as it is penetrating. The derivation from religare at once assumes that belief in God, and explicit recognition of a supernatural Revelation as the rightful Law of the human soul, constitute the very essence of religion. It has therefore been espoused by the vast majority of Christian theologians, and defended as important testimony, rendered by philology itself, to the truth of their system. They argue, and in my opinion justly, that, if the very word religion expresses the submission of mankind to the will of a personal God, the scientific spirit which refuses to submit to anything but the intrinsic truth of things, and claims the right to decide for itself whether there is a personal God whose will must be accepted as the law of the human mind as well as of the human heart, is wholly outside the sphere of religion, and hostile to it.' They declare, and rightly, that this idea of religion is incompatible with freedom; and they thus indissolubly bind up the destinies of religion with the destinies of their own supernaturalism. Whether the word religion, consequently, is to be the banner under which the great battle of free page 9 thought against superstition is to be fought and won, or whether it too, like the word Christianity, must be surrendered to the devotees of a dying faith, will depend mainly on the truth or untruth of the claims by which they seek to capture it for their own uses. Let us, then, inquire further into the etymology of the word.

The Derivation from "Relegere."

Cicero, the greatest of Roman writers, who flourished three hundred years and more before Lactantius, and who certainly should be regarded as no mean authority on his native language, has a passage which I should translate as follows: "Not philosophers alone, but also our own ancestors, distinguished superstition from religion. For those who were wont to offer prayer and sacrifice, during entire days, that their children might survive them [superstites essent], were called superstitious; a word which was afterwards applied more widely. But they who carefully meditated and, as it were, considered and re-considered all those things which pertained to the worship of the gods, were called religious from relegere [De Nat. Deor., ii, 28.1 Now it is true that the derivation of the word superstition here given is at least dubious; and this fact justifies suspicion of the other derivation. But even he who mistakes once should not therefore be immediately set down as mistaking always. There is other evidence, very strong evidence, showing that Cicero was right in his second derivation. There is a participle religens, signifying religious, which cannot possibly be derived from religare, but must be referred to relegere (or religere, as sometimes spelled.) This participle is contained in a verse quoted from an old poet by Aulus Gellius, author of the Noctes Atticœ, who lived more than a century before Lactantius:

"Rellgentem esse oportet, religiosum nefas."

That is, "it is right to be religious, wrong to be religiose, or superstitious." Such evidence as this must have immense weight with scholars who are free from prepossession. Furthermore, the use of the word religio itself was quite com- page 10 mon at Rome in the simple sense of a "scruple," conscientious or otherwise, implying the consciousness of a natural obligation wholly irrespective of the gods. For instance, the comic poet Terence, who flourished nearly two hundred years before Christ, makes one of his characters exclaim: "I scruple (or am ashamed) to say that I have nothing—nam nil esse mihi religiost dicere." [Heaut., i, 228. Teubner's ed., 1857.] Faithfulness, sincerity, veracity, honor, punctiliousness, conscientiousness—these were frequent popular meanings of the word; and it is evident that they mark its original, radical signification far more clearly than the use made of it as applied to worship of the gods. They point directly to relegere as the true root.

Not to rest the case, however, on any assertions or arguments of my own, let me cite the direct testimony of the highest authorities.

The Universal Latin Lexicon of Facciolatus and Forcellinus [Bailey's edition, 1828], the Wörterbuch der Lateinischen Sprache of Dr. Wilhelm Freund [Leipzig, 1840], and the Latin-English Lexicon of Dr. Andrews, which is better known in this country than the great lexicon of Dr. Freund on which it is based, all give the weight of their authority to the derivation from relegere. No better authorities could be adduced.

Dr. Ramshorn, whose Latin Synonymes is a work of the highest reputation, derives the word religion from relegere, and gives as its fundamental or root-meaning—"conscientiousness, scruple of conscience, scrupulousness." ["Etwas bei sich wiederholen, iminer wieder überlegen; daher die Gewissenhaftigkeit, der Gewissenscrupel, die Bedenklichkeit." Lateinische Synonymik. Leipzig: 1831.]

Dr. John William Donaldson, one of the finest of English scholars, referring to the same derivation, says very emphatically: "There can be no doubt that it is perfectly true. It is clear from the use of the word, that it is not derived from religare, 'to bind back,' but from religere, 'to gather over and over again,' 'to think perpetually and carefully on the same subject,' 'to dwell page 11 with anxious thought on some idea or recollection.' . . . . Hence, practically, relligio signifies, (1) 'religious worship,' considered as scrupulous obedience to the exactions of conscience, and with especial reference to the act of worship; etc." [Varronianus: A Critical and Historical Introduction to the Ethnography of Ancient Italy and to the Philological Study of the Latin Languaqe. p. 407. London: 1852.]

Lest I should transgress beyond all hope of pardon by my citations, permit me simply to refer here to Dr. Paulus [Der Denkglaubige, i, 50]; to Dr. Klotz [Handwörterbuch der Lateinisclien Sprache]; and to Pott, the great philologist [Etymologische Forschungen, ii. 161]. These scholars are unanimous in favoring the derivation relegere and rejecting that from religare. So far as my very imperfect studies have gone, they have led me wholly in the same direction; and I venture to think that no one who sits down faithfully to study the subject in the spirit of pure scholarship, regardless of all dogmatic bias, can come to a different conclusion. I took up the investigation two or three years ago, in order to satisfy my own mind whether radicals ought to discard the word religion as I believe they ought to discard the word Christianity, and with perfect willingness to do it myself, if necessary; and the conclusion has forced itself upon me with irresistible force that the word most certainly belongs to us by its etymology, and, as I hope to show, quite as much by its usage and by its essential meaning.

I would only add that Doderlein, who proposes a third derivation for the word religion, namely, from re and a Greek verb signifying to look to, to have a care for, assigns to it the same radical signification: "Pictas is the natural feeling of innate love; religio, the feeling of a sacred duty come to consciousness. . . . Furthermore, religio rests on an inward obligation by conscience; fides, on the other hand, on an outward obligation by a promise." [Lateinische Synonyme und Etymologieen. Leipzig: 1838.] It will be seen, therefore, that Doderlein, differing from the foregoing in point of derivation, strik- page 12 ingly agrees with them in point of fundamental meaning.

Of the two chief derivations which are assigned to the word religion, I think I have shown conclusively that religare. is not, and that relegere is, the true root. The former implies the idea of bondage, and assumes the belief in a supernatural God, whose simple will is the rightful law of human life, as the very essence of religion itself. The latter assumes the great fact of duty, of conscience, of moral obligation to a natural law of right, and implies not the faintest restriction upon any human faculty other than the natural obligation of right and truth, So far, then, as etymology is concerned, the pretence that the phrase Free Religion contains an inherent contradiction is seen to be based either upon philological ignorance or dogmatic narrowness.

II. Usage.

Trusting that the importance of the subject will still secure to me your indulgence for some inevitable dulness, I wish to dwell a little further upon the word religion with reference to its usage; and I would broadly distinguish between two different use of it as respectively provincial and cosmopolitan. They Correspond to the two derivations already stated, but of course can be' considered quite independently of them. Under each of these two uses, the provincial and the cosmopolitan, I would point out a minor distinction of the vulgar and the scholarly.

The Provincial Use.

The vulgar provincial use of the word religion is that which confounds religion in general with the special form of it which is dominant in any particular place and time. For instance, the Catholic believes that there is no religion at all, properly so called, but Roman Catholicism. His own faith is all the faith there is; every other pretended faith is unfaith, more or less pernicious, and as absolutely hateful to God as all falsehood must necessarily be. This enormous complacency of the Catholic Church is shared to a degree by every Christian, whether Evangel- page 13 ical or so-called Liberal, who cannot or will not concede that Christianity stands precisely on the level of all other religions, as a natural outgrowth of humanity rather than as a supernatural revelation of God. The idea of religion it presupposes is not only provincial, but vulgarly provincial, savoring of nothing but ignorance or conceit. There is nothing about it that a large heart or well-furnished head can view otherwise than with pity for its narrowness, or contempt for its assumption. It will pass away inevitably together with the general dialect of superstition.

The scholarly-provincial use of the word religion is that which, while recognizing all the diverse forms of religion as standing precisely on the same level, all natural and none supernatural, yet confines the application of the word strictly to theistic systems of belief. It is willing to reckon Judaism, Mohammedanism, Parseeism, and so forth, as religions, because they are all monotheistic; and it is willing to include also Buddhism, Confucianism, Positivism even, provided these can be shown to have some sort of belief in a God or gods. At present it stoutly contends that these latter faiths do have such a belief, and it therefore does not deny that they are religions. But if ever it becomes settled by scholarly investigation beyond reasonable doubt that any one of them is nakedly and baldly and incontrovertibly atheistic, then the provincial scholar will be forced either to deny that it is a religion at all, or else without reserve to abandon his own provincialism. There is no escape from this dilemma. If there is no religion without a belief in God, and if Buddhism, for example, should be proved to have no belief in God in any intelligible sense, then one of two things must be true: either Buddhism is not a religion, or else there can be an atheistic religion. The provincial scholar, therefore, is bound to deny that Buddhism is atheistic, that Confucianism is atheistic, that Positivism is atheistic (if this is conceded to be a religion at all, although in this case the other horn of the dilemma is usually seized). The essence of scholarly provincialism consists in the assumed principle that nothing page 14 can be a religion that does not believe in a God or gods; and it exacts this belief as the one great postulate which religion, at least, must never question. Whether it can ever be reconciled with absolute freedom of thought, is a question whose answer seems to me very plain.

The Cosmopolitan Use.

The vulgar cosmopolitan use of the word religion is that which loosely classes all religions together on equal terms, without making any inquiry as to their various doctrines. This is a very common Use of the word among people who have given no particular thought to the subject, but who are free from all narrow prejudice. It is so very common that I claim it as a strictly popular use of the word; and I therefore deny that the radical who thinks Buddhism is atheistic, and yet continues to call it a religion, is guilty of any use of language which is a violation of its natural and current meaning. If questioned, most people would say without reflection that religion always implies a belief in God; yet, if convinced that Buddhism has no such belief, most people would refuse to attempt (he impossible task of extruding it from its established place among the greatest religions of the world. To speak, then, of atheistic religions as at least a sposibility, is not to tamper with words at all. The vulgar cosmopolitan usage warrants it, even on an appeal to the common people.

The scholarly cosmopolitan use of the word religion is that which carefully distinguishes between religion, as a permanent force in human history, and the religions which have been or are its various special forms. It lays down no à priori principle as to what all religion must be, but applies the term impartially to everything which proves itself to be a religion by doing religion's work in the world. It exacts no theistic or atheistic belief as a condition of admittance into the family of recognized religions; it seeks the unity of them all in something deeper than any belief; it treats them as all equally natural, all more or less imperfect, all amenable to the reason of mankind for their influence on charac- page 15 ter, life, and society. This usage of the word can alone be considered scientific, or become acceptable to the spirit of science; for it is the only usage which frankly concedes to science her right to sit in judgment on all human opinions. And it is the only usage which can justify the phrase Free Religion, by construing religion in a way which thoroughly respects and conserves freedom.

"Which of these four usages we adopt, is a matter far broader than it seems; for as we use the word, so also do we conceive and treat the thing. I would not take a narrow, provincial view of what is certainly a ubiquitous and permanent fact of human history, nor knowingly cramp myself by that uncultured dialect, that mere vulgar patois of the soul, which has no words for ideas of universal import. Let our thought and our speech be alike cosmopolitan, large, and elevated, not unworthy of the profound and sublime realities with which they deal. Let us look for the meaning of that word religion in the light of universal human experience, and find it in that which is common to men of all times and climes, of all races and all phases of theological thought. Religion means something which is common to monotheistic Judaism and tritheistic Christianity,—to polytheistic Paganism and pantheistic Brahman ism and atheistic Buddhism; and this something must be discovered in depths of human nature far beneath the region where diverging thoughts appear. Despite the vast speculative chasms which yawn between these varying religions, there must be something shared by them all alike, or they would never have been classed together by the quick judgment of mankind. Nor is this something to be sought for in common beliefs or in common moral rules; these are simply products, not the productive principle itself. It must be sought for as a creative force in man, from which have proceeded all theological beliefs, whether alike or unlike, and all moral rules, whether identical or not. Not in the branches, not even in the trunk of the tree, but rather in the common sap, the common life, the common idea and law of the page 16 whole organism, must be at last discovered that secret of unity which pervades and dominates the growth of all religions. What is it?