Hardly any term of the intellectual life seems to have such multifarious meanings as religion. Religion is of great importance for the development of mankind and its history, as it represents the human reaction to an extrahuman holy, transcendent, and divine object. The term religion has its etymologic and historical roots in the Roman world, unlike the term faith, which has its origin in the New Testament Paulinic word pxstis (Greek), or fides (Latin). The Latin noun religio originates from the verb relegere, which has the various meanings to do sth. diligently, to do sth. again, to re-read sth., as M. T. Cicero has also uttered. The prefix re-could even be translated as to do sth. diligently again and again. That includes the careful execution of cults prescribed by law cults, which were valid only with exact observance of all these prescriptions. The Latin term religio, therefore, expresses in classical Roman culture the meticulous observance of cults and the consequent respect of man for their gods. Friedrich Heiler correctly puts the verb re-legere opposite to the verb neglegere (to neglect). The derivation of the noun religio from religare (to connect, to reconnect) is in general to deny as one can see in it a feeling of an inner attachment to something transcendent, which was strange to classical beliefs. Religio in its character is in Roman antiquity more a virtue than a state of feeling. The diligent performance of rites was connected with a kind of pious awe that did not necessarily assume that the person who did the religious acts was inwardly moved:
Even after a precise analysis we will not be able to understand the feelings of a Roman when saying the word religio: the peculiar connection of awe and diligence towards the gods that did not request an inner attachment. It is impossible for us to feel and comprehend this Roman religio and it will consequently always be strange to us. (Feil, 1986)
Just this matter makes the Roman religio incomprehensible for us, the adjective religiosus, which, according to Friedrich Heiler “initially marked a place or day as sacred,” is now applied to characterize people and means “pious” and having “fear of God.”
In another, later development, homo religiosus means “member of an order,” a person who lives according to the “evangelical vows” (poverty, chastity, obedience), and wants to be a good example to others in his religious life. From this meaning, maybe especially from the word pious, the noun religion, which may not be equated with the Latin noun religio, came into the Christian-shaped, Western culture.
The definition of religion as “devoutness or expression of devoutness” shows only inaccurately the full meaning of the word. The fides quaerens intellectum (“faith that searches for insight”) is also included in the concept of religion. In Christian antiquity, with St. Augustine, and in the Middle Ages, with St. Thomas Aquinas, religio means Christianity, the Christian religion alone. Non-Christian religions could only be called lex, secta, or fides. The term lex has a universal meaning, according to our expression “denomination or total structure of life.” There is also a lex Christianorum, which means “doctrine and law of the Christian religion.” The development of the term religion is by no means steady or logical. With the help of historical development, beginning with classical antiquity up to the Augsburger Religionsfrieden in 1555, which is characterized by the motto cuius regio, eius religio (“whose region, whose religion”), Ernst Feil was not able to find a continuous development to the modern term religion. Religio cannot be translated by or equated with religion in today’s meaning.
Leaving aside the Christian context of the word religion, one can define it as a relationship of man to a personal or impersonal transcendent, in whatever shape (be it a divine persona or impersona) of the Real. In other European and non-European languages, the meaning of the Western-Christian term religion changes from sth., which is owed to the transcendence to law/doctrine and eternal, never-ending structure. Apart from the more subjective faith, the term religion has a more objective meaning, similar to the distinction between belief(personal belief, conviction) and faith (universal faith, religion).
After this short etymological and historical study, we will now go on to describing the paradigmatical development of the modern term religion. According to Rudolf Otto (1925), a religion that believes in a deity of imaginable terms, is “rational.” He goes further on the objectivity of a religion but in the same context emphasizes the “contrast between Rationalism and profounder religion.” Gustav Mensching also sees the Sacred as united with religion. He calls “religion” an “experienceable encounter of man with the Sacred” and an “answering act of man who is lead by the Sacred.” With the rationality of terms only, one cannot do justice to the term religion. Typical traits of religion are, according to Otto, the tremendum, the “awefulness,” that shakes man in awe of God, the mysterious, completely different being. But one has to differentiate this form of fear from the “natural, ordinary fear” of man, the “general world-fear.” The tremendum derives from a “numinouse dread,” that at the same time terrifies and fascinates man. Religion thus is simultaneously the fascinans:
The qualitative content of the numinous experience, to which “the mysterious” stands as a form, is in one of its aspects the element of daunting “awefulness” and “majesty,” which has already been dealt with in detail; but it is clear that it has at the same time another aspect, in which it shows itself as something uniquely attractive and fascinating. (Otto, 1925)
At the beginning of his book The Sacred and the Profane (1957), in which he focuses on the nature of religion, Mircea Eliade deals with Rudolf Otto’s reflections. Eliade describes in his book the manifestations of religion and the religious in view of a world that dissociates itself more and more from religious dimensions. But even in a secular world, there is something sacred that is characterized as the opposite of the profane. It is always the same mysterious process: the completely different, a reality that is not of our world, manifests itself in things that are components of our natural, profane world.
The religious man Eliade speaks of several times, Homo religious, wants to live as long as possible in the sacred universe. The word sacred describes the dimension of the religious. This dimension surrounds and in some ways carries and holds the religious man. The secular man, who can live without any religious feeling, has a completely different experience, a secular experience of his environment. He lives in a desacralized world. The religious feeling has to find its way in another, maybe hidden, way. So he, the secular man, is differentiated from the Homo religious.
A good century and a half before Eliade, Friedrich E. D. Schleiermacher spoke of religion as a “feeling,” and before him, Jean-Jacques Rousseau did so. In his speeches On Religion (1799), Schleiermacher spoke of religion as a “feeling of infinity” and in The Christian Faith (1821/1822) in Section 4 as Gefühl schlechthin-niger Abhängigkeit (“feeling of quintessential dependence”). Quintessentially dependent means here “to be conscious of a relation to God.” Quintessential means “absolute,” to “be free of all things.” According to Schleiermacher, everyone is shaped by two basic feelings: the feeling of dependence, which makes us the way we are through someone/something else, and the feeling of freedom, which makes something/ someone else the way it/he is. The feeling of the quintessential dependence is related to the being of man in a specific way through the transcendent and is related to the fact that man is held and carried by the transcendent.
A quintessential feeling of freedom or a quintessential freedom cannot exist, for the transcendent in its nature cannot be created as a matter of our self-acting, which would be the condition for a quintessential feeling of freedom. This definition of the feeling of freedom shows in itself that we can only be dependent. The reason for this is that we can only shape these things with our human feelings of freedom, which are in their nature not transcendent. The transcendent does thus not come from human creativity. The transcendent is more the origin of the things that we can shape. Schleiermacher calls this transcendent “God,” outlined by the feeling of quintessential dependence.
If a man feels this quintessential, absolute dependence, then he also feels the relationship to God. In God only can one have the feeling of freedom, because He gives humans the possibility to create things the way they are through human will. Only in quintessential, absolute dependence in the relationship with God, does man get his feeling of freedom. So the basic stage of man, which is shaped through the quintessential dependence and the feeling of freedom, is made possible. In Goethe’s Faust (1808), religion is characterized as a feeling, too. Faust’s answer to the Gretchen-Frage is: “Call it, as you like: Call it luck! Heart! Love! God! I do not have a name for it. Feeling is everything; the names mean nothing.”
Immanuel Kant’s work is in strong contrast to the definition of religion as feeling: There is no way that one could conclude the certain feature of direct divine influence by a feeling, as is shown by Kant’s work Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (Religion Within the Limits of Mere Reason) (1793). Furthermore, religion must be based on reason alone in order to be universal. The religion has to be a reine Vernunftreligion (pure religion of reason). However opposing these two definitions of religion may be, the “feeling,” as Schleiermacher calls it, and Kant’s “pure religion of reason” coincide, though, in the fact that religion is something inward. In this way, at about 1800, a concept of internal religion developed, which proved to be effective up to the 20th century. This is portrayed especially by the statements on religion by Ernst Troeltsch, in 1895: Religion “is fluent and vivid at any time, depending on the direct touch of God, it is internal, personal, individually and abruptly in the highest degree.”
We can regard Paul Tillich’s works as examples of the effective power of the concept of religion. He goes away from feeling as a determination of religion, in a different way than Immanuel Kant, as religion stays in this connection to the pure subjectivity of emotion; and thus declines, as religion loses its seriousness, its truth and its highest sense, and stays empty without a highest content. In his essay Religion als eine Funktion des menschlichen Geistes? (Religion as a Function ofthe Human Mind?) (1955/1956), Tillich defines religion as “some-thing that concerns us immediately,” in the deepest sense of the word. What concerns us immediately becomes tangible in all creative functions of the human mind. But this does not mean that religion is a fiction of the human mind that is created by man himself.
Similar to Schleiermacher, Tillich claims that man’s mind was able to be creative in relation to himself and his world, but he could not be that in his relationship to God. It is more likely that it is meant that religion contains all areas of the life of the human mind, as it is the substance, the basis, and the depth of the human intellectual life. In this, however, religion is not based in any kind of function of the mind; it is universal. Religion is consequently das Unbedingte (the unconditioned component) in every situation.
At a different part, Tillich characterizes religion in 1928/1929 as follows:
In every religious conscience, the first and basic thing that carries everything, is a conscious of the unconditioned, the inevitability of what is given in the religious reality, an awareness of what concerns me concretely and absolutely, the decision between life and death in a way which goes beyond the physical being or not being….If every man, if all parts of our lives are concerned by what is meant with the concept of religion, this concept grows to be universal in its being unconditioned. It grows to something that fits for all parts of reality and for everyone in reality. (Tillich, 1964)
According to Tillich, being moved by religion is always related to a religious object: “It may be expressed as the inexpressible but it is expressed; and in being expressed, it includes a community, to hear, to perceive and to transmit.” In this statement, Tillich expresses two things: On one hand, he wants to show that religion is always related to a content that is inexpressible in the end, and on the other hand, he portrays the social dimension of religion. The objectivity of religion is acquired by this social dimension; nobody is on his own in feeling any kind of religious emotion, in being religiously moved. According to Tillich, religion is consequently situated in the human, who is touched by a offenbarten Unbedingtheit (revealed unconditioned being). This can generally be applied to everyone. The feeling of being touched is always related to a religious object. In the religious reality, however, things are always mentioned that go along with a secret consciousness: “tua res agitur [Horaz, Epistulae. I, 18, v. 84]: You, your issues, are concerned!”
Two definitions of the concept of religion Tillich gives differ crucially from the traditional one: First he speaks of the autonomous religion, which does not know a representational God and consequently no form of prayer either. Despite this, religion is not ungodly or impious. It just knows no kind of ecclesiastical objectification of God. With mysticism, it is different again; mysticism elevates itself beyond the objectification of God. Second, in his essay Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (1961/1963), he mentions “quasi-religions” that are similar to a religion and have some features in common with a religion, but they are only related to secular things and are consequently secular institutions. Tillich speaks of fascism and communism as “most extreme examples of quasi-religions today” because “they are radicalizations and transformations of nationalism and socialism, respectively, both of which have a potential, though not always an actual religious character.” Tillich here differentiates between quasi-religions and pseudo-religions that pretend intentionally to be similar to religion. Due to Tillich’s considerations, especially, the expansion that the concept of religion underwent since the beginning of the 19th century becomes clear.
Quasi-religions and pseudo-religions must be strictly distinguished from the traditional religion, by others (such as Eric Voegelin and Raymond Aron), seen as a political religion in another concept. So, an explosive nature is exhibited in the relationship between religion and politics, as it is expressed in the concept of political religion, and furthermore in the concepts of state religion or civil religion. The roots of the term political religion as religio politica go back to the early 17th century. Since the 1930s, it served to classify the political totalitarian mass movements of this time in a critical attitude toward ideology. But this modern political religion must be clearly distinguished from the political religion in classical antiquity and the later concepts of state religion and civil religion that tried to institutionalize the relationship between religion and politics.
All in all, it is possible to denote religion as something that is situated in man and must be defined as a relationship and interchange between man and a transcendent reality that is relevant for him. The regard to transcendence, however, is not only for religion a decisive criterion. Religions are, rather, connected by a kind of Familienähnlichkeit (family resemblance), as defined by Ludwig Wittgenstein, and thus partly determine each other. They demonstrate similarities that connect them. But these similarities must not necessarily be alike in all religions. Regarding those similarities, the reference to transcendence plays an important role, as well. According to John Hick, another fundamental family resemblance, in addition to the reference to transcendence, is the soteriological content of religion, which describes the ability of a religion to redeem and give salvation. This quality is a feature that all religions have in common in various manners, however different their contents and traditions may be. Hick states that the validity of religious traditions is also measured accordingly.
The modern concept of religion is carefully defined as generic term by Ernst Feil, as a marking that slowly has grown in importance in modern age and in no way portrays the original meaning of the word religion, as its meaning does first describe all imaginations, attitudes, and actions concerning this reality, which humans accept as and call powers or power, spirits or demons, deities or God, the Sacred or the Absolute, or just transcendence. In the end of the first part of his study, however, Feil makes clear that religio/ religion was not used as a collective name for each belief and as a generic term, in which various beliefs are summed up. From antiquity up to the Augsburger Religionsfrieden in 1555, the term religio was only used in a very narrow sense: in the beginning with reference to the exercising of the cult prescribed by law, and later with regard to the Christian denomination. It was long after this that religio/religion underwent an extension of its meaning that led to the modern understanding of religion.
Religion is more than the mere name of a belief; it expresses that man is concerned about something that is beyond him. Summing up, one could characterize religion as follows: First, there is no generic term for all religions of mankind. Second, there is no term that can include all aspects of what is nowadays meant by “religion”; even all these terms together cannot cover everything. Third, in contrast to the modern meaning of religion, earlier terms put the emphasis on the external practice of religion, on the observance of ritual instructions and regulations, and obedience to religious law. These terms, however, are neither unambiguously classified nor do they appear in an outstanding function. It is this final characterization that portrays the broad conceptual frame of the modern concept of religion.
- Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Feil, E. (1986). Religio: die Geschichte eines neuzeitlichen Grundbegriffs vom Frühchristentum bis zur Reformation. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
- Hick, J. (2005). An interpretation of religion: Human responses to the transcendent (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Mensching, G. (1959). Die Religion: Erscheinungsformen, Strukturtypen und Lebensgesetze. Stuttgart, Germany: Schwab.
- Otto, R. (1925). The idea of the holy: An inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. London, New York: Milford, Oxford University Press.
- Tillich, P. (1964). Gesammelte Werke [Collected works], Vol. 5: Die Frage nach dem Unbedingten [The question of the absolute]. Stuttgart, Germany: Evangelisches Verlags-Werk.
- Tillich, P. (1988). Hauptwerke [Main works], Vol. 5: Religiöse Schriften [Writings on religions]. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter et al.
- Troeltsch, E. (1962). Religion and church (1895). In Gesammelte Schriften [Collected works], Vol. 2: Zur religiösen Lage, Religionsphilosophie und Ethik. Aalen: Scientia.