Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Thought 553: The Double Etymology of Religion

Some attribute the word 'religion' to the Latin relegere, to re-read, possibly due to a comment made by Roman author Cicero, but I agree with Mark Passio that the etymology of religare, which is morphologically closer to 'religion', makes a lot more sense.

Passio interprets religare in the negative sense of what ties, binds back, acts as a leash (the words ligature and ligament are also said to be related to re-ligare). This turns out to be an apt etymological understanding for his negative view of organised religion which he claims to be one of the main instruments of mass mind control

Indeed, in his introductory podcast on religion, Passio approvingly quotes Founding Father Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason):
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit."
Despite the convincing appearance of Passio's etymology, especially in the context of his anti-authoritarian philosophy of freedom, the word religare has been interpreted by some modern scholars and my girlfriend as signifying an idea of re-connecting, re-tying, re-binding. This conception is in part expressed by esoteric philosopher Manly P. Hall in his book Old Testament Wisdom in the following way:
"Religions, as we know them, are human restatements of eternal principles."
This etymological understanding suits my girlfriend very much in so far as studying the Hebrew Bible has helped her re-connect with herself and her Jewish roots as well as bind her, as it were, closer to life. 

Thus, two points can be taken from this double understanding.
  1. Etymological arguments are interpretative and the interpretations chosen will likely be congruent with à priori sensibility as expressed in life preferences as well as a specific philosophical and sociological context, in that an anarchist conspiracy researcher will likely not take as kindly to religion as a theologian or religious scholar.
  2. In the case of the etymology of religion, which we traced back to religare, to bind back, a great deal of leeway is offered in whether one interprets 'binding' as having positive connotations - e.g. eternal principles that bind us as a human species, à la Hall - or pejorative connotations - e.g. a leash that holds people back from exploring their true consciousness, i.e. the church of their mind, à la Paine.  
For my part I am open to both interpretations as I see both good and bad aspects to religion and in a sense this double etymological understanding is a good example of how competing interpretations can both be valid in their chosen philosophical context (see post Both Parties Right in Disagreement).

Addendum - After writing this I learnt that Mark Passio is indeed aware of this double etymology which he (rightly) interprets as being symptomatic of the dual nature of the universe, of the same things serving either good or bad agendas depending on the moral intent with which these things are used.

Addendum 2 - I find it interesting that, somewhere in his oeuvre, the philosophical author Giorgio Agamben finds the 'binding, tying' etymology of religion (religare) an 'insipid' one, and traces it back to later, more Christianised and popular quarters, including Augustine, than the 'reread' etymology (relegere) that was favoured by Cicero in the classical age. 

Indeed, such an elite v people - elitist v populist opposition is apparent in the different quality of sensibility of the thinkers that are Agamben and Passio - as well as that of their respective audiences - and it seems fitting that the former should prefer the 'rereading' etymology - himself a careful philological reader - over its 'insipid' alternative and the latter the 'binding' etymology as part of his 'mind control', conspiratorial paradigm of interpretation, regularly expressing his exasperation at (educated?) people pointing him to the 'rereading' etymology.