Religion, Religions, Religious

Chapter/Section Title:
Religion, Religions, Religious
Book Title:
Critical terms for religious studies
Book Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
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In the second earliest account of the "New World" published in English, A Treatyse of the Newe India (1553), Richard Eden wrote of the natives of the Canary Islands that, "At Columbus first comming thether, the inhabitantes went naked, without shame, religion or knowledge of God." In the same year, toward the beginning of the first part of his massive Cronica del Peru (1553), the conquistador historian Pedro Cieza de Leon described the north Andean indigenous peoples as "observing no religion at all, as we understand it (no...religion alguna, a lo que entendemos) nor is there any house of worship to be found." While both were factually incorrect, their formulations bear witness to the major expansion of the use and understanding of the term "religion" that began in the sixteenth century and anticipate some of the continuing issues

raised by that expansion: (1) "Religion" is not a native category. It is not a first person term of self-characterization. It is a category imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture. It is the other, in these instances colonialists, who are solely responsible for the content of the term. (2) Even in these early formulations, there is an implicit universality. "Religion" is thought to be a ubiquitous human phenomenon; therefore, both Eden and Cierza find its alleged absence noteworthy. (3) In constructing the second-order, generic category "religion," its characteristics are those that appear natural to the other.  In these quotations this familiarity is signaled by the phrases "knowledge of God" and " we understand it."  (4) "Religion" is an anthropological not a theological category. (Perhaps the only exception is tlle distinctively American 19th century coinages, "to get religion" or "to experience religion.") It describes hmnan thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior.  Eden understands the content of "religion" largely in the former sense ("without ... religion or knowledge of God"), whereas Cieza articulates it in the latter ("no religion ... nor ... any house of worship").

The term "religion" has had a long history, much of it, prior to the sixteenth century, irrelevant to contemporary usage. Its etymology is uncertain, although one of the three current possibilities, that it stems from the root * leig meaning "to bind" rather than from roots meaning "to reread" or "to be careful," has been the subject of considerable Christian homiletic expansion from Lactantius's Divine Institutes (early fourth century) and Augustine's On True Religion (early fifth century) to William Camden's Britannia (1586). In both Roman and early Christian Latin usage, the noun forms religio / religiones and, most especially, the adjectival religiosus and the adverbial religiose were cultic terms referring primarily to the careful performance of ritual obligations. This sense survives in the English adverbial construction "religiously" designating a conscientious repetitive action such as "She reads the morning newspaper religiously." The only distinctively Christian usage was the fifth-century extension of this cultic sense to the totality of an individual's life in monastlcism: "religion," a life bound by monastic vows; "religious," a monk; "to enter religion," to join a monastery. It
is this technical vocabulary that is first extended to non-Christian examples in the literature of exploration, particularly in descriptions of the complex civilizations
of Mesoamerica. Thus Hernan Cortes, in his second Carta de Relacion (1520, 64), writes of Tenochtitlan:

This great city contains many mosques [mezquitas, an eleventh century Spanish loan word from the Arabic, masjid], or houses for idols...The principal ones house persons of their religious orders (personas religiosas de su secta)...All these monks (religiosos) dress in black...from tile time they enter the order (entran en la religion).

Cortes's relatively thoughtless language of assimilation is raised to the level of a systemic category two generations later in the encyclopedic work of the Jesuit scholar Joseph de Acosta, The Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1590; English translation, 1604). While the vast majority of tile occurrences of the
term "religious" refer to either Catilolic or native members of "religious orders," sometimes expanded to the dual category, "priests and monks of Mexico" (los sacerdotes y retigiosos de Mexico) a number of passages strain toward a more generic conception. The work is divided into two parts, with the latter, "moral history," chiefly devoted to religion, governance, and political history. "Religion" per se is never defined. Its meaning must be sought in words associated with it as well as its synonyms. For Acosta, "religion" is the belief system that results in ceremonial behavior. "Religion" is "that which is used (que usan) in their rites." "Custom" (costumbre) "superstition" (supersticion) and "religion" (religion) form a belief series in conjunction with the action series of "deed" (hecho) "rite" (rito) "idolatry" (idolatria) "sacrifice" (sacrijicio)
"ceremony" (ceremonia) and "feasts" (fiestas y solemnidades).


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