Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Religion" as in the noun

I hardly began my reading on indigenous religions before I was already drawn in to something that I read. Language has always fascinated me, though I've never tried very hard at learning new ones. The reason why they fascinate me are the translations. What one word in one language might MEAN one word in English, but the literal translation to English could be completely different. Some languages don't have a word for an English word, and vice-versa. The reading that struck me comes from Chris Partridge's An Introduction to Religion. The very first page, second paragraph states, "Few indigenous languages have a word like 'religion' and some people have drawn the conclusion that it is inappropriate to speak of 'religion' with reference to indigenous cultures."

As I said before, the fact that a language can lack any word, let alone one for "religion", where it is so freely used and seemingly understood in our country, baffles me. But this realization does two things. It makes us question what the word "religion" means, and it tells us something quite interesting about that language's people and culture.

How can we define religion? Webster has a few definitions for it. "1. a system of faith in and worship of a deity. 2. devoutness; dedication to a holy life. 3. a doctrine or custom accepted on faith." While we're at it, deity means "devine nature" or "a god or goddess", at least still according to Webster.

The glossary of ITWR has a similar yet different definition. They include very cleverly it's latin origin, "(religere: to pay careful attention to some activity) A system of belief or worship, held by a community who may express their religion through shared myths, doctrines, ethical teachings, rituals, or the remembrance of special experiences.

To me, this definition covers more bases. Indigionous cultures and languages may lack the word "religion" because religion is intertwined with their culture. In some cases, it most likely determines the culture. The culture exists because of the so called "religious" systems, myths, and practices of the people. The Religion and society are one and the same, so how can that society's language have two different words for the same thing? That thought can be extended outrageously far. Why do we have a word for it, then? Because as a 1st world industrial country, we've learned of different religions and have accepted them. The constitution requires a seperation of church and state, but were those not already seperated by language? Some countries may require integration of a single religious belief in the running of the culture and country, but the moment the "state" does something outide the dictations of the "religion", it is seperated, at least some what. This church and state business is a tangent, but it is curious. We are obviously the better country for acknowledging and accepting other religions thus giving meaning to "religion".

So there it is. The subject of this blog has already been answered. I, at least, am to some extent satisfied by the definition presented by ITWR because inlike Webster's definition it doesn't restrict the word to the worship of "a deity", "a god or goddess", but rather acknowledges that it is simply a system of worship period, and that worship can be expressed in multiple fashions. Now what religion means is something completely different. Can that question ever be answered?

There's something odd. We ask for definitions by asking what a word means, but with many words, even in our own language, definition and meaning are completely different. As I said, language is fascinating.

1 comment:

Paul Devitto said...

A very interesting discussion. You hit upon something very important in the last part of your reflection; that is, there is a very odd distinction between the meaning of a word and the definition of a word. One way to perhaps look at it is that when we are very young (e.g., toddlers), we are not taught through definitions. What is usually used is pointing, using, and correcting when we get the use wrong. Definitions come later. We often don't realize that defining something is an abstract procedure. We might find efficiency in defining something, but caution here is necessary. One reason is because as soon as something is defined, an example comes along that defies the definition. We then either have to enlarge the definition to encompass the example, or discard the definition. The problem with the former is if we enlarge it so much, we may lose the sense the definition had in the first place.