When I was visiting my college roommate in April, he and I were discussing spirituality and religion. He has a Masters degree from the Classics department at our university, and it was interesting to speak with him about the etymology of the word “religion.”

The word is derived from the Latin religiō, and while the etymology is hazy, it definitely carries connotations that would surprise most modern people who identify themselves as “religious.”

On possible meaning is what Cicero called cultus deorum, which loosely translates as properly performing rites to please the gods (these words are older than Christianity, of course). This definition makes sense when viewed in the context of a Catholic mass–as well as the acts of confession and communion. Every aspect of those rites is controlled, and performed with an adherence to tradition. to an outsider, the piety and fealty of correctly performing the rites appears as important as actual belief. Think about what those rites might look like to an alien visiting Earth; the act itself might seem like a religion.

I could go on about some of the other alternate etymologies of the word, but you could just visit Wikipedia yourself and read all about them.

The first thing to understand is that I think there’s a distinct difference between religion and spirituality. That may sound intuitive to some, but to others those words are synonymous. The easy way to think about it, and the way I’ve always separated the two in my mind, is this: a spiritual person is in touch with the part of themselves that goes beyond the physical world, and understands that faith in something larger (the three-part God, in this case) creates a connection with that part of themselves. Religion, on the other hand, is what happens when many supposedly spiritual people get together to pay homage and worship to that spiritual part of their lives, based on some shared belief.

I used to think that spirituality was enough, and that feeling connected to a God that loved me was good enough to ensure my place in His heart. Lately, I’ve come to understand that such practice falls short in some ways, and moreover, will fail to connect me to other people who are likewise embodying God to the best of their ability. However, I also still recognize that organized religion can also be dangerous. Groupthink and likemindedness can create situations where legalism and cults of personality can arise. False idols can be raised when a church collectively focuses on the wrong things, or listens to a leader who has gone astray.

This is one of my favorite parables (non-biblical): A traveler comes across a great stone, carved by the elements over many millennia, that is shaped like a hand with a single finger raised. He runs home and tells his kin and brethren, and they journey to the finger to see it with him. They begin to worship the hand, thinking it is the divine work of God. What they fail to recognize is that the finger is pointing upward, and that the thing to which the finger points is far more important than the finger itself.

This is all to say that while I am spiritually a Christian, sometimes I am skeptical of the nature and motive of any organized church. I wonder who, or what, is being worshiped, and why. I am inherently trusting of individuals, but when a group of individuals operates as a single legislative body, things can get hairy.

I’m digressing. The one definition of religio that I do want to touch on for a moment is the classical explanation: re- (meaning “again”) and lego (meaning “choose”).  This is simultaneously unsettling and reassuring.

Faith is the belief in the unseen and unprovable. Religion, by the above definition, means to re-choose. Perhaps, then, when I think of being religious, I ought to think of the practice of re-choosing that faith.


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