The meaning and mysterious history of the origin of the word “religion”: an investigation

Unexpectedly for me, the origin of the word “religion” turned out to be a real mystery. At first, everything was seemingly simple: Google returned the genealogy tree of the word religion at the very first request. It turned out that “religion” is rooted in the Latin verb religare.

The Latin verb religare means to bind, to reunite. On Russian Wikipedia it is written that religare is used in the sense of restoring the broken bond between man and God, the feeling of a certain connection with all being, which has a systematic and organized nature.

First, the explanation about the connection with God does not explain anything – even if it were so, how did it later turn into “religion” in the modern sense?

Secondly, in the same place it is written that “religio (lat.) – conscientiousness, conscientiousness, piety” – everything would be fine, only this is not a translation from Latin, but from Old French

An investigation into where the word “religion” actually originated in its modern meaning takes more than two thousand years into the past and reveals a collision of two completely different versions of two significant ancient Roman thinkers – the famous rhetorician Cicero and the famous theologian Lactantius.

In fact, even the Romans themselves began to use the word “religion” in its modern sense.

In the 1st century BC. Cicero wrote:

Quos deos et venerari et colere debemus, cultus autem deorum est optumus idemque castissimus atque sanctissimus plenissimusque pietatis, ut eos semper pura integra incorrupta et mente et voce veneremur. Non enim philosophi solum verum etiam maiores nostri superstitionem a religione separaverunt.

The last three words, superstitionem a religione separaverunt, literally translate as “the difference between superstition and religion.”

This means that, unlike a culture where Europeans took the Latin root and came up with a new meaning of the word cultura, relying on it – with religion, you will have to dig deeper and disassemble the origin of this word already in Latin.

▍ Why did the Romans invent the word “religion”

A small lyrical digression: Latin became the first language in which a separate term appeared for the concept described by the word “religion” – in fact, “religion”.

A rather curious version of the reason for this is stated in Forward magazine: in the ancient world, religion was simply not considered as a separate part of the world around a person, permeating his reality in all aspects.

And only the Romans, who conquered half of the civilizations of the ancient world, saw something in common that unites all cults and beliefs and separates them from other aspects of human life.

Of course, the Romans were not the first to conquer many territories inhabited by peoples with different views.

But the Romans were distinguished by their characteristic craving for order, organization and systematization, on which they built not only their empire, but also organized its unique internal structure.

So it is not surprising that it was the Latin eye that noticed that all these gods, goddesses and other supernatural living creatures should be taken into a separate category of classification. For order.

The origin of the word “religion” in Latin

The main modern hypothesis of the origin of the word “religion” is its formation from the Latin verb religare. In her support


to a quote from the Commentaries on the Aeneid by Virgil, who lived in the 4th century AD. Roman philologist



religio id est metus, ab eo quod mentem religet dicta religio

– and a Christian theologian

Lucius Lactantius

(~ 245-325 AD), who in support of her cited a line from the philosophical poem of the Roman poet Lucretius De rerum natura (“On the nature of things”):

religionum animum nodis exsolvere pergo

– “free the mind from religious bonds.”

According to this hypothesis, the verb religare is formed from the prefix re (meaning repetition) and the verb ligare, the form of the verb ligo, derived from the Proto-Indo-European leyǵ, “to bind”.

However, in the legendary treatise De natura deorum (“On the nature of the gods”) by a contemporary of Lucretius Cicero, “religion” is derived from a completely different verb: relegere.

Qui omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter pertractarent, et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, ut elegantes ex eligendo

Relegere is a form of the verb relego, formed by the same prefix re and the verb lego, derived from

Proto-Indo-European leǵ

meaning “to collect.”

The Latin verb lego is translated as “collect, select, read” – and lay, neither more nor less, in the basis of words such as “intelligence” (intellegō – “understand”), “lecture” (lēctus – “sample”) and “legend” (from the adverbial form legere – legendus).

And “religion”, according to Cicero, who writes that religious (religiosi) refers to people who have read everything there is to read, about how to worship the gods correctly – and observe all the rituals.

Whose version should I choose – Cicero or Lactantius?

Lucretius uses the word religionum in the phrase “religious superstition.”

in the translation of Petrovsky


Cicero writes that a “religious” (religiosi) is a person who has studied the canon of his faith and strictly follows it. A counter question arises: where did this dilemma come from?

Lucretius did not try to define the word “religious”, using it as it is in the line about “liberation from the bonds of religious superstition.”

Liberation from bonds (nodis exsolvere) does not in any way hint at the origin of the word religionum itself and to see a hint of this meaning here is no more than to deduce the origin of the word “religion” from the slogan “religion is opium for the people.”

Whereas Cicero in the second book of his treatise that is exactly what it does.

Moreover, in the extended quote it is clear that he, in fact, answers the same question that I am asking myself in this article: how does a cult differ from a religion (“Accuracy of words: how cult differs from religion“).

In latin:

[72] nam qui totos dies precabantur et immolabant, ut sibi sui liberi superstites essent, superstitiosi sunt appellati, quod nomen patuit postea latius; qui autem omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, [i] sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, [tamquam] elegantes ex eligendo, [tamquam] [ex] diligendo diligentes, ex intellegendo intellegentes; his enim in verbis omnibus inest vis legendi eadem quae in religioso. ita factum est in superstitioso et religioso alterum vitii nomen alterum laudis. Ac mihi videor satis et esse deos et quales essent ostendisse.

In English:

72 Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should outlive them were termed ‘superstitious’ (from superstes, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called ‘religious’ from relegere (to retrace or re-read), like ‘elegant’ from eligere (to select), ‘diligent’ from diligere (to care for), ‘intelligent’ fromintellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of ‘picking out’ (legere) that is present in ‘religious.’ Hence ‘superstitious’ and ‘religious’ came to be terms of censure and approval respectively. I think that I have said enough to prove the existence of the gods and their nature.

Russian translation:

For those who prayed all day and made sacrifices so that their children would survive them (superstiti sibi essent), they were called superstitious (superstitiosi), later this name acquired a broader meaning. And those who diligently pondered over everything related to the veneration of the gods and, as it were, reread (relegerent), were called religious (religiosi) (from relegere, like elegantes from eligere, diligentes from diligere, like intellegentes from intellegere). For all these words have the same root (vis legendi) as the word religious. So, of the two words “superstitious” and “religiously,” the first came to mean censure, and the second – praise. And now, it seems to me, enough has been shown and that the gods exist, and what they are.

Cicero described two types of supernatural people involved in worship: superstitious and religious.

  • Superstitious people have a superficial idea of ​​what they believe in, are in constant fear and reduce their faith to superstition.
  • Religious people diligently approach the cult, study the canon and strictly follow it.

The mention of “religion” already in its modern, in fact, meaning, by Cicero is indisputable and much clearer than Lucretius, despite Lactanius’s lobbying for this version.

As Cicero said

Therefore, despite the prevailing belief today in the origin of the word religion from religare, “approved” in the Google search results, I stop at Cicero as the first written source with the word “religious” derived from the verb relegere.

The original definition of religiosity according to Cicero: deep knowledge, reverence and performance of rituals.

The very same word “religion”, obviously, appears later.

And, it is quite possible that, despite the supposedly different Latin roots, the noun religion still appears in the English language of the Middle English period of 1150-1470.

PS By the way, the Christian theologian Lactantius was noted in another historical field, being one of the most influential supporters of the “flat earth” in history.

Even ancient philosophers knew that the Earth should be spherical, and even calculated its size, but Lactantius ridiculed them.

Moreover, being a very influential figure in the Christian world, nicknamed “Christian Cicero”, he laid the foundation for the Christian church’s support for flat earth ideas for a thousand years to come – until they were finally refuted in the Age of Great Geographical Discoveries.

This fact is completely isolated from the etymology of “religion” – just touches to the portrait.

PPS It is even more strange that the “flat earth theory” by some miracle has survived to this day.

And, although its today’s adherents are the most eccentric audience, just imagine: their belief in a flat earth is based on the fact that this idea was once supported by the Catholic Church.

And it came to the Catholic Church from the writings of Lactantius.

This is the connection between generations.

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