The A-Z of Believing: W is for Words

Can religion get lost in translation? Ed Kessler, head of the Woolf Institute, presents the 23rd part in a series on belief and scepticism

The various renderings of sacred texts can create their own nuances
The various renderings of sacred texts can create their own nuances

The word is the means by which we navigate our relationship with the world – Tony Judt

The vocabulary of religion is not straightforward. Even the word itself is uncertain. Is “religion” derived from Middle English, meaning “life under monastic vows”, or from the Latin religio (“reverence”) or religare (“to bind”)? I’m unsure – as are my academic colleagues.

What we do know is that by the fourth century, the concept of “religion” as developed by Christianity represented a practice that committed the believer to a set of rules and beliefs separate from lifestyle. One could argue that by this definition neither Judaism nor Islam are religions. Likewise, the OED’s definition of religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” implies that Buddhism is not either.

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