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CulturePrintCritical dictionary


José Augusto Mourão

Religion is the relation of humanity with the sacred.
 In the form of subjective religion, it consists of the veneration and adoration of its incarnations, and as objective religion, in confession, in speech, in acts (gesture, dances, ablutions, unctions, blessings, sacrifices) and as law and morals. Religion is not a fantastic allegory of society, rather than seeking to explain the form of society, it is humanity's response to this manifestation.

Keywords: primitivism; culture; nature

The religions of humanity, both the major universal religions as religions confined within the limits of a particular civilisation (e.g. the Greco-Roman religion) and the religions of the so-called primitive peoples, contain a common nucleus which expresses itself through myths and key cultural forms. It is in this universal union between religion and culture, between religion and the governance of society that religion truly becomes present and tangible, and it is at this conjuncture that culture and the social order acquire a force which is imposed upon human beings. Religion is not found without institutions (ritual, sacramental, symbolic, canonical). The presence of religion and its institutions in the construction of the first forms of known civilisation, and in general, in the history of all word cultures, is unarguable. The history of religions contains two essential aspects: religions as demarche as shown by rites and celebrations and the religious feeling, analysed by numerous authors as that which consists of homo religiosus as understood through its manifestations[1]. In fact, in a general manner a true universality is attributed to the idea of homo religiosus and to the unequivocal character of its experience: the experience of the sacred. Evolutionary theory in religious sciences, which expresses the hypothesis of a growing evolution from animism to monotheism, has not managed to become accepted. Diverse religions everywhere share a belief in the soul, belief in spirits, the personification of nature, animalism, belief in a mysterious force, the cult of the ancient, polytheism. Besides subjective religion, which has its source in transcendental receptivity and the openness to the Other, the cult, while the objective form (of prayer, gestures, acts) counterbalances the tendency which religious sentiment has to dissolve into the unperceivable, and which creates a just relationship with God. It is in this way that as a foundation stone of the legal and political order, and of culture, that religion becomes ambiguous. There is no legal system nor form of government which does not seek to base its legitimacy on religion. On the other hand, religion is intrinsically oriented towards the creation of culture (art, poetry, music, philosophy) and different aspects of social life.


Nowadays there is a consensus between theologians and religious specialists in terms of designating the purpose and essence of religion through the term salvation. “Religion exists to cure human beings, so that they do not apprehend what is not going well”[2]. Beside the religions of evasion and salvation, open to the transcendent or to mysticism, there has always been other forms of religious groupings which have provided an answer to the earthly concerns with hygiene, health, balance or curing. The sanctuaries of ancient Egypt, such as Denderah, Deir el-Bahri and Memphis were places of pilgrimage, with sanitary facilities, similar to the asclepieions of Epidaurus and Kos.[3] Life coexists with the violence of desire - which myths, religions, Nietzsche, Freud; Girard and others have shown us[4].

Religions are formed as “catharses” or “purifications of the variations of the “evil” which is the different destinies of hatred. In effect, the religious person has been summoned, throughout history, to purify themselves of their stains (which constitute differing “materials” within the limits of the “clean” and the “strange” and which in the final instance relate to the maternal body and to the blood of the so-called primitive religions) to purify themselves of alimentary abominations (in Buddhism, and, albeit in a different manner, in Judaism and in Islam), and to purify themselves of their murderous, sacrificial or fratricidal hatreds[5]. A viewpoint which is merely external (which seeks to explain religion) does not see that which seeks a religious conscience. In effect, religion does not seek to explain the form of society, nor is belief the only way of explaining religion. Religion has been seen as the “opium”, the “howl of the oppressed”, an instrument of social stabilisation (E. Durkheim, Max Weber) or as a means of dominating chance (H. Lübe). With regard to salvation, however, it is necessary to speak of a good that is something else which saves and is to be saved (Plato), a good which does more than just doing good, when speaking of the sacred, without confusing religion and ethics[6] 


There remains a difference regarding the possible etymology of the word with two possible sources a) religio: relegere, from legere “to gather, meet”): the Cicero tradition which comes through in the thinking of W. Otto, Benveniste; b) religare, from ligare (“bind, rebind”): a tradition coming down to us from Lactancius, Tertullian or Pauly-Wissowa, amongst others[79.

The religious phenomenon and the experience of the sacred, the relation between religion and society, the genetic comparison, history, phenomenology and hermeneutics are themes dealt with by certain writers which have become classics (R. Otto, E. Durkheim, M. Mauss, Max Weber, G. Dumézil, (M. Eliade)[8]. But neither etymology nor these various approaches have served to provide a suitable definition for religion. In the words of J. Kristeva, “The ether of religion has always been receptive to a certain spectral virtuality”[9]. Perhaps this is the origin of the difficulty of finding a suitable definition for this term, or even a possible typology. The oppositional pairings of primitive religions or natural religions v. civilisational religions, is an opposition based on an evolutionary presupposition which is now out of date. Another oppositional pairing could be suggested: national or ethnic religions v. universal religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam). Or even a third one: traditional religions v. religions with a founder, or even cosmic religions v. historical religions. And a fourth: prophetic religions v. mystical religions. Or, in the manner of de P. Ricoeur: pagan religions, which are notable for their aspect of manifestation, v. religions which are notable for their aspect of proclamation[10]. Christianity, as an eschatological form of religion, would clearly be considered as a religion of proclamation. Christianity, not redeeming human beings from religion, even with the provisional characteristic of individual compassion and with all of its objective culturality, has always called into question any attempt to deform religion, so as not to see any more in it than the individual assertion of the self, or a simple guarantee of order in society.


It is not enough to have a substantive definition of religion with its centre, as R. Otto has argued, being religious experience as experience of the sacred[11]. A religion is also a way of dressing, washing, marrying, taking care of oneself and setting the table - a religion includes dietary habits, rites, feasts, processions, pilgrimages and votive offerings. The Latin word religio has been repossessed by Christians to define Christianity as the vera religio, in opposition to false religions. The philosophers have another definition: “Religion is the answer”[12] There is no reply with the principle of responsibility: it is necessary to respond to the other, in front of  the other and oneself. And there is no responsibility without vows, without the sacramentum. However, there was no philosophy of religion in Europe before the 17th Century (K. Feiereis). Until then, philosophy was contained within theology, that is, a theory of God (of the gods, of the divine), whether this was in the form of denial (in the name of human liberty and autonomy), of review or affirmation (natural theology, deism). The Enlightenment, which was not about light but Aufklärung, no longer concentrated on the deity, the Being, the One, but rather concentrated on human beings in so far as they refer to the deity. Intellectuals started to speak of the power of the human imagination (Schiller, Shelley), at the time when Christian charity was being transformed into Liberty, Equality, Fraternity[13].
Throughout the 19th Century we can find positions in favour or against religion but now from an empirical-scientific point of view within historical, sociological, psychological and phenomenological perspectives. It was in this context that Religious Sciences was born. A particular aspect of this approach is the philosophy of religion which reconsidered all the previous points of view. Whilst in a first phase it developed positivist theses concerning the absence of meaning in religious statements, in a second phase it methodically clarified its presuppositions, verifiability, rationality and practical and theoretical justification (L. Wittgenstein, A. Flew-A. MacIntyre, I. U. Dalferth).


A religion is thus a device made up of dogmas or articles of faith determined and indissociable from a historical socius (Church, clergy, socially legitimised authority, people, sharing of a language, community of the faithful committed to the same faith and at the same historical period). The institutionalisation (of religion) results, in terms of behaviour, in all of the rituals, and in terms of dress, with its uniform (the habits of the religious orders). In spreading throughout the Mediterranean world, the code formed by the doctrinal concepts of Christianity subdivided into a series of dialects: Arianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, etc. Thomas de Aquinas (Cf. Suma teol., II-II, q. 94, a. 1; ad 1) clearly distinguishes religion from faith: religion designates cultural practices, such as prayer, sacrifices, offerings, etc. Religion is the manifestation of faith (protestatio) through external signs. There are no fixed religions. Religions take on new forms, move and corrupt[14]. They resist (positivism and pragmatism), but not the mimesis of communication and rhetoric. This is part of their malleability - let us say their economy of incarnation. Religions are not immune to seduction and to the effects of the media. In the end the effect of religion on the media is not different to the effect of image: either the ruin of materiality or the triumph of Platonism, or the triumph of incarnation and leading to the expression of the word which we are incarnating in the flesh. Religion in the media is not just religion spread through the press, parochial, controlled at source, with what is most important being the content (the message); it is also not just religion as spread by radio or TV, supported by other electronic means, linear, and subject to a single direction for information and with an informative purpose. Religions are formed within a field made up of the bipolar or nuclear psychic process of meditation which purifies, along with the symbolisation which enables communication. As a result they are obliged to negotiate, as Derrida has stated, “the paradox of a new alliance, between the teletechnoscientific and the two sources of religion (the sound, heilig, holy, on the one hand and faith or belief, the fiduciary, on the other”)[15].

We cannot separate the eulogical discourse with which each group provides solace to its narcissism, from publicity or from the pastoral. What makes Christianity different in this area relative to other religions is that it is the only religion where a sacred event, a Eucharist, an expression of the Most Holy, actually takes place in real time[16]. Christianity is the only religion which cultivates telepresence. In the same way, American evangelism exploits hysteria, immersion and interactivity.

Religion has been in decline for centuries: this decline has not been the death of God as announced by Nietzsche (which above all speaks of a religious reformulation of society)[17], but is also not to be identified with that which Régis Debray speaks of nor with the idea of the “return of the religious”, an idea which is often clothed in bastardised (sects) or reactionary forms (which encourage, in the name of the ideal, an explosion which propels towards death)[18]. This decline has been more pronounced in the Christian West, in America itself than in other places. Neither American fundamentalism nor Islamic fundamentalism will counteract this decline. Popular religion, connotated with beliefs and practices labelled as “superstitious” or magical, marginalised or fought over by ecclesiastical power, has enabled the image of a uniform and logocentric Christian religion to be questioned[19]. To speak nowadays of the “virtue of religion”, is to use an expression which no longer has meaning in everyday language, above all because it is taken to mean either the classical form of Catholic morality, or the form of life of the monk/nun and the religious individual. We also cannot nowadays speak only of religion - which for a long time was taken to mean the Catholic religion - even if Lacan states that the true religion is the Roman, but of religions in general[20]
E. Troelstsch (1865-1923) suggested the idea of a cultural relativisation of religions, following the “individual characteristics of its different cultural and racial spheres” and the “specificity of its binding religious structures”. Its encounter with the religious traditions of other cultures, within a framework of an enlarged ecumenical platform should have enabled the emergence of another perspective, with inevitable consequences at the theological level.  Interreligious dialogue has carried out an about-turn since this was undertaken by the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and after the Nostra aetate declaration concerning relations with non-Christian religions. What is now sought for in the different religions is the reply to the hidden enigmas of the human condition. Human beings do not only testify their openness to the final reality which is God: their religious attitude is translated into a certain perception of hidden strength which governs their lives, however disconcerting the products of this new discontent in our civilisation may be, which involve a return to the need to believe. From the outset everything that has been religion has consisted in giving meaning to things which were, in times gone by, natural things[21]. The religious individual has long been accused of magically enchanting the world and its superstitions, but henceforth will we have to ask the history of religions, and the history of sciences, for techniques of exorcism which only the “return of the religious” can promise[22].

[1] D. Hervieu-Léger, La religion pour mémoire, Cerf, Paris 1993. A. Vergote, Religion, Foi, Incroyance. Étude psychologique, P. Mardaga, Liège 1993.

[2] Lacques Lacan, Le Triomphe de la Religion, Paris, Seuil, 2005, p. 87.

[3] R. Peel, Spiritual Healing in a scientific age, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1987.

[4] S. Freud, Le malaise dans la culture (1930), tr. Fr. Pierre Cotet, René Lainé, Johanna Stute- Cadiot, in Oeuvres completes, volume XVIII, PUF, 1994.

[5] J. Kristeva, La haine et le pardon, Paris, Fayard, 2005, 369.

[6] E. Lévinas, Éthique et Infini, Dialogues avec Philippe Némi, Paris, Fayard, 1982; Of God Who Comes to Mind, Stanford University Press, 1998. Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, eds. Howard V. Hong e Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press 1992.

[7] E. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Paris, Minuit, 1969, II, 265-278.

[8] G. Dumézil, Mythe et épopée, 3 vol., Paris, Gallimard, 1968-1973. G. Mathon, G.- H. Baudry, E. Thiery, Catholicisme Hier Aujourd’hui Demain, tomo XII, Paris, 1990. M. Eliade, Histoire des croyances et dês idées religieuses, 3 vol., Paris, Payot 1976-1983. J. Ries ed.) L’expression du sacré dans les grandes religions, 3 vol., Louvain-la Neuve, 1, 2, 3, 1978-1983. E. Durkheim, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, 1912.

[9] J. Kristeva, op. cit., p. 36.

[10] P. Ricoeur, “Révélation et proclamation”, in Le Sacré, Paris, 1974.

[11] R. Otto, Le Sacré, Paris, 1949.

[12] J. Derrida, Foi et Savoir, Points, Paris, Seuil, 1996.

[13] Richard Rorty/Gianni Vattimo, El futuro de la religión, Solidariedad, caridad, ironia, Paidós Studio 165, 2006 (English translation Richard Rorty/Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004).


[14] Jean-Luc Nancy, La Déclosion (Déconstruction du christianisme, I), Paris, Galilée, 2005.

[15] Jacques Derrida, Foi et savoir. Les deux sources de la ‘religion’ aux limites de la simple raison, in La religion (J. Derrida e G. Vattimo (dir.), Paris, Seuil, 1996, p. 76.

[16] Jacques Derrida, Religion and Media, Stanford University Press, 2001.

[17] F. Nietzsche, Le gai savoir, trad. by P. Klossowski, in Oeuvres philosophiques completes, vol. V, Paris, Gallimard, 1982, p. 150.

[18] R. Debray, Le Feu sacré, Fonctions du religieux, folio essais Paris, Gallimard, 2003.

[19] F.-A. Isambert, 1982. Jean-Yves Lacoste (dir.) Dictionnaire critique de Théologie, Paris, PUF, 1998.

[20] Lacques Lacan, Le Triomphe de la Religion, Paris, Seuil, 2005, p. 87.

[21] Lacan, op. cit. p. 80.

[22] M. Serres, Les messages à distance, Montréal, Fides, 1994, p. 33. M. Taylor, A Postmodern A/theology, Chicago, London, University of Chicago Press, 1984; Hohn D. Caputo, On Religion, London, New York, 2001; Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute: Or Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, London, New York, Verso, 2000.


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