The English word "religion" derives through Old French from the Latin religiō, whose ultimate origins are obscure, but some modern scholars favor the derivation from ligare (bind, connect), probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e., re (again) + ligare, or "to reconnect." [Wikipedia]
The binding in question was that between man and God, which was emphasized in the philosophy of religion course I took as a philosophy major in college. We read Rudolf Otto's 1917 book, Das Heilig [the English translation was titled The Idea of the Holy], one of whose theses was that Christianity is the best of all religions. That wasn't a remarkable or even an original thesis; what religion doesn't think of itself as preeminent?
More significant for the book's success—it has never gone out of print, according to Wikipedia—is that it defined "holy" as the numinous—from the Latin word numen (divine power)—which Otto explained as "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self." Otto contended that what is numinous manifests as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) and is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). I don't know whether it was the Latin of the phrase mysterium tremendum, the fervor of our professor, or my own late adolescent longing for "transcendence," but I found all this terribly fascinating. At the time, I thrilled at what I chose to regard as a possible depiction of feelings I had had.
While the binding may originally have been thought to be theological, between man and God, in practice it's the bond between man and man (humans and humans) that matters when it comes to religion. Anyway, at least since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, we have to consider that theology is a study lacking a subject matter, so what's left in the equation?
Jehovah's Witnesses are a tightly bound group, or at least its local enclaves are. So are local and larger enclaves of Southern Baptists, or of Sunnis or Shiites in Islam. Each enclave's religion binds it together. And during tribal times, such binding was no doubt beneficial to survival in conflicts with other tribes, similarly bound together by their own shared body of beliefs.
There may even in today's interdependent, "global community" be some benefit, to somebody, in religious binding—for example, to al-Qaeda operatives looking to recruit suicide-bombers, or to Republican Party officials looking to get out the vote to support marriage between one man and one woman. I won't hide my skepticism as to its having any greater "good."
Today, the overall result of enclaves of competing religions is sundering, the opposite of binding.
So what is there today, numinous or not, that might serve to bind all of mankind together?
What if everything theistic were flushed out of religion? What could remain? Each of the Abrahamaic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) has a core of compassionate belief—Judaism and Islam their concern for social justice, Christianity its compassion, which, by the way, doesn't depend on Jesus's having been a god.
Look into the eyes of a homeless person, a starving child, an abandoned dog, a pig in the slaughter lane...look into the eyes of a needy neighbor. You might discover compassion. You might have seen something that all we animals share, and not just humans. Something that could be our binding.
Can such a world-wide binding ever come to pass? Pessimism is perhaps realistic. But maybe if one person at a time moves in that direction....
If humans have free choice, then some can be counted on to continue to take advantage of others. But some of us can choose the other way, as I, if I am actually free to do so, am doing. Maybe you are choosing that way too.
If we don't really have free choice—but only the illusion of it—and our actions are determined by all that has preceded, then we either will or won't move in the binding direction. Your reading this may have slightly shifted the balance of forces determining your actions, as the writing of it has reinforced the binding tendency of the forces shaping my own.
Copyright © 2013 by Morris Dean