You keep not using that word
I’ve been writing these posts mostly in the evening, after my workday and something approximating dinner. (This evening’s repast was catered by a couple of fellows named Ben and Jerry.) It takes me forty minutes to an hour to write one usually; I would say my writing speed, when I’m on top of my game, is about a thousand words an hour. (And I feel certain of that after four weeks of writing a prose entry a day.)
If that seems swift to some of my readers, as I think it might, then bear in mind that I’ve probably been thinking about the topic for the day since breakfast. While I’m catching up on Tumblr and Facebook over my Mini-Wheats, I also have a look at the day’s prompt, so that some part of my mind is occupied with it during work, over lunch, while walking home.
I was feeling a dearth of inspiration today, facing a topic that looked irrelevant, pointless. I sat at the computer petting my bird friend and frowning over the list wondering what to substitute for the meme. As I did so, I noticed how many synonyms there are for religion on the list: Path, practice, belief, beliefs, faith. The word “religion” itself, however, is conspicuous by its absence.
I am not unsympathetic to people who want to be “spiritual” but not “religious”. Organized religion, which in Western cultures mostly means institutionalized Christianity, has done much good but also a great deal of harm. Roman Catholic missionaries built schools and hospitals in some places, authorized slavery and genocide in others. Roman Catholic priests and nuns have taught children who might otherwise have no education but also abused children in their care. Evangelical Christians have fleeced their flocks mercilessly, demonized homosexuals while hiring rentboys on the side, and done their own fair share of child abuse of various sorts. Yeah, I’m sympathetic to anyone who wishes to disassociate from that.
On the other hand, I noticed that almost as soon as I firmly committed to a polytheist devotion centered on Antinous, I began to use the word “religion” again, confidently. I didn’t call druidry my religion. I didn’t call any of my stages of generic paganism a religion. Anglican Christianity, Episcopal style, that was a religion. So was Tibetan Buddhism; I had no hesitations in calling it my religion during the short time I identified solely as a Buddhist. And polytheism, Mediterranean style, definitely commended itself to me as a religion.
The early Christian writer Lactantius, writing in Latin, famously defined “religio” as “re-ligare”, to re-bind or re-connect, a definition which Augustine of Hippo threw his weight behind. Cicero, writing in a pagan context, connected religion with careful handling of divine things and with review and study of sacred knowledge, as well as simply giving a useful synonym: “Cultus deorum”, cultus of the gods. “Cult” has become a bad word in English; I’ve seen it usefully defined as “a religion I disapprove of”. But “cultus” is a relative of “culture”, “cultivate”, and “agriculture”; it means to care for, to tend, to pay attention to. “Cultores deorum”, as Roman polytheists today call themselves, are people who pay due attention and care to the gods.
I think perhaps what differentiates using the word religion rather than path or practice is that element of relationship. You cannot have a religion without someone to relate to, to connect or re-connect with. You can have a path that is uniquely your own, or a practice that grounds your life, without any recourse to any being outside yourself. Even in Buddhism, which is often regarded as non-theistic or atheistic, you take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha–not just in a teaching, but in the teacher and the community of students and practitioners.
Likewise remembering Cicero’s remarks on religion steers me away from calling my religion a faith or belief. I have faith in my gods; I believe in them in the sense that I believe in someone I know and trust. But unlike certain types of Christianity, my religion is not reducible to a series of propositions I have to agree with, on the word of an authority whose experience substitutes for my own. I am finally beginning to understand the statement that you don’t have to believe if you know.
Let us keep using the word religion in talking about our polytheist devotion and practice. I think it means what we need it to mean.