What Is A Religion?  

Not any seemingly spiritual activity deserves the name of religion if this concept is not to become devoid of meaning. René Guénon traces the term religion back to its etymological root which is 're-ligio' to link, or to tie fast man to, in this case, the Divine. 

In ancient Greece, the term religion had a different meaning, strangely reminiscent of our time when one sees with what ease some people "leave religion A" today to embrace "another religion B" tomorrow. Or they sort of dissolve into the "religion of individualism[3] and indifference[4]", which is of course no religion at all. When in the Greek classical period the "exact, original meaning" of the rites and symbols of the traditional heritage was forgotten, religion also lost "its most fundamental reason for existence" became more a social (and polyteist, heathen) affair. EDH74

So for example, if a member of the ancient Greek city A had to leave and settle in city B he would also leave religion A and embrace the local 'religion' of the new community in B. Which illustrates that religion, as they understood the term, had almost completely become just a social affair. Also today, there are not few religious theoreticists who are of the opinion that their respective religion mostly has for example "a healing and social function".

For modern people religion - when it still has any significance for them - "is simply a matter of performance, of custom, not to say of routine, and they carefully abstain from attempting to understand anything at all about it"... , because there is also "a question of almost total ignorance from the doctrinal point of view, of indifference even with regard to everything relating thereto." CMW62

"There is continual talk about morality[1], while doctrine is scracely mentioned on the pretext that one cannot expect it to be understood; religion nowadays amounts to little more than "moralism"[2]. CMW62

In reality a religion has to include three essential elements, without which it does not fulfill its function. These three elements are the following: 

- a doctrine (the intellectual component), 

- a rite (the ritual component) and 

- a moral, ie. an ethic, (the social component)

but not any ethical system based on human, rational thought but deriving from the super-human level. EDH82+8

Furthermore religion always includes a moral and a sentimental element because man himself is a being with sentiments and this side of man (and woman) is expression of his relation to the 'personal God'. The problem (of religion degenerating) starts where this sentimental element takes over religion or becomes its predominant part, which it should not. As René Guénon caracterized it:

"For most of them [for contemporary man and woman], religion is only a sentimental matter without any intellectual impact; people confuse religion with a vague religiosity [and] reduce it to [mere] morality; the position of the doctrine [the teaching of those divine, eternal truths] is diminished as much as possible, which however is the very essential part, on which all the rest logically only relies as a consequence." And as M. Vivenca[5] explains:

"The weakening of doctrine is for Guénon the most important and out-standing characteristic of contemporary religion, because this [weakening] almost automatically leads to (the rule of) moralism[2] and sentimentalism, which occupy, as one can observe now-a-days, the vacuum left by intellectuality.

When intellectuality is forgotten, a strong distancing [stepping back] from the understanding of Religion [per se] is produced in individual man and woman and a grave loss of 'the sense of faith' [and also of the sense of the sacred] which one can - unfortunately - observe everywhere.

Which is why Guénon affirms: that "which is important before everything else, [which] is to restate this true intellectuality and with it the meaning of doctrine and of Tradition; it is high time, he continues, to show that in religion there is something else than a concern of sentimental devotion, and also something else than moral prescriptions or consolations for minds which have been weakened by suffering, (and) that one can find 'solid food' mentioned by Saint Paul in his Letters to The Hebrews. It is advisable to get involved in a true transformation of mentalities, if one wishes that man and woman should be able to live on 'solid food'."" DRG...

S.H. Nasr on religion:

The term 'religion' has been limited in European languages to its most outward aspects. This limitation has caused religious art and literature to become depleted of the sense of the sacred and removed from tradition considered as the application of principles of a transcendent order. 

Religion is what binds man to the Origin through a message, a revelation, or a manifestation which comes from the Ultimate Reality. The resuscitated term of religion means that which descends from the Source in revelation, (also called) the objective manifestations of the Logos. Then religion (in its resuscitated form) [will be at] the heart of the all-embracing order which is [the immutable and permanent] Tradition. [6]


[1] morality: the right or wrong of actions;set of rules or principles of conduct.

[2] moralism: moralizing; moral counsel or advice. 

[3] individualism: absence of cooperation; wanting a separate existence for oneself; the pursuit of one's own ends or ideas as a mode or principle of life.

[4] indifference: lack of interest or attention; not caring; lack of importance of almost anything.

[5] quoted from 'Le Dictionnaire de René Guénon', Jean-Mark Vivenza, abbrev. DRG

[6] S.H. Nasr, Knowledge of the Sacred, p. 73

More Texts And Explanations:

freedom of thought
his personal traits
islamic tradition
metaphysical zero
role of spiritual master
The Source - the Supreme Center
spiritual teachers
the end of time

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