Earlier today I was describing someone to a friend. I said, "I never realized how zealous he was." I meant for the meaning of zealous here to be religiously zealous. Without an adverb, I would implicitly associate the word zealous with religion. But now I am thinking about it, and perhaps this is not the case.

So does the word zealous have an implicit religious connotation? Or is the object of zealousness too ambiguous without an adverb or other context?

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    I think this depends on context more than anything else, but I will point out that "overzealous" usually refers to non-religious zealotry. – Kevin Workman Jan 26 '15 at 17:24
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    @FumbleFingers I read over that question and the answers but they weren't getting at the question I was interested in. That question pertains to whether or not zealous has a positive or negative connotation, where my question is, regardless of a positive or negative connotation, does it have a religious connotation outside of any other context? – spacetyper Jan 26 '15 at 17:34
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    In my judgment, the noun "zeal" has little/no religious connotation, while "zealous" has a bit, and "zealot" a fair amount (and much more if capitalized). The connotation can be positive or negative -- mostly positive when used figuratively, negative when used literally. – Hot Licks Jan 26 '15 at 17:54
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    yes, 'zealous' has a religious connotation but not very strong. It all depends on context. If you're talking about politics of drought in northwestern South Sudan and someone is zealous about damn building, then its not religious. If you're talking about Methodists in 17th c England, then it's religious. If you're talking about 1st c Palestine under Roman control, then it's almost literal. – Mitch Jan 26 '15 at 17:59

Its complicated, but I would say yes, it does generally imply religion.

The word ultimately derives from the Greek word zelotes, meaning "emulator, zealous admirer or follower". However, what popularized the term was The Zealots. They were a group of Jews who were constantly trying to incite revolt against Rome. Given all the murders that were involved, it would be reasonable today to call them terrorists.

Now again, technically this was just another political sect, with no major religious differences from other Jewish sects. However, it is impossible to separate their actions from their religious beliefs, as they believed that a Jew should have no rulers whatsoever outside of God.

So calling someone a "Zealot" or "zealous" was initially a metaphoric way of comparing their behavior to the Roman era religious terrorists of that name. It is however at this remove probably legit (not redundant) to stick "religious" in front of it if you want to be clear on that point.

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    An interesting read is "The Zealot", by Reza Aslan. – Hot Licks Jan 26 '15 at 17:56
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    @HotLicks - Oooh. Yeah, that one's been on my list for a while. In the meantime, I've gotten by with The Life of Brian and Christopher Moore's Lamb. :-) – T.E.D. Jan 26 '15 at 18:49
  • One advantage of the book is that it's a short, easy read. Not a lot of tedious hermeneutics. – Hot Licks Jan 26 '15 at 22:58

From the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct



2... As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the rules of the adversary system.

(Emphasis added.)

As a former prosecutor, I can assure you that if there is a religion in the legal field, it revolves around the sacredness of "winning."

More seriously, "zealously" is a legal term-of-art and not religious. Non-lawyers can have a legal, ethical, or moral duty to be zealous, such as a business executive seeking to maximize the value of a company for the benefit of its shareholders. Some moral systems dictate zealous action in specific situations. The Chinese language has an idiom, jian si bu jiu, which instructs people to help someone in distress.

If I heard the word zealot, I believe that any connotation would be so slight that it would be overwhelmed by the context of the use of the word.

Conclusion: zealot, and only that form of the word, probably has a slight religious connotation but the connotation is insignificant enough to be unimportant and unreliable.

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    Despite my answer, I pretty much agree with this one (so +1). Particularly the last two paragraphs. You should just realize that many folks will see it, while many will not. – T.E.D. Jan 26 '15 at 22:37

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