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I need some research help regarding the shift in the meaning/usage of the word "religion" in Christian parlance.

Background: In recent years the use word "religion" has changed from its classic dictionary definition (e.g., "the belief in a god or in a group of gods; an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods" - Websters).

Some segments of Christianity regularly (mis)use the word strictly as a pejorative, nearly always intended as a damning reference system of works-based righteousness or, less often, as a sweeping reference to liturgy or ceremony. Quite simply, bashing "religion" has become quite a fad for at least a decade. Unfortunately, this word is so widely misused that online research in the origins of its shift in usage has proven fruitless so far.

What I am researching is this:

  1. When/where did this word start to shift meaning? (Was this an Emergent era thing? Before that?)
  2. Can you cite any examples (books, speeches, articles) from online or even from memory where you first heard "religion!!!!" (mis)used as a pejorative synonym for works righteousness or ceremony?
  3. This peculiar misuse of the word seems entirely confined to western Protestantism, but perhaps some of you can cite non-Protestant examples?

Here's an example: in 2009, popular (now former) pastor Mark Driscoll published a book called "Religion Saves, and Nine Other Misconceptions" based on his 10-part sermon series of the same name. As is common nowadays, Driscoll used the word "religion" to mean earning a right standing before God through good behavior. But he and others in his circle has been using that meaning in sermons and writing for at least 5 years before then.

NOTE: This research request is NOT intended to serve as a debate thread over the meaning of the word "religion." I'm asking for some very specific information, hopefully with citations, examples or information from those with historical knowledge of the answers.

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  • you may want to back up even earlier in your research - religion derives from the Latin religio which meant which monastic order you followed .. it was much more recently that it was used to mean a particular belief system (whereby hinduism & judaism, for example, are both "religions")
    – warren
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 19:58
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    Sorry for the late reply, Warren. Good point on the original origins (so to speak) because that shows the shifting meaning in vernacular terms. So I'm trying to find when "religion" began to shift use in the common/vernacular language to be used (in preaching at least) as a synonym for works-based righteousness. So far the best I can trace back is roughly the early years of the so-called Emergent movement. They sought to be the un-religion, so to speak, and pigeon-holed all manner of boogeyman in doctrine and practice under that newly minted pejorative.
    – PhilNicholas
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 2:51
  • Shifting to what?? Religions is probably religare, to rebind, in Latin.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 23:22
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    This seems more a question for specialists in the practice of Christianity than for English language; the shift seems to be specific to a certain subset of texts within certain Christian denominations. Possibly when it was originally asked there were fewer Christianity-related SE sites.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 13:27
  • I still don't get what this question means. What shift in meaning? Please explain it. There are tons of ways to look at religion but the basic meaning of the word has simply not changed. What an idea.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 20:16

4 Answers 4

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In my (admittedly limited) experience, the word more likely to be used in a transparently pejorative way is not religion but religiosity, which Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists as the noun form of the adjective religiose, defined as follows:

religiose adj (1853) RELIGIOUS; esp : excessively, obtrusively, or sentimentally religious — religiosity n

That same entry (minus the first recorded occurrence date) goes back to the Seventh Collegiate Dictionary (1963). The Sixth Collegiate Dictionary (1949), however, has an entry for religiosity but no mention of religiose:

religiosity n. Religiousness, esp. when intense, excessive or affected.

The earliest occurrence of either term in the Webster Collegiate Dictionary series is on the Third Collegiate (1916):

religiosity n. Quality of being religious, esp., excessively or affectedly religious ; religiousness.

It thus appears that the farther you get from religiosity as simple "religiousness," the more pejorative the sense of religiosity becomes.

Finding early matches for religiose is complicated by the fact that religiose is a Latin word and so turns up in many books where it is not being used as an English word, as well in some very early ones where it seems to signify "religious."

The noun religiosity, on the other hand is easier to isolate. It first appears in Acta Fratrum Unitatis in Anglia (1749):

As a forced keeping them ["foreign Children"] in Religiosity is of the most dangerous Consequence for Childrens Minds, so far, as even to obstruct their Conversion when riper in Years; we are not forward in upbraiding Children with regard to any particular Persuasion, or consequent Duty, in a religious way, if the least accidental, and (after the most universal manner of thinking) possibly separable from the very main Point of the Bible: Which Book, being acknowledged for a Divine Revelation a thousand Miles round, is certainly preferable to unfixed and severally contradicted Rules of Natural Light ; which now are as much removed from true Simplicity, and, by learned Speculations, as much subtilized and corrupted, as the most embroiled system in the Scripturary Way.

But however positive the notion of religiosity was in 1749, it seemingly had come to be interpreted critically 65 years later. From a letter from William Taylor to Robert Southey (March 1, 1816), regarding Southey's epic poem, Roderick the Last of the Goths, reprinted in J.W. Robberds, A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor, of Norwich, volume 2 (1843):

Wordsworth carries no further than you the narratory manner, and the magnification of trifles, but you Wordsworthize too often. Another fault of the poem is its incessant religiosity. All the personages meet at prayers ; all the heroes are monks in armour ; all the speeches are pulpit exhortations ; all the favourites are reconciled to the church. and die with the comfort of absolution, as if, not the deliverance of Spain, but the salvation of the court constituted the action of the epopea. And in this religiosity there is more of methodism and less of idolatry than marked the Spanish catholicism of that era.

Overall, the frequencies of religiosity (red line) and religiose (blue line) show very different trajectories across the years 1700–2005:

In any case, I think that the emergence and rise of religiosity as an unflattering term for effusive or excessive religiousness is well worth examining in conjunction with possible changes in tenor of the use of the term religion itself.

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  • It should be noted that the intervening period between the two peaks may correspond to the popularity of some third term which had not yet been identified. This is particularly likely given that the low period corresponds to a time when it would have been difficult to publish works that were blatantly critical of, in particular, mainline Protestantism, so obscure terminology would have been more likely.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 12:13
  • @HotLicks: The early peak for religiose is, I suspect, largely illusory. Early instances of the term in English (going back to the 1500s) used it as a variant spelling of religious, but most 1700s instances of the word are in Latin texts. However, I think your point about there perhaps having been a different, guarded term for perceived religious excess (something like zeal or sanctimoniousness) before the rise of religiosity is both astute and important. In any setting where religion plays an extremely powerful social role, criticism of its excesses must be registered cautiously.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 17:09
  • And keep in mind that somewhere around, I would guess, 1850 the number of books published in the US (and subsequently shelved in libraries) began to surpass the number published in England, so Ngram would reflect the associated change in religious-political climate. In the US "political correctness" prevented many anti-religious texts from getting published until after WWII.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 17:13
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This is not a recent* (last decade or so) phenomenon. It it is certainly neither a product of, nor restricted to, the emergent church movement (my own experience is of hearing language such as this in Pentecostal and Evangelical circles back in the '80s). Google Ngram results shows us that in terms of published literature, the phrase "Christianity is not a religion" was relatively common in the 19th Century. The peaks shown are consistent with the impact of the Second Great Awakening (significant increase in Evangelicalism) and the rise of Restorationist sects (eg Mormons, Adventists etc.).

*Although the Ngram results do show a more recent spike - no doubt through internet-assisted promulgation of the underlying concepts/phraseology.

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  • Thanks for the good response. Since I didn't join the Christian community until the '90s I wasn't around to hear what you and others heard in previous decades. That kind of experience is exactly why I posted. I was not aware of such shift in usage in other movements you mentioned. I will look into that, too. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 19:48
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In response to the poster’s three questions:

  1. When/where did this word start to shift meaning? (Was this an Emergent era thing? Before that?)

This is not a "new" phenomenon, as other answers have pointed out. I do not know when the meaning shifted, but I will point out an early example further down.

  1. Can you cite any examples (books, speeches, articles) from online or even from memory where you first heard "religion!!!!" (mis)used as a pejorative synonym for works righteousness or ceremony?

The King James Authorized Version of the Bible, one of the definitive English texts of Christianity, was originally published in 1611. It contains a total of eleven instances of the word "religion". The first nine of them refer to one of the two definition that you quoted: in short, a belief in some god or another or a system of worship. None of these instances talk about Christian religion.

The last two are found in the letter from James "to the twelve tribes scattered", and refer specifically to belief in the God of the Jews and of the Christians, and to systems used to worship the same. From this letter, I quote: "[26] If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. [27] Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." (KJV Bible, James Ch. 1)

Here is a clipping from a picture of an early printing:

Clipping of early printing of James 1:26-27, KJV 1611

The first use here seems to refer to "a pejorative synonym for works righteousness or ceremony". The second use is the only instance in this work to refer to a "good" Christian religion.

  1. This peculiar misuse of the word seems entirely confined to western Protestantism, but perhaps some of you can cite non-Protestant examples?

Western Protestants of various sorts were the first ones to translate the whole Bible to English, so they naturally have had a deep influence on Modern English Christianese. However, I offer a frame challenge: perhaps it is a different use, but please consider that it may not be a mis-use. King James had many foibles and faults, but he had some good translators.

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    An explanation of my edit. SE ELU is a Q and A site, not a discussion site. Once a question has been posted it exists in itself, and can be edited. Once it has an answer, the original poster cannot delete it. Hence answers should address the question, not the original poster.
    – David
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 12:05
  • Surely the reference in v26 is to any man who, has the appearance of being religious (that is professes belief in Christ and follows Christian liturgical practice) but does not take the principles of Christianity to heart and does not "bridle his tongue". James then says that this man's religion is vain, that is not true religion. I can't see that this is a use of the word 'religion' to mean anything but true religion. The statement is directly in line with Christ's criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 8:33
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This has been an ongoing argument in Christianity since Martin Luther, if not before -- the whole "works vs faith" thing. And Driscol is apparently using "religion" to mean "organized religion", a common sort of "shorthand" in English. (I'm guessing that Luther was equally "loose" with German a time or two in his day.)

You offer no "evidence" that "religion" is being maliciously redefined.

EL&U is not here to do research for you to ferret out references to support your argument -- there is Google for that, and, often helpful, Ngram.

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  • 4
    First, I posted this on the Christianity Stack Exchange, not EL&U. Somehow it was "migrated" to EL&U. I figured that the Christianity exchange would be a better place for this type of discussion. As for research, yes, I was asking for a bit of help with exactly that. Thanks for the Ngram reference. As for whether "religion" has been redefined with malice or not, this isn't the place for that debate. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 19:43
  • @PhilNicholas - So, didn't Martin Luther start this? What makes you think it's a recent phenomenon?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 11:56

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