The word 'religion' ultimately comes from the Latin "re-" ('again') and "ligare" ('to bind'), at least according to most modern etymologists, as well as some ancient thinkers (Augustine, Lactantius, and Servius). Cicero, however, states that the word comes from "re-" and "legere" ('to read'), in the sense of 'going through again' according to Etymonline, or in the sense of gathering things together, according to Oxfordreference.
I tend to favor the first etymology, which feels more likely, given that both ancient and modern religions deal with following rules (hence with binding or restricting one's behavior), whereas the act of reading was highly restricted to those few who had learned the craft, and though associated with priests and scribes, was not a necessary skill to have in order to worship deities. I'm sure many an ancient illiterate devotee followed the appropriate actions within a ritual and was then good to go, so to speak.
This consideration brings to mind some differences between ancient and modern religions in the West with respect to rules. Due to my inability to generalize across the many differences in religious practice world-wide throughout time I will limit myself to thoughts comparing ancient Greek practices to modern Christian practices.
The ancient Greeks sacrificed animals to the Olympian gods for two reasons: for the purpose of strengthening the communal bond between the society and the deity (i.e. the 'binding' between them - in the ritual known as thysia)- and for the purpose of proactively preventing harm - in the ritual known as sphagia. In thysia, a burnt portion of the offering is given to the deity, and the rest is eaten by the people, whereas in sphagia the entire animal is burnt and given to the god, or in some cases is buried, with the people themselves not eating anything. In either of these cases, the rules to be followed involve the steps to be done to perform the ritual, and nothing else.
Modern Christians, by contrast, celebrate the past sacrifice of the god (not to a god) for the purpose of remission of sin; and this celebration is a sort of memorial - anamnēsis - of that sacrifice. During the ritual the celebrants eat bread which either symbolizes or actually IS the sacrificed body (depending on the flavor of Christianity, no pun intended). In addition, although the ritual itself contains rules to follow, the Christian is expected to obey ethical rules at all times, not just during the celebration. In that sense there are two sets of rules for the Christian to follow.
How about cats? Do they, or any non-human animals, have a form of religion? I'm going to guess that cats do not. However, perhaps they offer to share meals with creatures (i.e. humans) that they view as their leaders, every time they leave a dead animal at your door. Perhaps they also view humans as having strange powers - the ability, for example, to make their poop disappear - though admittedly they may attribute that to some other source, say magic soil that eats poop. Perhaps they are in awe of us and view us as quasi-godlike figures, who do not even quake in fear when the sky explodes and makes water - cursed water! - fall upon all the land. Some humans also seem to have the power of spraying water from nowhere when cats decide to walk on those flat surfaces (altars?) upon which said humans normally feast, forcing the cats to leap to the ground.
In any case, there is a communal aspect to cats sharing their kill. Among themselves of course they have a hierarchy (from the Greek - hierarkhēs - 'sacred ruler') of who eats first - think here of lions - where those higher in the hierarchy get first choice. In this sense the distinction between higher and lower members is governed by who eats when. By contrast, humans would eventually reflect hierarchy not by who eats when, but by who eats where, though at first all ate together. This observation raises a question - does the 'bonding' inherent in the sharing of a sacrifice depend upon space - i.e. breaking bread at the same table - or upon time - i.e. following a ritual which repeats at regular, prescribed intervals - or on both?
I would add that there is also a different kind of bonding - in the scenario leading up to what results in a religious ritual - which is the act of slaughtering, or the act of killing. Here, the bond is between the hunter and the hunted, or the slayer and the slain - so in the sense of humans hunting, it is between man and animal spirit (not man and god). Think of the Plains American Indians being thankful for the hunt and offering a prayer to the bison before the kill, and then afterwards honoring them for their sacrifice.
It is interesting that the 'rebinding' meaning of the word religion is accompanied so closely with the act of sharing sustenance, which by its very nature is an act of division. One cannot "share" a concrete object without breaking it - and that breaking, when in the context of a ritual, results in a "rebinding" or reconnection among the participants. Some Christian miracle stories, however, introduce the idea of getting around that necessity through the act of "multiplication." Consider the story of Christ feeding a multitude by paradoxically increasing an amount of bread and fish via the act of distributing them - I put the word "multiplication" in quotes because the verb "to multiply" in Greek is never actually used in the relevant gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) which relate the story.
Here are a few other interesting definitions of Religion by some famous people :
"Religion... is the opiate of the people" - Karl Marx
"Religion is a daughter of Hope and Fear..." - Ambrose Bierce
"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness" - Alfred North Whitehead
Author's Note : this essay will appear in my upcoming book, My Cat Breaks Into Vowels, which is available for pre-order.
https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=religion , accessed on 2024-01-15.
https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780192800947.001.0001/acref-9780192800947-miscMatter-3 , accessed on 2024-01-18, 2024-01-24
https://www.britannica.com/topic/sacrifice-religion/Sacrifice-in-the-religions-of-the-world , accessed on 2024-01-16.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_cuisine , accessed on 2024-01-17
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bison_hunting, accessed on 2024-01-18
https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/angelus/2021/documents/papa-francesco_angelus_20210725.html , accessed on 2024-01-18