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Reclaiming Religion
Everyone is familiar with the fact that Christianity stole Christmas and that Halloween is a Pagan holiday, that Easter is named for the Goddess Eostre (Ostara) and little details like the Pope's title (Pontifex Maximus) being that of the Pagan High Priest of Rome. But few ever consider the fact that the words religion, superstition, belief, faith, etc, are all understood by their Christian context. They do not know, or at least seem unaware, that any of these words had a life pre-Christianity. But they did, and these words provide the filter through which we understand everything that pertains to religion and belief.

I will look at the question through another filter, that of Classical Paganism. What then is the nature of Classical or Greco-Roman paganism? How can it be described? First of all we must dismiss the notion that there was any sort of monolithic thing called Paganism in the first place. That is not to say that there was no such thing as religion, however. John Holland Smith asserts that “It is not far from the truth to say that before Christianity invented it, there was no Roman religion, but only worship, expressed in a hundred and one different ways.”[1] Smith is both right and wrong. To the extent that there was no monolithic thing called Paganism with an established hierarchy and body of doctrine this is true, but this is also to understand religion by its modern meaning, and the word “religion” has been hijacked by Christianity and no longer possesses its original meaning.

If we look up religion today we are likely to see something like the following:

1 a : the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion) b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith[2]

But how accurate is this when speaking of pre-Christian religions? Not very, as it turns out. Vasiliki Limberis points out with others that “the term religion is laden with the post-fourth century church’s construction of the Christian ideology that successfully unites the concept of universality as religion.” Quite rightly, he adds that “Academic discourse has succeeded in further complicating the term.”[3] How did this come about?

From very early on, Christians made it a practice to attack Pagan belief. It was not enough to put forth their own ideas on God and mans place in the cosmos; they had to tear apart Paganism at the same time (so much for later Christian claims of religious tolerance being a Christian innovation). We see this in the very earliest Christian writings, those of Paul, whose epistles precede by several decades the first of the canonical gospels.

Paul, Hellenized Jew that he was, in Romans 1:18-23 describes God’s manifestation in the cosmos, something that leads to a divine revelation (1:19-20), an event not well received by humans, who pronounce themselves wise (1:22) and begin to worship created images instead of the creator, which corrupts religion – the later Christian definition of religion here, it must be stressed, and not the Pagan Roman (1:24-32). So, of course, from the Christian perspective, Pagans could not possibly ever have been religious. Tertullian advances this argument, claiming that “The Romans were not religious before they were great and therefore they are not great because they were religious (Apology, 25:13). But this should not be misunderstood by the modern reader to mean that the Romans were neither pious nor devout. For Christians like Tertullian there was only one religion and that was Christianity. The modern reader need not fall into this error. Indeed, correcting it is our purpose here.

How then did the Greco-Roman world define religion? The word religio, or religion, for the Romans, was defined as “a proper reasonable awe of the gods” and its opposite, superstition, as “an excessive fear or awe of the gods” which, as Porphyry stated, bypasses true piety, which is in turn defined as “worship of the gods in accordance with the traditions of one’s ancestors”. In a section of his Stobaeus concerning Stoic ethics philosopher and doxographer Arius Didymus wrote that “True religion (eusébeia) is the understanding of the worship of the gods” (Stob. II.7.5). It is obvious how great a gulf exists here between this definition and the Christian claim to possession of True Religion! Yet for Didymus, “True Religion (Eusebeia) is therefore a worshipful attitude towards Gods and daimons, being between atheism and superstition.”[4]

Whereas the exact nature of the gods remained nebulous, every Roman knew his or her duty regarding the traditional rituals that constituted religio. Religio meant fulfilling an understood contractual relationship with the gods. It involved acts, rather than beliefs; it centered on cult, instead of theology.[5]

This term “True Religion,” eusébeia (from the Greek eu meaning "well", and sebomai meaning "reverence"), first used by Homer c. 700 BCE, appears also in the New Testament, being used 15 times.[6] It is also sometimes translated as “piety.”[7] Luke uses it (Acts 3:12) and also the Pastoral Epistles and 2 Peter (1:2), all relatively late, and very quickly it is a term taken up and claimed as the special property of Christianity. It was also frequently used (47 times!) in 4 Maccabees, which Bowersock dates to the time when the New Testament documents were themselves coming into being, that is the second half of the first century or later.[8] As with the term religion itself, it came to have a different meaning within Christianity, being used to describe the respect due to God and his worship, as in 2 Peter: “His Divine power has given us everything we need for life (eternal) and godliness (eusébeia) through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness"[9] and if it meant this, then how could it also apply to the Gods of Paganism?

Both religio and eusebeia were stolen and corrupted by Christianity, leading to the sad irony of Paganism being redefined in a negative way through words once used to describe proper veneration of Gods that Christianity held to be demons and idols. For instance, Spiros Zodhiates states that “When eusébeia is applied to the Christian life, it denotes a life that is acceptable to Christ, indicating the proper attitude of the believer toward Christ who has saved him. It is both an attitude and a manner of life."[10]
L.F. Janssen describes the Roman concept of piety, or pietas:

Pietas as the sincere expression of religio, the unshakeable belief in the aid of the Roman gods; religio as opposed to superstitio, that only sought for the rescue of the individual who tried to break away from the community of the nomen Romanum so as to ensure for himself and his kindred an improper salvation.[11]

Superstitio then, was something selfish, something that put the individual above the state, the needs of the one above the needs of the many. Superstitio itself is an interesting word. It is first used in the Latin language by Cicero, who felt that religio becomes supstitiosa if it is infected with “new or strange rites” or, as noted above, if it arouses “irrational fears”.[12] It was, to his mind, something of which a person should be ashamed and try to correct.[13]

It appears that in the literature of Republican Rome, at least through Cicero, and excepting Ennius and Plautus, superstitio is pejorative, as are its adjective and adverb. Apparently metaphorical meanings arose in the literature of the early empire and the word itself comes into vogue only in silver Latin, where it is with few exceptions derisive and abstract.[14]

Livy uses it to describe the Bacchic Rites, which he, being the fussy old traditionalist, saw as excessive and irrational.[15] It was also used to describe the Christians, and given the nature of worship services in Pauline congregations, the description is apt.[16]

It was this same traditionalist mindset that lay at the heart of a rescript of Marcus Aurelius (Dig. 49.19.30) which stated that any person “who made weak-minded individuals terrified by a superstitious fear of a deity was to be punished with deportation.” It also inspired Diocletian’s edict of 297 C.E. against sorcerers (maleficis) and Manichees, both of which groups were often accused of devising superstitious doctrines. In the fourth century, another Roman author, Ammianus Marcellinus uses superstitio to describe Manichaeism[17] and in this, at least, Christians and Pagans seem to have found themselves in agreement. And superstition, for the Romans, included illicit forms of divination and magic, which could be responsible for causing that “excessive fear of the divine.”

Superstition was, for the Romans, as Robert L. Wilken notes, “a form of irreligion or impiety (asebaeia).”
In his essay On Superstition Plutarch elaborates on the religious consequences of superstition. He believes that superstition is as great a form of impiety as atheism…both superstition and atheism, says Plutarch, bypass “true piety.” The superstitious man believes in gods who are “rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel, and easily offended,” and from these false beliefs a seed is planted from which atheism springs.[18]

As L.F. Janssen says, superstitio “was a direct attack on pietas, the human virtue par excellence, that lay at the root of the Roman res publica. Moreover, superstitio was like an infectious disease, a tabum, that spread more and more; by its very contagiousness it became a real danger to mankind.”[19]

We must then utterly reject the Christian definition of superstition as “attitudes and beliefs” it sees as morally wrong in order to differentiate between “false beliefs” of “pagans” and the “true and correct” beliefs of Christianity. Whatever the hijacked terms have come to mean today, by the proper and original definition of religion and superstition, Christianity is itself superstition, and paganism, as Celsus asserted some eighteen centuries ago, is the True Word – in other words, True Religion.

We must not allow ourselves to be limited to the language of Christianity in our study of Paganism or we will have inevitable results, for Christianity has set itself against paganism and indeed, defined itself in opposition to Paganism. The Church Fathers went on endlessly about the supposed idolatry and licentiousness of pagan practices. They condemned the gods alternately as “mere idols” and daimones, often misleadingly translated into English as “demons.” This is another term, along with religion and superstition, stolen from Paganism and twisted by its new owners. There were indeed daimones in the Pagan understanding of the universe. But these daimones inhabited a realm somewhere above humankind and below the Great Gods and mostly did not concern themselves with mortal affairs though they could be influenced through various cultic acts. Though daimones could be dangerous, as any powerful being could, they were not evil, had nothing to do with the Christian concept of a “Satan” and their existence should not be construed to force the idea of dualism onto the Pagan religious landscape. I think this way of understanding these terms is as workable for Heathenism as for Paganism in general.
If we limit ourselves to the language of Christianity, to its definition of such things as “religion’ and “superstition” and “pagan” – not to mention lower case gods and pagan instead of upper case Gods and Pagan to match “God” and “Christian” - we will go right where we are meant to go. As can be seen, there is a real problem with definitions. Modern scholarship, so long dependent upon a Christian paradigm, has a difficult time defining and understanding these vibrant belief systems without also demeaning and marginalizing them. By retaining Christian definitions we will always view the pagan world through a Christian lens and we will have advanced our knowledge not at all. It is therefore incumbent upon pagans today to take control of the language and make it their own, and return the ideas of religion, superstition and the gods themselves to their rightful place. It is our world too, and we should not depend upon others to define and describe it to us.


[1] John Holland Smith (1976), 6.

[2] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary Religion,. There are many definitions of religion. For a more detailed discussion see What is Religion?

[3] Limberis, "'Religion'" as the Cipher for Identity: The Cases of Emperor Julian, Libanius, and Gregory Nazianzus" HTR 93 (2000), 374.

[4] Arrius Didymus, Stob. II, 7.25.

[5] Kirk Summers, “Lucretius and the Epicurean Tradition of Piety,” Classical Philology 90 (1995), 33.

[6] Once in Acts, eight times in 1 Timothy, once in 2 Timothy, once in Titus and four times in Peter. Remember that the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) Acts and Peter all post-date Paul and that this Hellenistic concept is not part of either the teachings or the beliefs of the Jerusalem Community (note its absence in James and Jude, for instance). As Robert Grant has noted, the religious outlook of the author of the Pastorals…is somewhat different from that of Paul as expressed in the other letters” and Grant notes especially this emphasis on ‘godliness’ or ‘religion’ (eusebeia). See Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (Harper & Row, 1963) esp. ch. 14.

[7] See for instance, Pope John Paul II, "The Pauline Doctrine of Purity as Life According to the Spirit Pope John Paul II," from L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English (Baltimore, MD: The Catholic Foundation), 23 March 1981, page 9.

[8] For discussion of the dating of the books of the Maccabees see G.W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 9-13.

[9] 2 Peter 1:3. NIV. It is often translated in the NT as “godliness” but this depends upon the version used: Godliness (NET, Amplified, International Standard Version); True Religion (New Jerusalem Bible);Godly Life (God’s Word Translation, NLT)

[10] Spiros Zodhiates The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMC Publishers, 1993), 683.

[11] L.F. Janssen, “’Superstitio’ and the Persecution of the Christians,” Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1979), 142.

[12] Cicero, De nat. deor. I.117, II.72, cited in Robert C. Ross, “Superstitio” The Classical Journal 64 (1969), 356

[13] Cicero, De ora. II.62.251.

[14] Ross, "Superstitio" 356.

[15] Livy, 39.15.2-16.

[16] See Morton Smith, “Pauline Worship as Seen by Pagans” HTR 73 (1980), 241-249

[17] Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 13.2.11.

[18] Robert L. Wilken, “Toward a Social Interpretation of Early Christian Apologetics” Church History 39 (1970), 440, citing Plutarch, de superstitione 169-170a, 168 a-b, 171 b-f.

[19] L.F. Janssen, “’Superstitio’ and the Persecution of the Christians,” Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1979), 138.

Sidebar Notes

Religion, for the Romans, was defined as “a proper reasonable awe of the gods”

Religion meant fulfilling an understood contractual relationship with the gods. It involved acts, rather than beliefs; it centered on cult, instead of theology