I realized only today that the word “religion” means being bound. That’s startling, because I associate religion with boundlessness, with access to transcendent experience and possibilities. Instead religion is a limit, a binding of oneself, mainly in a spirit of reverence, although in many cultures religion is a coercive belief system that one has little choice but to conform to.
Furthermore, there is a curious double meaning in the word religion, for “being bound” means “being tied,” whether literally or figuratively (as a slave is bound to a master). But “being bound” also means heading in a certain direction, advancing toward a specific destination (as in “bound for Rio” or “bound for the Olympics”). Taken altogether, religion is a thing that both limits and orients and propels.
It’s noteworthy that reverence is the impulse central to religious practice and identity. A reverential spirit leads us forward in exploring spiritual mysteries, but reverence also entails obeisance, an acknowledgement or conviction that there exists something greater and more enduring and ineffable than ourselves. That conviction or faith corresponds to the evidence everywhere that reason can’t cover all cases: that in our souls and voices, and in the created world, we discern wonders and mysteries that no amount of intellection and tinkering can mimic or explain. Thus, even a seeker after religion is religious already.
Organized religion is just one manifestation of religion, but it is important as a reservoir of value and thought, bringing together communities of believers and giving their instinctive faith and wonder a vocabulary and form. As mass society eclipses older cultures built upon the rock of creative individuality, so too modernism is eclipsing many once-flourishing religious venues that existed for feeding spiritual fires and strengthening souls. We may still be votaries, more likely to travel alone because our bonds are loose.