The Questionable Merit of Tying Knots: How Religio has Us All Bound Up in Them

In order to begin attempting the Gordian knot of how my conception of Satanism, so keen on unknotting many of the ties that bind our delayed-return societies together in impersonal and abusive dependencies, might nonetheless comprise a kind of religiosity, we must first visit the issue of how religion came conceptually to involve the tying of knots to begin with. Years ago, when a colleague of mine and I first met and began talking at get-togethers for what was, at the time, a local Satanic group, our conversations quickly turned to consideration of the many similarities, as we saw them, between modern atheistic Satanism and the Hellenistic philosophical movement known as Epicureanism. We’ve lately begun meeting again, just the two of us, to discuss a string of readings  we’ve been doing together on the subject of Epicureanism and modern life and how it all relates to Satanism. It turns out that Epicureanism has a very important role to play in the present discussion of the meaning of the term religio that underlies our own modern English word religion and the connection between that term and the idea of tying knots. So in this second post in the series of discussions of Satanism as religion, let’s dive into Epicureanism a little, first via the etymology and historical conceptions of religio/religion and then, in the third installment, via the actual ideas and practices championed by Epicurus and his philosophical posterity and how they relate to my program of religion as the unpacking and dismantling of Berger’s “Sacred Canopy.” As Epicurus might have amended a couple of the lines in the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music: Cultures and mindsets all tied up with strings, these are two of the most dangerous things!


Tying the Knot

In my previous essay, I noted that one popular etymology of the Latin term religio derives it from a deverbal noun formed from religare, meaning “to tie or bind in mutual bonds.” The obscure, rare English verb religate would seem to have sprung from this same etymological font, as in the seventeenth-century sentence They are not religated within the same communion, the late-eighteenth or early nineteenth-century It is not even religion; it does not religate, does not bind anew, and the nineteenth-century Religion…with a debased worship appended to it, but with no religating, no binding, power. The lig root in these words is identical to that found in the term ligation, as in tubal ligation, the somewhat technical designation for the sterilizing surgical procedure performed on females known more commonly as having your tubes tied. It pops up as well in the word obligation, literally “being bound to someone or something.”    

Such a derivation rather perfectly captures the emphasis in delayed-return religiosities and worldviews on the binding commitments and dependencies that social psychologist Leonard L. Martin emphasizes in his discussion of the shift among human societies during the Neolithic period from more immediate- to more delayed-return lifeways. He writes: 

“[Delayed-return] systems can survive only as long as binding commitments and dependencies are maintained among the participants in the system. For example, if the farmer devotes months to growing the corn, then the customers better live up to their end of the bargain and buy the corn. Conversely, if the customers depend on the farmer’s corn for their subsistence, then the farmer better produce the corn.” 

Social psychologist Ara Norenzayan focuses on something similar in his discussions of “Big God” religion that flourished in the wake of the so-called Neolithic Revolution. He argues for the importance of the concept of big gods as watchers (and punishers) of human behavior to developing large-scale trade networks bound by mutual trust and cooperation enforced through reliance on moralizing, delayed-return religiosity. A recent article in Discover magazine highlighted a 2015 find at the important Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey consisting of a plaster head with obsidian eyes set up in a position of “watching over” what is thought to have been a storehouse, as if to guard over stored property and police it against unlawful incursion. As I emphasized in the recent post entitled Make it New!, Çatalhöyük occupies an important liminal space in the history of the Neolithic Revolution as a complex, yet nonetheless apparently egalitarian (for much of its history, at any rate), society in which both foraging and limited agriculture-cum-herding were practiced. Çatalhöyük also played host to the first signs of more fully developed delayed-return religiosity, with burial of the dead beneath living spaces, the use of slaughtered cattle and pig bones for religious/ritual purposes, and, apparently, the notion of watchers policing and enforcing proper behavior, especially as regards others’ property. 

In this connection too, I likewise emphasized in the essay on “making it new” the primacy of covenantal ideas and student-teacher dependencies in delayed-return societies. One related tendency of delayed-return cultures stemming from their commitment to restrictive reciprocal obligations is the proclivity toward directive, even authoritarian, parenting, combined with an instrumental view of the role of children vis-à-vis their parents (this relationship approximates and foreshadows in important ways the student-teacher relationship in these groups). Such an approach to parenting naturally breeds intense intergenerational tension and conflict within these societies, as evidenced in their numerous mythologies involving parent-child struggles and contests both within biological and blended or stepfamilies. This recent article from Huffington Post by an adult survivor of growing up in a sprawling family dedicated to the Fundamentalist Christian dogma of the Quiverfull Movement highlights these problems in highly delayed-return systems.    

It comes as no surprise, then, that early Christian writers, practitioners of a delayed-return religion par excellence, privileged the etymological tradition that derived the term religio from the verb religare over other options. The late third-/early fourth-century CE author and apologist Lactantius (reputed as the “Christian Cicero”) favored this derivation over the other main contender in the etymological battle over religio that came from non other than the non-Christian, pagan Cicero himself. In his On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum) (2.72), the original Cicero derived the word religio not from religare, but from the verb relegere, meaning “to go through or over again in reading, thought, or speech.” This derivation enjoyed some later support from the second-century CE grammarian Aulus Gellius in his compilation of notes on grammar, philosophy, and other subjects known as the Attic Nights (4.9.1). It is also accepted by not a few modern scholars as the most correct origin story for the word religion. For instance, in the seventh volume of the monumental English edition of the writings of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers (the volume containing Lactantius’ writings), a footnote to the portion of the text where the venerable Latin writer argues for religare, as opposed to relegere, reads: 

“There is little doubt that the true derivation of ‘religio’ is from religere, not from religare. According to this, the primary meaning is, ‘the dwelling upon a subject, and continually recurring to it.’” 

Still another, minor ancient contender for the origin of religio that would appear to support its conceptual connection to relegere was the Greek verb alegein meaning “to heed or have a care for,” the essential sense of Latin relegere. 

 In his Divine Institutes (4.28), however, Lactantius argued for the etymological source of religio as religare largely on the basis of evidence from the first-century BCE Roman poet Lucretius, famous for his epic-scale work De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) which expresses the substance of, and possibly several key innovations within, Epicurean philosophy. In that poem, Lucretius twice emphasizes (in sections 1.931 and 4.7) that his philosophical master Epicurus’ essentially deist belief system has the power to religionum animum nodis exsolvere: that is, “to unbind the mind from the knots of religios.” Notice how he uses the Latin word religio in the plural here, not the singular as we might rather expect if the term pointed to a mental or emotional activity of obsessive dwelling upon a subject or concern. The conceit underlying this metaphor, Lactantius reasoned, must be that religio derives from religare and means something like “bond of mutual obligation.” Thus each “religious” scruple or belief, each religio in the singular, comprises an act of tying up in a knot, acknowledging, and abiding by a binding commitment between a worshipper and some external power underwriting the contractual arrangement. If effective atheism can unbind the mind from the knots of religious commitments or religiones, then religio must be all about tying together parties in mutual commitments with powerful bonds. Q.E.D. 

The imposing fourth-/fifth-century CE Latin Church Father St. Augustine of Hippo (like Lactantius, also of Berber origins) concurred with his older North African colleague on this point and likewise favored this particular origin-story for the term, writing: Ad unum Deum tendentes, inquam, et ei uni religantes animas nostras, unde religio dicta creditur “Striving toward one God, I said, and binding our souls to Him alone, whence the word religio is believed to have been derived” (Retractationes 1.13). Active at roughly the same time as Augustine, the Roman grammarian Marcus Servius Honoratus also supported this derivation in a comment within his massive commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid (8.349), combining the notion of tying up the mind with an emphasis on the function of fear in religious contexts. He wrote: religio, id est metus, ab eo quod mentem religet dicta religioreligio—that is, fear—is called religio from that which binds the mind.” There was a pronounced tendency in late-Republican and imperial Roman writing on the subject of religio to link it in this way to “fear” and “solicitude” or “worry,” as well as to the knots of binding commitments. Religio didn’t just tie up the mind in knots of commitment, but also in abject fear.       


Religio as binding, mutual commitment 

When an ancient Roman haruspex consulted the liver of a slain sacrificial beast or the auspex looked to the fanciful flight of birds—each religious professional anxious, and even fearful, for a sign of things to come, both they and the clients for whom they obtained their oracles assumed a world order in which intelligent and motivated, but unseen, forces called numina—if not outright Big Gods like Jupiter and Minerva—communicated a will that was understood as binding on, and limiting of, human aims and designs. Successful humans endeavored to comprehend this will and maintain a positive relationship of accord with it via sacrifice and correct ritual invocation. Living in a highly delayed-return world, where so much up-front investment of time, energy, and resources relied upon promises of as yet unseen future reward for its justification and ultimate vindication, they were practically bound to these worries. The sense of Roman terms of positive evaluation like fortunatus/felix/beatus, similar to the earlier Greek olbios which was also often misleadingly translated simply as ‘happy’, meant that one enjoyed a positive relationship with potent divine powers, whether gods or the souls of deceased heroes venerated in local or family cults. Material prosperity in the human world followed as a direct consequence of prosperous relationships with unseen forces in the realm of the divine or numinous. What is it they still say? On earth as it is in heaven; as above, so below. The two realms are bound, linked, knotted together.  

The ancient Roman virtue of pietas, origin of the English term piety, expressed precisely the crucial importance of recognizing such bonds between heaven and earth, the gods and humanity, as well as within the properly ordered relations of human beings and the domains of human activity: as between parents and children, students and teacher, citizens and the state, the individual and his personal property. The quintessential image and expression of this virtue came from the eponymous hero of the poet Vergil’s great Roman epic, the Aeneid, who is often referred to in that work with the epithet pius, as in pius Aeneas. Early on in the poem, we meet this paragon of piety bearing his aged father Anchises on his stout back, leading his son Ascanius by the hand, his wife Creusa following at some distance behind, all four of them seeking safety from the Greek invaders who were forcing all Trojans to beat a hasty retreat from their doomed city. He carries not just his filial piety slung across his straining shoulders, but also conveys away with him by ship, rescued from the enemy’s grasp, his penates, those household deities revered and cultivated in domestic cults throughout the Roman world. The line in the poem where Aeneas preens himself on his pious salvation of the tutelary deities from sure destruction (Aeneid 1.378-379) calls to mind a recent news article about a West Virginia fire department that took to its official social media to celebrate the fact that a blaze they helped fight at a local church somehow left the bibles and crosses in the building almost miraculously unscathed (more or less). “Though odds were against us, God was not,” the post ran, “Not a single bible was burned and not a single cross was harmed!! Not a single firefighter was hurt!” We are the pious firemen, who carry on our social media accounts across the troubled oceans of pubic opinion the sacred bibles and crosses glorifying God, snatched straight from the fiery maw. Pia also describes Aeneas’ wife Creusa in the Aeneid as she subjugates her will to her husband’s and, once she realizes that her own life is soon to be forfeit, pleads that Aeneas take special care of their child and bring Ascanius up to be a man. She then accepts her fate of death from the gods with calmness and equanimity, even as the rest of the family make it out to safety. 

In his 76th poem, first-century BCE lyric poet Catullus provides an explicit definition of what it meant to him, as a Roman, to be pius. First, pietas consists in never having violated “sacred trust” (sancta fides). Second, it requires that one “never through any pact with the gods have abused divine power (numen) for the purpose of deceiving people.” Notice that it is through a “pact with the gods”—using the Latin term foedus, foederis that forms the basis for the English words federation and federal—that one has access to use (and apparently also abuse) “divine power” or numen in the first place. Both requirements make clear that what is most at issue in pietas is trust, confidence, and abiding by the terms of lasting and mutually binding agreements. 

At the end of the poem, once Catullus has requested the gods’ aid in forgetting his unrequited and betrayed love for a certain “ingrate,” as he calls her, the poet enjoins upon the divinities to answer his show of piety by granting to him that he may live well and put off the “foul disease” of love: O di, reddite mi hoc pro pietate mea (“Oh gods, render this unto me in exchange for my piety”). This explicitly transactional view of pietas surfaces again in Catullus 64, in which the poet laments that, while in the good old days the gods did not disdain to appear physically among mortals and celebrate with them at joyous festivals, such is no longer the case in the contemporary world, characterized as it is by injustice, greed, fratricide, and a general loss of filial piety. Spreta pietate, the poet writes: “with piety spurned.” Catullus’ lament constitutes a classical Roman version of the complaint mounted by Biblical prophets like Amos that human pride, wealth, and contempt for social justice have done violence to a putative covenantal relationship with God, the result being that the gods’/God’s wrath is kindled against us mere mortals, demanding that we be brought low to repentance and behavioral transformation. 


The Entitlement of Presumptive Contracts

At the same time, as positive and cohesion-creating as these descriptions of delayed-return pietas and religio may somehow seem, they hide an ugly flip side: seeing short-term self-abnegation in the service of long-range plans with uncertain payoffs as a kind of contract absolutely necessitates Just World Belief and provides a powerful and palpable sense of entitlement to presume the inevitability of specific outcomes. The powerful Old Testament images of a vengeful God and His angry prophets stem precisely from supposed divine ire over humanity’s incessant breaching of covenantal agreement and prophetic disgust over our apparent inability or unwillingness to cease from backsliding. I would argue that precisely this sense of outsized disgust and entitlement leading to anger over perceived breaches of agreement underlies everything from the anger of white America leading up to and during the Trump Presidency to the manic desire of the religious right to repress abortion and LGBTQ+ rights to the sexual crimes in high places known all too well in the wake of #MeToo, Catholic, Southern Baptist, and other exposés to the abomination that is the “Incel” and the gross violence against women perpetrated by self-described Incels. Presumed contractual relations with higher powers engender a rigid social construction of reality and endow sociocentric status within that reality; sociocentric status breads privilege; privilege provides license; license—well—licenses will as if from on high; will justified from on high does not gladly brook nonfulfillment (what I have previously referred to as “expectancy gaps”). Whereas all of us mere mortals experience such gaps on a near-constant basis and learn to live with the minor and major disappointments and pangs they can occasion, those with more delayed-return ideological commitments turn them into extreme existential crises that summon up primal fear and a whole host of ugly emotional reactions.      

In the 2009 film Agora that depicted the turbulent religious, ethnic, and class struggles in fourth-/fifth-century CE Alexandria, Egypt—including the ugly fate of Neoplatonic philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia, one of that female philosopher’s students, Orestes, conceives a crush on his beautiful teacher and attempts to approach her romantically. Privately rebuffed, Orestes soon stages a public spectacle during the intermission of a drama in the theater, where he plays the flute and dedicates his performance to his Muse, Hypatia. When she again rejects his efforts the following day, this time via a dramatic and semi-public demonstration in front of other students during which Hypatia “gifts” Orestes with a piece of white cloth soiled by the effluent of her menstruation, the ardent young man becomes enraged and storms out of the school. From the point of view of Orestes himself, he performed to a T the self-denial and costly signaling of his romantic desire that his delayed-return worldview and macho culture demanded of him. Think of the many moments in film and rock music when a similarly hot-tempered, amorous young buck makes a spectacle of professing his “love” for someone, and everyone naturally expects the young woman who is the object of this “wooing” to acquiesce and eagerly requite such obvious and eager passion. When Orestes’ patient efforts meet only with rejection and even, in the second instance, public scorn, he is deeply offended and angered. Such anger, and the resentments it can foster, arise when delayed-return commitments are not mutually honored. Hypatia did not correctly perform her gendered role. Though she and Orestes later repair their friendly relationship in the picture, she ultimately meets with a heinous death for this same failure to correctly perform the sociocentric role allotted to her by those in power as both a woman and a pagan who, in similar illicit fashion, simply refuses to accept Christianity. Orestes, for his part, later finds himself in some hot water for not fully acquiescing as prefect of the city of Alexandria to the power and agenda of its predominant Christian leader, Cyril, who is busy for the duration of the picture knotting the city up in frantic, blood-thirsty fervor. 

Delayed-return belief systems and social structures lay claim to individual behavior (and even thought!) as though all were parties to a given presumptive contract enforced in a top-down manner. In order for such a system to work correctly, without unnecessary conflict and friction, all must abide by the terms: at least nominal and apparent participation and obedience must be total. And when morality, like Reaganomics, is conceived of as trickling down, it can only follow like a fawning fanboy in the wake of power and privilege, finding flattering ways of excusing “lapses” that ought rightly to earn scathing censure and even outright opposition. 


Satan/Devil as Embodiment of Impietas

All of this also helps explain the curious double-edged quality to much of the tradition of Satan or “the Devil” in the history of Western Christendom. On the one hand, Satan represents the negation of sancta fides: he is “the deceiver of the whole world” and “a liar and the father of lies.” Yet, on the other, the primary metaphor for Satan’s activity with regard to humans in the world is precisely the realization of, to quote Catullus 76 again, foedere…Diuum ad fallendos numine abusum homines: “a pact of the gods” leading to “abusing divine power for the purpose of deceiving human beings.” This description perfectly sums up the so-called Faustian bargain or deal with the Devil: the idea of selling your soul and signing a contract with Satan to do so in exchange for material reward and worldly success that ultimately prove deceptive to both the signatory and others. The recapitulations of this old mythos in literature, music, and film are too numerous to list. Just the ones that loom large in my memory from movies I’ve seen include: Crossroads, Bedazzled, Rosemary’s Baby, Angel Heart, The Devil’s Advocate, and American Satan. 

Now you might ask yourself: If everyone knows from the frequent advertisements of scripture that Satan is a liar, then why by Beelzebub’s balls would anyone ever sign a deal with the Devil? That’s a good question, and seemingly one without a satisfactory answer. The solution to this tantalizing conundrum becomes apparent, I believe, as soon as we consider the kinds of aims such pacts have principally in view: worldly success expressed as domination in some specific occupational specialization, fame and fortune forthcoming as a result, and the ability of the human signatory to live essentially as a hubristēs or classic asshole without ever having to consider the moral reality of others or having to expend the sweat equity necessary to accomplish such feats. This notion of Satan’s work in the area of dubious contract law is no more nor less than a delayed-return wish-fulfillment fantasy-cum-cautionary-tale designed specifically both to paint as ultimate evil an attitude inimical to and bucking of the delayed-return worldview itself (Satan adopts delayed-return methods in the form of contracts and binding agreements leading to success, but requires none of the toil, plus his promises turn out to be bullshit) and to embody what everyone in such a cultural system as ours secretly yearns for but few save for the biggest assholes on the block can manage to obtain: immediate-return enjoyment within a delayed-return structure. 

As none other than the Pope himself recently reminded us all by calling the countless priests in his worldwide cabal that are guilty of either sexual malfeasance or covering up same (or both!) “tools of Satan,” these stories of Satanic contracts are also convenient justifications for the fact that (1) individuals who rise to some pinacle of delayed-return society usually turn abuser in the bat of an eye and (2) there is precious little organizational or institutional will among us humans to put such individuals in their place through reverse dominance. Instead of laying blame squarely on the shoulders of those who commit such offenses (who usually enjoy sociocentric status sufficient to problematize their being called to account), delayed-return religion encourages us to cast culpability out like a net with too many holes of vastly too wide an aperture over all of humanity in a generalized “we’re all fallen creatures” rationalization that only abets and perpetuates the whole abusive system. At the same time, power structures often extend the heavy hand of prosecution and persecution toward small-time offenders from lower societal rungs, pretending that such minor and oppressive acts of “justice” can somehow compensate for a systemic refusal to seek the same accountability from the top, where it counts for so much more. Blame, like Satan himself, is seen as a function of “the other,” never of oneself and one’s own (im)moral choices and only rarely of those of one’s perceived coequals or superiors. But let morality trickle down like wealth, and self-righteousness like an ever-flowing torrent. 


Lucretius and the Unbinding of Religio

It’s ironic, then, that the Christian apologist Lactantius should advance his particular pet etymology for his admittedly highly delayed-return conception of religion largely on the basis of the textual witness of one Titus Lucretius Carus and the first-century BCE poetic work On the Nature of Things that he authored. That work was (and remains!) a monumental achievement: some 7,400 dactylic hexameter lines whose raison d’être is not merely to delight with their poetic perfection (which is considerable) but, perhaps more importantly, to explain and praise the Hellenistic philosophy of Epicureanism. To read how Epicureanism posed a challenge to (if not direct attack on) the idea of religio as a collection of tight knots of binding, delayed-return commitments and how the act of unknotting and releasing such commitments might itself constitute a legitimate religiosity, stay tuned for the next exciting installment of this series!    

4 thoughts on “The Questionable Merit of Tying Knots: How Religio has Us All Bound Up in Them

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