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The Meaning and End of Religion

The Meaning and End of Religion by W.C. Smith is a book that exemplifies that ideas evolve from
generation to generation and from one region of the world to another. It also demonstrates the idea of
historical reference, i.e. the speaker vs the audience. W.C. Smith manages to present a survey of the
word religion and faith in eight chapters. His premise is that we should do away with the term
religion altogether.
He begins by defining the etymology of the word religion from its Latin root, religio. He
demarcates the difference between the singular and the plural, thereby indicating that the singular
refers to the quality, whereas the plural refers to the what. An example of the former is when he says,
religio is something within mens hearts.
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Smith continues his historical survey and points out that by
the fifth century C.E., When the Christian Church had eliminated its rivals, the term was less actively in
use, and in fact almost disappeared.
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It was Jerome and then St. Augustine that fixed the term in
Western Christian tradition in the Vulgata and De Vera Religione, respectively. Amazingly, both the
German and Dutch languages were reluctant to accepting the concept of religion. The Protestant
leaders defined religio as a relationship between God and man.
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Smith ends his etymological discourse
saying, The word, and the concepts, should be droppedat least in all but the first, personalist,
sense.
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The next premise of Smiths thesis deals with the labeling and reification of the Other
Religions. He gives various examples within the Jewish, Hindu, Japanese, and Chinese traditions as to
why the terms, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are false. He says

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Pg 23
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Pg 25
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Pg 35
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Pg 50
that these terms are used by the observer and not the practitioner of faith. For example, Judaism is
born as a distinction from Hellenism, which threatened Jewish identity. Jews were not fighting the
Hellenists to preserve Judaism, rather, they were fighting for their national identity. He sarcastically
states that there are Hindus, but no Hinduism. Moreover, the Chinese people overlap ideas and
teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tse, and Confucius. One cannot systemize these traditions. These labels
were placed by the Christian missionaries from Britain that delved into the unknown world of the East.
Smith proposes that Concepts, terminology, and attention shift from personal orientation to an ideal,
then to an abstraction, finally to an institution.
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The next chapter of the book deals with the special case of Islam. Smith explains that Allah
gave Islam its name. This is special indeed. He explains how and why this may have happened through
a historical and anthropological analysis of the tradition of Zarathushtra and Mani. Concepts such as the
conflict between God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell, and even the Messiah were borne out of these
Persian traditions and influence the Jews and Christians for many centuries. Once more, here Smith
surveys the Persian word datum and shows how it became a Jewish-Aramaic loan word and finally
shaped the idea of the Arabic word din.
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By 7
th
century Arabia, the Jews, Christians, and others were
aware of these notions. Smith proposes that Muhammed spoke to the Arabian people in this context,
thereby instilling in the minds of his audience that true religion is total submission to the Creator God
alone. It is of interest to note that Islam and Muslim are terms that can be applied to both Jews and
Christians, because they define a quality of faith, and not a system of rituals. He also demonstrates how
the term Islam gradually became to signify another religion.
In the final chapters of his work, Smith proposes to use the term Cumulative Tradition to
explain the cultural evolutionary process of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Chinese, Japanese, and those

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Pg 76

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PP 99-100
considered to be primitive. He says, By cumulative tradition, I mean the entire mass of overt
objective data that constitute the historical deposit, as it were, of the past religious life of the
community in question: temples, scriptures, theological systems, dance patterns, legal and other social
institutions, conventions, moral codes, myths, and so on; anything that can be and is transmitted from
one person, one generation, to another, and that an historian can observe.
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Finally, he says that faith
is the individual experience that one has within his/her respective cumulative tradition.
At this point, I would like to draw an interesting parallel to Smiths proposal through Hebraic
eyes. The Jewish cumulative tradition in Talmudic times (1st
d
-6
th
century C.E) is called mesorah by
the Rabbis. This word indicates an oral transmission of legal authority from generation to generation,
which includes: those traditions received by Moses at Sinai, those received by Moses outside of Sinai,
the traditions and explanations of the Prophets (from Samuel to Malachi), the legal precedents
established by the Supreme Courts, and the legal customs, enactments, and decrees of the Judges of the
Supreme Courts. The Ethical tractate of the Talmud called Chapter of the Fathers, begins by saying,
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to
the Judges, the Judges to the Prophet Samuel, and so forth.
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Dr. Jose Faur, calls this mesorah, the
National memory of the Jewish/Israelite People. I do not think that the term cumulative tradition is
a valid term that describes all aspects of the Jewish life and existence, since the Jewish identity
transcends, nationality, race, and religion. I propose, just as Dr. Faur, that academic scholars use the
term The national memory of the Jews or the Hebrew term, mesorah to describe the cumulative
tradition and faith of the Jews. Finally, I would like to disagree with Smith on the term faith that he
separates from cumulative tradition. In the Hebrew of the Bible, there is no use of faith as it is used in
the Western Christian context. The Modern Hebrew adopted the word emunah from Jews that lived in

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PP 156-157
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Pirke Aboth 1:1
Central and Eastern Christian Europe. This idea permeates in the Hasiddic texts of Ukraine. Jewish
philosophical works to describe these ideas do not emerge until Jewish thinkers were challenged by
Christians and Muslims in Babylon, then Islamic Spain. The Hebrew Bible speaks of being in awe of the
Almighty. The daily prayers, benedictions, and meditations were formulated by the Rabbis to promote
the awesomeness of the Creator through scientific inquiry and awareness of His transcendence and
imminence. Once again, I propose that the term Jewish faith, not be used, rather the Hebrew
mesorah. In fact, a religious Jew is called in Hebrew, yere Shamayim, fearer of Heaven. T. Asad raises
the question that secularism should be included in our discourse. I agree, since a Jew that chooses to
not be observant of the external aspects of his national memory is nevertheless a Jew. Therefore, the
survival and existence of the Jewish/Israelite People has depended on, and will continue to do so,
through our respect and awe of Heaven through the adherence of our mesorah.