Notes from the NS archive

RSS

Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Religionist

The American man of letters gives guidance to writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Billy Graham
The American evangelist Billy Graham. Photo: Getty Images.

Two: Religionist (American).

The OED’s definition of this is, “One addicted to religion; one imbued with, or zealous for, religion. Sometimes in bad sense, a religious zealot or pretender”. The examples here given show that through the seventeenth centuries in England religionists were contrasted with atheists. Webster’s dictionary echoes the English definition and does not go beyond; yet lately in the United States religionists are referred to in the current press, it is clear that this term includes anyone who is professionally occupied with religion, of whatever church, movement or status – that is, anyone from Billy Graham to Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is, like womanizer, a word that destroys distinctions. Here again one has only to remember the words it is used to displace – priest, minister, rabbi, etc.; churchman, divine, man of God, evangelist, religious teacher, parson, preacher; sky-pilot, hot-gospeller – to see that it is now as generic as businessman, farmer or artist. The contrast with atheist is no longer implied. A religionist is merely someone who professionally works at religion as an industrialist works at industry. Religion is the religionist’s “line”.

6 September 1958. Next up: Massive.