Words to Describe Degrees of Religiosity

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With the topic of religion so much in the air, writers may have use for adjectives to describe various degrees of religious feeling and behavior.

The following words have other meanings, but here the focus is on their use to describe people.

religious – “dedicated to religious practice; observant practitioner of a particular religion.” The word derives from Latin, possibly the verb religare, “to tie back.” The word may carry negative connotations for individuals, (Bill Maher, for example), but in general it is a good all-purpose word, in itself neither positive nor negative.

pious – in earlier writers, pious was used in a positive sense of loyalty to religion, family, and those things for which a person might be expected to feel reverence. Current usage tends to tinge the word with hypocrisy. Ex. His pious remarks about family values concealed the fact that he was sleeping with his neighbor’s wife.

godly – pleasing to God. One speaks of a godly person or a godly life. The negative, ungodly, is often used as a term of contempt by religious people to describe anything contrary to their beliefs.

fervent – derives from a Latin word meaning “to boil” or “to be very hot.” A fervent person is one that feels very intensely about a subject. The subject does not need to be religious in nature. One can be a fervent Catholic, or a fervent environmentalist. Or both.

zealous– This adjective derives from the noun Zealot. The Zealots were members of the sect that worked to drive the Romans out of Palestine during the First Century. They were fanatics who resorted to assassination and other acts of terrorism that eventually resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Zealous, therefore, can carry the sense of intense fanaticism that will stop at nothing to promote its cause.

devout – from the verb devote, “to set apart.” The word connotes a sense of consecration. A devout person practices religion from genuine feeling of reverence for the object of worship.

sanctimonious – Until the 1800s, this word had a positive connotation. It derives from the Latin word for “holy.” A sanctimonious life could be one that reflects good deeds and devout religious observance. In current usage, however, sanctimonious carries the sense of hypocrisy. Indeed, a common expression is “sanctimonious hypocrite.” A sanctimonious person is like the Pharisee who prays and gives alms in public so that everyone can admire him for it. A sanctimonious person is always reminding people of their shortcomings.

fanatic– This word, which also gives us the word “fan” as in “movie fan,” comes from Latin fanaticus which had a religious sense. A fanum was a temple where sometimes very wild manifestations of devotion took place. For example, worshippers inspired to a frenzy by the god might cut themselves. A “fanatic” therefore, is out of control, at least as regards a particular subject. Winston Churchill defined a fanatic as “someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

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4 thoughts on “Words to Describe Degrees of Religiosity”

  1. “The negative, ungodly, is often used as a term of contempt by religious people to describe anything contrary to their beliefs.”

    Comtempt – an intense feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior or worthless

    Isn’t this something of a stereotype? I use the word ungodly, never in contempt. I never use it to denote something as inferior or worthless.

    If I say one shirt is clean and one shirt is unclean, it does not denote the inferiority of the dirty shirt, does it? Of course not! The dirty shirt can simply be washed and you’ll never know the difference.

  2. I concur. The coverage of “ungodly” was a little stilted. Perhaps a freudian slip of the author’s irreligious sentiments?


    “Zealous, therefore, can carry the sense of intense fanaticism that will stop at nothing to promote its cause.”

    Surely this is going a little far. Who uses zealous in that sense?

  3. @ Joshua: That’s exactly right, except for the fact that the two shirts will only be the same AFTER you wash the dirty one. Therefore, the unclean shirt really is inferior when you put it that way. Would you choose to wear the dirty shirt to a special occasion over the clean? No.

  4. @ Teddy-the-Bear: I see the point you are trying to make. However, having to wash a shirt does not make it inferior for the rest of it’s existence. A person or thing or action can be ungodly in someone’s eyes, right? But, that does not make them inferior because they or it can change.

    The shirt is the same way. Had I said, one shirt is IZOD brand (or the high quality brand of your preference) and the other is Cheapo Generic, Ltd. brand, obviously one is inferior. However, if both are IZOD and one is dirty, it is not inferior.

    As far as wearing a dirty shirt to a special occasion… depends on how dirty and how special, I guess… 🙂

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