Before Religion

Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept

BRENT NONGBRI
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bqx9
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Before Religion
    Book Description:

    For much of the past two centuries, religion has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the "natural" human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri shows that the idea of religion as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history-a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.

    Examining a wide array of ancient writings, Nongbri demonstrates that in antiquity, there was no conceptual arena that could be designated as "religious" as opposed to "secular." Surveying representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period, while constantly attending to the concrete social, political, and colonial contexts that shaped relevant works of philosophers, legal theorists, missionaries, and others, Nongbri offers a concise and readable account of the emergence of the concept of religion.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15417-7
    Subjects: Religion, History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-14)

    My father grew up in the Khasi Hills of northeastern India. The Khasi language is today spoken by roughly one million people, mostly in the state of Meghalaya. When I was in college and just becoming aware of the complexity of studying religion, it occurred to me one day that I had no idea what the Khasi word for “religion” was. I owned a small Khasi-English dictionary, but it did not provide English-to-Khasi definitions. Faced with the usual number of deadlines for various projects, I didn’t immediately try to track down an answer to the question and soon forgot about...

  5. one WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “RELIGION”?
    (pp. 15-24)

    In a 1964 case presented before the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices were asked to consider the legality of obscenity laws in the state of Ohio. In a short concurring opinion to the decision, Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “I have reached the conclusion . . . that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area [obscenity] are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it...

  6. two LOST IN TRANSLATION: INSERTING “RELIGION” INTO ANCIENT TEXTS
    (pp. 25-45)

    If you pick up a translation of almost any ancient text of appreciable length, chances are you will find the term “religion” somewhere in the translation. There is also no shortage of books on the topic of this or that “ancient religion.” It is no wonder, then, that many people have the impression that the modern notion of religion is present in our ancient sources. Yet the more one delves into the writings of specialist historians on the topic of “ancient religions,” the more it becomes clear that the whole idea is fraught with difficulty. To begin the discussion, I...

  7. three SOME (PREMATURE) BIRTHS OF RELIGION IN ANTIQUITY
    (pp. 46-64)

    As we have seen, simply translating ancient words as “religion” tends to leave the impression that the concept of religion was operative before the modern era. One also finds sustained arguments from some scholars that this or that particular moment in antiquity marked the beginning of the concept of religion or the “disembedding” of religion from the politico-religio-ethnic mixture of ancient life. Four moments for which such claims have been made include the events surrounding the “Maccabean revolt” in the middle of the second century B.C.E., the Roman statesman Cicero’s discussions about the gods in the middle of the first...

  8. four CHRISTIANS AND “OTHERS” IN THE PREMODERN ERA
    (pp. 65-84)

    The arguments in the preceding two chapters have been largely negative: first, modern translators do a disservice when they use “religion” to render words in ancient texts, and second, ancient events or discourses that modern scholars describe as the “birth of religion” in the modern sense are much more usefully described in other terms. Nevertheless, in the course of my arguments about what sorts of ideas and concepts werenotaround in antiquity, we encountered some more positive suggestions about how ancient peoplesdidconceptualize some of their differences. One of these is Eusebius’s model of history, in which Christians...

  9. five RENAISSANCE, REFORMATION, AND RELIGION IN THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES
    (pp. 85-105)

    We have seen that religion was not a concept native to the ancient world and that the things that modern people group under the heading of “religion” were not so grouped by premodern peoples. The ancient world was not divided into different “religions,” conceived of as voluntary associations of people with similar “religious experiences.” I now provide an account of the development of this popular notion of religion. If religion has not simply “just been there” since antiquity, how did this particular way of conceiving of the world, the manner of carving the world into “religious” and “not-religious,” come to...

  10. six NEW WORLDS, NEW RELIGIONS, WORLD RELIGIONS
    (pp. 106-131)

    In the preceding chapter, I tried to show how a world that had previously not been differentiated into “religious” and “secular” spheres became one in which religion was conceived of as an ideally private and nonpolitical realm.¹ Along with a number of other scholars, I have come to see this period and locale as central to the production of the modern concept of religion. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the effect of the foreign exploration and colonization in which Europeans engaged during this same period of time. After all, it was in 1492, just seven years before...

  11. seven THE MODERN ORIGINS OF ANCIENT RELIGIONS
    (pp. 132-153)

    In broad strokes, the preceding two chapters have outlined how the category of religion came into being and how we have come to think of the world as being carved up into different World Religions. What remains to be discussed is exactly how this recent innovation has come to seem so universal, natural, and necessary. Many factors are at play, but the one I emphasize is the role of specialists in ancient history in producing and maintaining the category of religion. In Chapters 2 and 3, I critiqued translators of ancient texts for rendering ancient terms as “religion,” and I...

  12. CONCLUSION: AFTER RELIGION?
    (pp. 154-160)

    I have argued that the idea of religion is not as natural or universal as it is often assumed to be. Religion has a history. It was born out of a mix of Christian disputes about truth, European colonial exploits, and the formation of nation-states. Yet the study of religion as an academic discipline has proceeded largely on the assumption that religion is simply a fact of human life and always has been. Since this assumption is so problematic, the question arises: How should the study of religion move forward? I am neither a prophet nor a prescription writer, but...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 161-230)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 231-262)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 263-275)