“Before Religion” by Brent Nongbri

BrentNongbriBrent Nongbri. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, 288pp., $25.00  (paperback).

Within the field of history, modern scholars tend to project religion backwards into a pre-17th century world. They do so because religion tends to be thought of as a “natural” thing in human history, even if it expressed as “embedded religion”. Consequently artificial, non-native paradigms are applied to other cultures and times in order to interpret them. Brent Nongbri, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean world, explores the dimensions of “religion” through a representative selection of key historical moments and literature in order to demonstrate that the modern concept of religion, especially World Religions, is anachronistic. Of course, as Nongbri notes, all modern concepts applied to the ancient world are anachronistic. The issue with the term “religion” arises, though, when people are unaware of its anachronistic character in the ancient world.

Chapter One begins by addressing the core question in the modern era: what do we mean by “religion”? Thus, after presenting the popular defintion of religion as something that one knows when they see it, he provides an extremely brief review of how contemporary scholarship defines religion. These definitions, contends Nongbri, problematically assume the natural place of religion through human history. He proposes a less pragmatic approach to definitions that he explores in further chapters: “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18). From this he makes three points about the nature of religion in modern conceptualization: (1) religion is private and individualistic, (2) it tends to refer to a genus of a variety of World Religions thought to be expressing some sort of “Ultimate Concern”, (3) and in academic circles use of it as both description (describing the actual native concerns of the culture) and redescription (applying a non-native paradigm to interpret a phenomenon) is blurred. Acknowledgement of these three ways in which religion in used in modern contexts is valuable because it points to major potential and current methodological issues in academic literature. In summary, “religion” tends to imply “Ultimate Concern” that opposes politics and “secular” areas of life. Divide between “secular” and “sacred” was, after all, a false dichotomy in the ancient world.

Chapter Two reviews three representative terms that tend to be translated as “religion” as the issues in doing so: the Latin religio, the Greek thrēskea, and Arabic terms dīn, milla, and umma. Frequently these terms are translated as “religion”. Nongbri traces religio through history, from Greco-Roman uses, early Christian uses, and modern uses. Earliest usage focused on the praxis of public religio, while Christianity eventually claimed to be the truest religio amongst religiones. In the 17th century, John Locke’s religio and the religiones finally became the realm of inner self. Thrēskea is similar throughout history. The earliest use of the term in Herodotus references ritual. Even in the tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph, thrēskea references the rituals of Christianity that stand in opposition to tradition sacrifices of Indians in the tale. Dīn is most commonly translated from the Qur’an as “religion” in N. J. Daywood’s 2003 translation. Ironically, Alexander Ross’ 1649 translation, amid it’s heavy criticism, is more accurate in that it implies social transactions rather than private, internal “faith” or “religion”. This issue is present also in umma (commonly translated as “community”, but as “religion” in modern translations) and milla (Law or sect of Abraham). Based on this data, he concludes that “those aspects of life covered by these terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion” (45). While the coverage of terms commonly translated as “religion” is brief, the chosen terms and thoroughly explored and provide compelling support for the remainder of his work.

Chapter Three argues against three common ideas of the “premature” birth of the modern sense of religion. Regarding the revolt of the Maccabees,  Nongbri pushes against Wilfred Smith’s idea that it is the first time religion had a name; rather, Nongbri illustrates that the ioudaismos is not a title for religion but a term prioritizing Judean lifestyle over and against Hellenistic (hellēnismos) lifestyle. He then pushes against Mary Beard’s argument that Cicero’s On Divination marked the beginning of religion. Beard’s choice of terminology for religion is confusing because it applies the modern sense of internal, privatized religion to Cicero, who still focuses on Roman civic and ethnic identity. Finally, in opposition to Daniel Boyarin’s claim that Eusebius presents Judaism, Hellenism, and Christianity as religions in the modern sense of the term, Nongbri argues that this move is intended to create an ethnic map stemming from Abraham and establish a heresiological framework for Christianity. Likewise, he pushes against Lewis Bernard’s idea that Islam was the first self-recognized religion by focusing on the action of a muslim (“one who submits to authority, surrenders, obeys” (59)) and the inclusion of Jews and Christians in Sura 3:113-15. Nongbri emerges from discussing these four examples to demonstrate that application of “religion” to their beliefs and practices often stands in stark opposition their various ways of conceptualizing themselves and others. His arguments are descriptive, honest to the literature on hand, and do well in illustrating how “religion” often brings baggage of how practice and belief is expressed, so much so that it blurs the manners in which people have historically conceptualized their thoughts, emotions, practices, and beliefs. I especially appreciate his statement about the future of scholarship: “Students of the ancient world need to work on generating a better vocabulary for talking about the various ways that ancient peoples conceptually carved out their worlds, a better means of describing the clusters of practices and beliefs outlines by ancient authors” (53).

Chapter Four shifts to the next gear by exploring how ancient authors do conceptualize themselves and others. Drawing on Manichaeism, a practice of Eastern Christianity that drew together Buddhist belief and practice and Christian tradition, Nongbri notes that Augustine did not consider them to be of “a different religion”, but as “half-Christian” (semichristianos). Even John of Damascus (7th century C.E.), a well-known monastic, does not consider Islam a distinct religion, but “one of the many erroneous Christian sects” (75). Barlaam and Ioasaph attests to this even more because it was derived from Buddhist stories. Appropriation of the story for Christian use implies that Christians did not manage differences in Buddhist stories and practice by discussing distinct religions, but by reworking it for their own purposes. These three representative example demonstrate how pre-modern people differentiated between themselves and others outside of the framework of “religion” or World Religions. While part of me wishes that Nongbri had explored more extensively how pre-modern peoples differentiated themselves, I am aware that their would not have been space for that. Fortunately, he provides valuable end notes to enable people to move engage more deeply with variations of pre-modern differentiation.

Chapter Five traces developments in  the 16th and 17th centuries that contribute to the development of the modern idea of “religion” in two respects: academic and political. Beginning with Marsilio Ficino, he traces a through line  with the works of Giordano Bruno to Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Originally the best religion of many with Ficino, Herbert first considered Christianity to be one of many religions. Though, even in the works of the scholars in developing the modern construct of religion, Protestant Christian bias is apparent because what constitutes “good” religion in their works is based on Protestant Christianity and anti-Catholic polemics, thus reminding the reader of Nongbri’s earlier comment that “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18). Proceeding, Nongbri examines how the political environment, especially during the reformation, destabilized the governing authority of the Church. So, the 16th century did not see Wars of Religion so much as it saws wars that contributed to the development of the modern notion of religion. Jean Bodin and John Locke, two characters who grew up that environment, addressed the issue by creating a distinction between the religion and government, thereby creating “a new kind of mental mapping of Europe and the world” (104).

With such significant development marked by Locke, Chapter Six engages with European academia categorization of peoples in the midst of colonialism and how it sharpened the modern concept of religion. Evident through Max Müller’s work, European critique of foreign practices, namely his “disdain for the inability of Parsis to understand their own “sacred writings””, European colonialism effectively shaped Indian practices in “Indian religion” (113). Similarly, Peter Kolb’s interactions with southern African natives and his appropriation of the Hottentot behaviors like Jews and Catholics shaped perceptions of the “Hottentot religion” into the mental mapping established by John Locke, raising the questions of who chooses what constitutes religion and for what reasons. Further east, imperial Meiji government attempted to appropriate Shinto as Japan’s “ancient religion”. In 1945, Allied powers declared Shinto the official religion of Japan, even though Shinto is about “the way of the kami“, or being in a state of kami, which had rites not distinct from Buddhist ritual. Thus, Nongbri’s paramount examples illustrate that the classification of a World Religions framework is by no means neutral or natural but explicitly results of colonial influences and actions.

Chapter Seven steps back to focus more on issue relevant to ancient history and the advent of “ancient religions”. To put it succinctly, as the modern era and notion of religion took place, academia applied the newly discovered framework to analysis of ancient material. After discussing how Greek and Roman scholars are beginning to move away from “ancient religion”, Nongbri notes that Assyriology’s foundation of “ancient religion” too quickly applies a framework to the ancient authors in ways foreign to them. On this statement, I am surprised that he did not venture into, or even mention, the Protestant Christian bias of Julius Wellhausen who unfortunately argued that the Hebrew Bible sees a move from agricultural religion, prophetic religion, to a more legalistic religion in Exodus through Deuteronomy. For the field of biblical studies, this is a prime representative example of how modern notions of religion are detrimental to reconstruction of ancient historical developments. Additionally, even the more recent idea of “embedded religion” has become a sort of rhetoric by which scholars “can continue speaking as if [religion] were” an ancient concept (152).  As Nongbri writes, if we bring “religion” baggage into ancient authors, “we turn our ancient sources into well-polished mirrors that show us only ourselves and our own institutions” (153). This quote is the most poignant quote of his whole  book as it provokes thought about how we conceptualize others through time and space, and challenges the triumphal attitude in which we tend hold ourselves as scholars in the 21st century.

To be clear, Nongbri is not calling for the abandonment of the term “religion” as a strictly redescriptive term. Such a framework holds potential to yield valuable analysis. Yet, he calls for scholars and students to avoid using the term descriptively and, even more so, as a rhetoric by which one applies their own standards without taking into serious consideration the world of the ancient author and how he conceptualizes his practices in comparison to others. As he explores, “embedded religion”, a sort of redescriptive application of “religion”, tends to operate more as a descriptive method. Moreover, he encourages not a new version, or replacement of, “religion”; rather, he calls for an entirely new system that “appeals to ancestral tradition, Roman ethnicity, Mesopotamian scribal praxis, Christian and Muslim heresiological discourses, and other topics” (159).

Nongbri’s arguments are not a novel. His approach, though, is unique. Throughout fields of academic study, various people have explored the issue of how one applies the framework of “religion” to non-western peoples. He takes the arguments and disparate discussions from various fields and synthesizes them into one argument and book. For doing this, Nongbri’s Before Religion is an extremely valuable contribution to academia from various fields, whether Anthropology, Biblical Studies, Assyriology, Classical Studies, or any other field. His selection of paramount moments representative of historical meaning for terms commonly translated as “religion” and clear trajectory of how European colonialism, along with internal socio-political conflicts, contributed to the development of “religion” justifies Before Religion as a stand-alone and groundbreaking study. Beyond being merely academic, and restricted that audience therein, Nongbri’s ability to write to a wide variety of people like students, scholars, and non-professionals enables his arguments and discussion to operate within the realm of non-scholars, effectively opening up the world of learning to every person.

More than most books I have reviewed, which are valuable for a small number of people, I highly recommend Before Religion to all readers for its innovative and thought provoking arguments.