Monthly Archives: April 2013

Review of Nongbri, Before Religion

My thanks to Yale University Press for sending me a copy of Brent Nongbri’s new book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013). My thanks also to Dr. Nongbri, who graciously cleared up a few points of confusion before this review was published.

Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept is a book-length word study of the word “religion” and its classical counterparts, in which he seeks to provide “a (not the) history of that concept [i.e., the concept of religion], drawing together the results of diverse fields of research to show, first and foremost, that religion does indeed have a history: it is not a native category to ancient cultures” (7; emphasis original).

In chapter 1, Nongbri begins his study by defining what he means by “religion.” He surveys different scholars’ attempts to define “religion” and finds the assumptions behind those definitions lacking: “There are certain ‘things’ that people in the modern world are conditioned to regard as ‘religion,’ and attempts at definition are always subject to that impulse to be consistent with everyday speech” (17). Therefore, Nongbri takes a pragmatic approach and defines “religion” to match this modern, Western intuition: “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18)—or, less provocatively, “what most modern people appear to mean by religion is a kind of inner sentiment or personal faith ideally isolated from secular concerns” (8). Nongbri notes that he does not think this sort of definition is a good one, merely that it is the popular one (18, discussing a quote from Karen Armstrong), and it is this popular notion of religion that he wishes to argue against. The remainder of this chapter is a preliminary historical survey of the usage of the terms “religion,” “religions,” and “World Religions,” along with a brief discussion of why Nongbri finds those categories to be problematic.

In chapter 2, Nongbri surveys three classical languages—Latin, Greek, and Arabic—and discusses terms in each of these languages that are frequently translated into English as “religion”: Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia, and Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. Throughout the chapter, Nongbri highlights that these five classical words, though they are often translated as “religion,” do not mean what moderns mean by “religion.” He spends the most time discussing religio, and for obvious reason: it is the source of the English word “religion,” and he covers nearly two millennia of uses. Surveying a multitude of Latin sources, both pagan and Christian, from the second century BCE to the seventeenth century CE, Nongbri traces the development of religio from its original Roman sense of “scruples” (for example, in Plautus and Terence) to its modern definition as an “inward persuasion of the mind” (34, translating Locke), noting the range of meanings the term held in between the two endpoints. Curiously, Nongbri does not incorporate James B. Rives’ Religion in the Roman Empire either in this section or elsewhere in the book. One would imagine that incorporating Rives would only serve to further nuance his argument.

Nongbri spends substantially less time tracking the development of thrēskeia, the Greek word that, like religio, is often translated as “religion.” He tracks the development of the term from classical Greek (namely, Herodotus), where thrēskeia carries the sense of “rituals,” through the heyday of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century (namely, the Greek version of Barlaam and Ioasaph), where it maintains the same sense. Lastly, Nongbri explores the sense of the Arabic words dīn (“custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution” [41]), milla (“law or sect” [44]), and umma (“customs, traditions, and values” [44, quoting Denny]) in their Quranic context.

In chapter 3, Nongbri explores four historical cases that modern interpreters have seen as the beginning of a religious-secular divide: the Maccabean revolt, as interpreted by scholars like William Cantwell Smith; Cicero’s On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods, as interpreted by Mary Beard; Eusebius’ Preparatio evangelica and Demonstratio evangelica, as interpreted by Daniel Boyarin; and early Islam, as interpreted by Bernard Lewis. With regard to the Maccabees, Nongbri contrasts Smith’s argument—that the Greek term ioudaismos should be translated as “Judaism”—with arguments like those of Shaye J. D. Cohen and Steve Mason, who argue that ioudaismos refers to Judean customs, rather than a religion called “Judaism.” In discussing Cicero, Nongbri agrees with Beard that “something new is going on here with Cicero and his contemporaries” (53), but critiques her description of this new thing as “religion,” since it does not match the modern conception of religion. With Eusebius, Nongbri discusses how Eusebius’ use of christanismos parallels the Maccabean use of ioudaismos, such that christianismos refers to a set of customs practiced by an ethnicity (in this case, the christianoi). Finally, Nongbri critiques Lewis’s idea that early Islam saw itself as a new religion among other religions; instead, he argues, following Fred M. Donner, early Islam saw itself not as a new religion, but as standing in continuity with prior traditions.

Chapter 4 discusses Christianity’s relationship with three “others”—Mani and Manichaeism, early Islam, and the Buddha—which Christians saw as heretical Christian figures or beliefs, rather than as separate religions or religious figures. Mani and his followers, Nongbri argues, did not see themselves as founding a new religion, but rather saw themselves as Christians, and were engaged in polemics with orthodox Christianity: “in some ways, [the Manichaeans] were the mirror image of the orthodox Christians who persecuted them. That is to say, Manichaeans viewed themselves as Christians, and they saw ‘orthodox’ Christians as inferior, or we might even say ‘heretical’” (71). Likewise, John of Damascus, in his Peri haireseōn, lists Muhammad and his followers as heretics; he claims that Muhammad was instructed by an Arian monk, then founded a hairesis, which his people accepted as divine. Finally, Nongbri discusses how the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph is a Christianized version of the Buddha’s biography, and that Christians canonized the Buddha under the name of Ioasaph—implying that the Christians did not see Buddhism as a separate religion, but as an extension of their own.

Chapter 5 skips ahead several hundred years, to the 16th and 17th centuries. Nongbri first surveys the use of christiana religio in early Christian authors (like Augustine and Lactantius), then moves forward to the Renaissance and then the Reformation, where he examines the use of prisca theologia—Ancient Theology; that is, Christian theology found among pre-Christian authors—and christiana religio in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian Neo-Platonists (like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno). He finds that the Italian Neo-Platonists conceived of the christiana religio as but one religio among many religiones. Nongbri then examines how the English Deists of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (namely, Edward Lord Herbert and John Toland) used religio; he finds that their usage of the term begins to approximate what we today mean by “religion”: different groups of faith and practice that should be seen as equally important. Next, Nongbri looks at Jean Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth, where Bodin argues that if a state cannot achieve uniformity of religion, it should allow different groups to live according to their own beliefs. Finally, Nongbri discusses John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, where Locke argues that one’s beliefs have no place in the public sphere, and are ideally kept private; Nongbri argues that this view, while still somewhat different from the contemporary valences of the word “religion,” reflects a “turning point” (104) in the definition of the term.

Chapter 6 explores the discovery, among Westerners at least, of different religious traditions during the colonial era, namely Hinduism, the practices of the Hottentots in Southern Africa, and Shinto. Nongbri first gives a historical account of the Western discovery of these different religions, then examines how the colonialists tried to classify and systematize them. Basically, Nongbri asserts, the colonialists tried to reconcile their belief that (Protestant) Christianity was the “true religion” (as with Samuel Purchas, 120) with the variety of religions they found around the world; in the end, they claimed that all religions are the same in essence, but have different manifestations, and that religion was a private, not a public, affair. In concluding the chapter, Nongbri argues that the category of World Religions—and, more generally, that religion is “simply there” (129) in all cultures throughout all of history—is an artifact of the colonial age, and should be recognized as such.

Chapter 7 is a historical account of the development of the study of ancient religion, from which Nongbri argues that historians and classicists, although acknowledging that the modern valences of the term “religion” are often ill-suited for describing the practices of the ancient world, nonetheless continue to use the term. Nongbri begins the chapter by surveying the development of studying Greek and Roman religion from the beginning of the modern era, where it was seen as demon-worship, to the present, where it is seen as something totally different from modern understandings of religion. He then traces the “birth and growth of a new ‘ancient religion’” (143), that of ancient Mesopotamia, which, he argues, more or less followed the changes in scholars’ conceptions of religion, ending in defining Mesopotamian religion with reference to “religious experience” or “feelings,” a category Nongbri disputes throughout the book. Nongbri concludes that ascribing religion to an ancient society imposes a concept on ancient societies that those societies did not see in themselves, namely a concept of “religion” as separate from the secular.

In the conclusion, Nongbri proposes a shift in discourse, to replace religious studies’ current mode of analysis: “Religion could be deployed in nonessentialist ways to treat something as a religion for the purposes of analysis. . . . We would no longer ask the question ‘Is phenomenon X a religion?’ Rather we would ask something like ‘Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?’” (155). Or, in relation to the ancient world, “religion can be used as a redescriptive concept for studying the ancient world. The question then becomes: What sort of definition or theory of religion should be used for this redescriptive project?” (157). These, I think, are very healthy ways to reframe the question.

In all, I think Nongbri’s book is a useful contribution to the study of religion, and especially to the study of religion in the ancient world. It brings religion scholars face-to-face with the history of a term that is central to our field of study, and it questions the assumptions about that term that lie hidden within scholarly discourse on the subject. In the end, Nongbri’s proposals are quite helpful, and provide a way for religion scholars to be fair to ancient and/or non-Western sources, while still using the categories of study they have inherited.

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Evolutionary Origins of Non-Belief

Over at This View of Life, Michael Blume summarizes a paper by psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais regarding the origins of religious non-belief. Blume distills Norenzayan and Gervais’ argument quite nicely, showing four possible steps to religious non-belief:

1. “‘Mind-Blind’ Atheism”: the non-belief of those who cannot, for reasons psychological or physiological, imagine the presence of supernatural agents.

2. “Apatheism”: the non-belief of those who live in environments that provide “existential security” in themselves, lessening the perceived need for a supernatural source of security (like eternal life, supernatural prosperity, etc.).

3. “InCREDulous Atheism”: the non-belief of those who live in societies where religious Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs), like public rituals, are not prevalent or are non-existent; these societies are “comparatively devoid of cues that others believe in any gods at all.”

4. “Analytic Atheism”: the non-belief of those who have — like most people on Earth — intuitive leanings toward experiencing the supernatural, but override those intuitions through analytical thought.

“Four Paths to Atheism — The Emergence of Non-Religiosity” | This View of Life

Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17 (2013): 20-25.


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Online Aramaic and Coptic Flashcards

I’ve been searching for electronic flashcards for John’s Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic and Layton’s Coptic in 20 Lessons all semester. (I cut my teeth with FlashWorks, the vocabulary software that comes with Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, so paper flashcards don’t really do it for me.)

Thankfully, a kind soul has made free, online flashcards sets for all 20 chapters of Johns, which I’m very excited about. They can be found here. The same site has some flashcards for Layton (chapters 2-13), but I haven’t yet found anywhere that has flashcards for all 20 chapters.

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Primitive Science, Ancient Faith

I came across this quote while doing some research yesterday. It’s a little anachronistic — it was written about 100 years ago — but it’s a nice sentiment nonetheless:

The Judean writer of the ninth century B.C. stated his creed in terms of the primitive science of the Arabian desert. The priestly writer of the sixth century B.C. stated his creed in terms of the better science of the Babylonian priests. We of today state our creed in terms of modern astronomy, geology, and biology. Our descendants will state their creed in terms of a still more accurate science and philosophy; but through all the changes of scientific thought it will still be the same creed trying to express itself, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The primitive Semitic science of Gen., chap. 2, and the Babylonian science of Gen., chap. 1, have given place to a better science, but their religious belief in one creator, God, is still the faith of the church.

Lewis Bayles Paton, “Archaeology and the Book of Genesis,” The Biblical World 45 (1915): 13 [10-17].

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CFP: Religion, Literature, and the Arts Conference

Ninth Religion, Literature, and the Arts Conference
Sacrifice, Terror, and the Good
September 26‐28, 2013
University of Iowa, Iowa City IA

The 2013 Religion, Literature and the Arts conference at the University of Iowa will focus on the relationships between terror, sacrifice, and the good. If one of the chief functions of the humanities is to encourage us to think reflectively about what we take to be the highest good, sometimes the task of the humanities scholar must be one of recovery, and sometimes one of critique. Rather than leaping to the defense of the pure virtue of the good, the conference pauses to reflect on its terrifying aspects and how it may compel us to sacrifice even that which is dear to us. Working across time and place, we want to build an understanding of how sacrifice works to alleviate or induce terror, and the role of the good in this process.

We invite papers focused on one of these three key terms, as well as papers that conceptualize how these terms might relate to one another. The conference is hosted by the University of Iowa’s Department of Religious Studies, and so we welcome contributions working with both classic and contemporary theories of sacrifice, penitence, and trembling before the divine—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rudolf Otto, Georges Bataille, Rene Girard, Walter Burkert, Slavoj Zizek, Talal Asad, to name but a few examples. But we are equally interested in papers and presentations that cut across disciplinary boundaries and address the broad themes of the conference from other vantage points, working with texts and non‐textual artifacts alike. As a starting point, the following kinds of questions might be considered:

  • Does terror have its ethical or political virtues? Is there an aesthetics of terror? How is the experience of terror represented in literature and the arts, and to what end? Is terror induced by the call for sacrifice, or does it justify the call for sacrifice?
  • How did ancient or antiquated rituals of sacrifice operate? How are they taken up and reenacted in contemporary cultures, by artists, creators, and consumers?
  • Does pursuit of the good always demand sacrifice? In a time of abundance, are we still called upon to sacrifice? What is the value (ethical or aesthetic) of choosing a good that does require sacrifice? In what contexts is goodness experienced as something to be feared? Is the good an inherently terrifying subject, or an inherently dull one?

In thinking about developing a proposal, it might be helpful to consider the following three broad headings under which accepted papers will be organized:

Constructive Diagnoses
This track invites papers using philosophy, theology, psychoanalytic theory, political theory, and/or literary theory to define, diagnose, and perhaps undermine what given cultures define as the good. For example, papers might develop a phenomenology of terror, deconstruct the practice of sacrifice, or explore how the divine or the demonic function as manifestations of the good.

Cultural Manifestations
This track invites papers that explore the agony, ecstasy, or monotony of sacrifice within a given culture, society, community, or ritual setting, from a variety of methodological perspectives and in a variety of contexts. Examinations of specific historical events or material artifacts, investigations of the ways sacrifice has been represented in literature and the arts, and inquiries into specific rituals of sacrifice are all equally welcome.

Creative Interpretations
This track invites creative work that touch in some way on the themes of sacrifice, terror, and the good—fiction, creative non‐fiction, poetry, paintings, music, film, and/or dance. Where appropriate, the abstract in this case might take the form of an artist’s statement explaining how the work speaks to the themes of the conference.

Submission of Abstracts
Please submit abstracts of no more than 350 words, along with a working title for your paper, your name, institutional affiliation, and email address to the RLA working group at religion‐ The deadline for submissions is April 30, 2013.

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