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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