In Before Religion , Brent Nongbri makes the case that once there was no religion and then modern Westerners invented it. This claim will strike many as both preposterous”didn’t ancient peoples in all parts of the world worship many different gods?”and as another entry in the recent atheist attacks on religion, dismissing it as nothing but a human invention concocted to fulfill various political purposes. I think, however, that Nongbri, now a postdoctoral fellow at Macquarie University in Australia, is right and that his thesis is important for people who are conventionally labeled “religious” to accept.

The key lies in one of Nongbri’s statements near the beginning of the book: “What is modern about the ideas of ‘religions’ and ‘being religious,’” he argues, “is the isolation and naming of some things as ‘religious’ and others as ‘not religious.’” The modern invention of religion, in other words, can only be understood in tandem with the modern invention of the secular.

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