by Brent Nongbri
Yale, 288 pages, $35
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.
The modern understanding of religion cordons off something like Christianity into one relatively small and inherently private aspect of life, while the rest of life, the secular, is nonreligious and not intrinsically related to the worship of God. There was no “religion” in pre-modernity because the worship of God pervaded all aspects of life. Using the term “religion” uncritically leaves believers trying to bridge a gap between their “religion” and the rest of life, a gap that is artificially created.
Perhaps, then, the marginalization of religion in modernity is not simply the way things naturally and inevitably must be, but the result of a recent and contingent set of arrangements. Nongbri is not, it should be said, a materialist who wants to reduce “religion” to something more “real,” a mere superstructure on economic and political life, for example. His purpose here is to point to the absence in antiquity of the divide, assumed by modern people, between a spiritualized religion and more material causes and effects.
If he is right, we need to talk about “religion” self-consciously and critically. We should not ask “Is x a religion?” as if religion were really “out there,” if we could only come up with a suitable definition.
We should ask “What sorts of interests are involved in calling some things ‘religions’ and others not?” and “Who is doing the defining and why?” We might find that calling Islam a religion distorts our understanding of Islamic politics, since the category assumes a “religion” separate from politics, which many Muslims don’t. We think of Islam as an abnormally “politicized” religion, but the anomaly might be, as Robert Shedinger suggests, the “religionization” of Christianity, that is, the separation of “religion” from politics.
Nongbri’s thesis, as he acknowledges, is “not really news.” Scholars since Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his landmark 1962 book The Meaning and End of Religion have been doing genealogies of the concept of religion and finding it missing in any culture that is not—or has not been influenced by—the modern West. Other books, such as Timothy Fitzgerald’s Discourse on Civility and Barbarity and Philip Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism, burrow more deeply into primary sources and the political motivations of those who constructed religion. What is new about Nongbri’s book is that he has summarized—and in some cases advanced—all that scholarship in one book-length treatment, in the process correcting some of the problems with Smith’s original work, such as its suggestion that “religion” as a noun is problematic but “religious” as an adjective works.
As Nongbri traces the origins of the modern concept in post-Reformation Europe, he shows that what most people mean by “religion” is “anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity.” Religion is assumed to be something inherently otherworldly, private, individual, nonpolitical, something that belongs, as a 1963 Supreme Court decision put it, in “the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind.” Here Nongbri is indebted to a growing group of scholars who trace the field of religious studies to European Protestants like Max Müller in the nineteenth century and show how pure religions were thought by Protestant pioneers to be textual and interior, like Protestantism. Pure religions like that of the Buddha—the Asian Martin Luther, as he was called—were contrasted with debased versions like Hinduism, ritualistic and exterior.
When premodern and non-Western concepts are translated with the word “religion,” it inevitably distorts them. Religio, for the ancient Romans, often included civic duties that we would consider social and political and could mean “scruples” or “social rules,” and it might or might not involve gods. The modern religious–secular divide simply did not apply.
Similar problems arise with the relatively recent attempts to translate the Arabic term din as “religion.” The term carries a range of meanings including custom, usage, judgment, direction, and retribution, which indicates that in non-Westernized Arab cultures there is no realm of “religion” separate from social order, law, and ethics.
Nongbri considers some contemporary scholars’ claims to have found the modern concept of religion in antiquity. Islam is sometimes considered a new religion, and the terms Ioudaismos and Christianismos can be found in ancient writings. This is thought to mark them as systems of religious belief in the modern sense, separable from ethnic and civic engagements. Nongbri examines each case and finds that not only are such usages rare, but when used, they are “understood primarily in ethnic or civic terms.”
Today we tend to think of ancient and medieval people occupying various well-defined and mutually exclusive religions, but Nongbri shows in a fascinating chapter that they had very different ways of conceptualizing one another. It was not clear to ancient commentators, for example, whether Manicheans were Christians or not. Many early Christians considered the followers of Muhammad to be Christian heretics, not members of a new religion. And the story of the Buddha was capable of being absorbed into Christian stories as the legend of St. Josaphat, which Nongbri thinks shows that “Buddhism” and “Christianity” were not mutually exclusive sets of doctrines. As Nongbri puts it, “Discussing materials like these in terms of different ‘religions’ creates boundaries that are alien to the boundaries that ancient authors constructed.”
When Nongbri turns to the creation of the modern concept of religion in Renaissance and early modern Europe—and its subsequent exportation to the rest of the globe through European colonization—he deftly summarizes the way that figures like Marsilio Ficino, Giordano Bruno, and Herbert of Cherbury, in their efforts to bring concord among the world’s diverse peoples, created the idea that Christianity, Islam, and other faiths were simply species of the genus religion. Rather than see Muslims as Christian heretics, for example, both Islam and Christianity were codified as types of a single universal human impulse, labeled “religion.”
Furthermore, in their irenic attempts to boil the religions down to their “common essence,” they tended to reduce religion to a set of ideas or beliefs that could be either true or false, and to which one gave mental assent. This is what Nongbri means when he claims that religion came to be understood as that which resembles Protestantism.
The more Christianity was categorized as interiorized religion, the more the conditions were established for the depoliticization of Christianity in the modern era. The creation of this interiorized religion, according to Nongbri, was deeply intertwined with the creation of the modern state. In a brief look at religion in Jean Bodin and John Locke, he argues that religion as something essentially distinct from politics and essentially concerned with the salvation of the individual soul became necessary so that the state and market could function smoothly without the interference of the Church. In Locke’s case, his individualization of the soul would provide no friction with the possessive individualism of the market. Locke’s business interests in the American colonies have not gone unnoticed in this regard.
The creation of a non-political “religion,” in other words, is itself a political act. “This assemblage of ideas—religions as groups of individuals who freely choose to associate with each other and adhere to a particular set of writings for the purpose of salvation, and who ideally operate in ways that do not interfere or overlap with the concerns of the state—now begins to look quite similar to modern conceptions of religion.”
After showing how Western states gradually came to differentiate between their “religious” and “secular” spheres, Nongbri discusses how this distinction was exported to the rest of the world in the process of colonization. Religions were gradually distilled out of cultures that did not previously think there was a separate “religious” realm of life. As Western scholars undertook this task, they often created religions on the model of Protestantism, giving doctrines and scriptures a central place that native people never thought they had.
In a too-brief conclusion, Nongbri asks what we are to do with the category of “religion.” He does not think we can simply jettison the word, given the way it has become a fixture of our discourse in the West. It is not simply that we are stuck with the concept because of its ubiquity. It is also that the word can do real critical work when it is used to interrogate so-called “secular” phenomena.
We might find that to call other regimes and systems “religion” reveals more than it conceals. If we ask, for example, “Is capitalism a religion?” we can perhaps unveil a whole host of implicit dogmas and sanctioned behaviors that blur the lines between what we usually call a religion and what we usually call secular. If we ask the further question “Why do we insist that capitalism is not a religion when it behaves so much like things that we insist are religions?” then we have opened up a potentially very fruitful line of inquiry. If we cannot jettison the term “religion,” we should treat it not as a thing we encounter out in the world, but as a category we use to construct the world in different ways, for better and for worse.
Nongbri’s book makes no great claim to either originality or depth, but Before Religion is valuable as both an overview of a wide swath of scholarship and a coherent, lucid, book-length argument that ought to convince the skeptic that “religion” is a problematic category.
Nongbri’s book is a great place to start to question the inevitability of modern categories. This does not necessarily mean overturning the real gains of modernity, such as the separation of the Church from the coercive power of the state. It does mean that the marginalization of Christianity in the West does not correspond to the way things naturally are.
William T. Cavanaugh is professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University .
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?