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Book Review


Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 275. $30.14 (cloth).


     I teach a survey course of World Religions in two formats. One approach I use is the traditional World Religion method of examining the seven or eight major world religions. This course is offered by our Philosophy Department. The second approach is an offering in the Humanities Department—World Cultures. I do basically the same thing as in my World Religions course but present the seven or eight World Religions as cultural traditions rather than religions. My two courses are in miniature what is at the center of Nongbri's discussion.

     According to Nongbri, "religion" is a flawed term when applied to ancient traditions—as in Mesopotamian Religion. "Religion" is a western modern description of private belief / faith inseparable from the socio-political realm. The idea of religion as we understand it today was developed / invented in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, during the battles to define Christianity. Nongbri argues that since that time all "religions" past and present are measured against this Christian Protestant definition. His claim does not come as a surprise to me or many others who teach similar courses. I have for some time presented to my students the general idea that the term religion does not fit all of the cultural traditions we will study. Moreover, Nongbri acknowledges his is not a new claim nor is he alone arguing that "religion" is both a Western construct and a modern one at that. To the contrary there are many books and articles that make the same or similar claims. However, Nongbri's argument that religion is a modern concept has thrown down a major challenge at the feet of teachers of religion and their students. A challenge not easily met, at least not by my students. The issue for me and I would wager many others that teach survey courses in World Religions is not whether or not the concept or the word, religion, existed in ancient societies, but rather how big of a deal one is willing to make of it in her or his class.

     For example, one rather large assumption Nongbri makes is that accepting his line of reasoning about "religion" will in fact improve World Religion courses. I am not convinced. In my courses, and I feel sure in others, the use of 'religion' is tempered with the use of terms like 'philosophy' and 'way of life' to refer to some cultural traditions. There are also consequences or implications that follow from Nongbri's claims. First, following Nongbri's recommendations would lead the study of "World Religions" away from an overtly Western-centrism, which would be a positive step. It would also lead to a retooling of course syllabi (more work for faculty) as well as re-working textbooks and other course materials. This re-working of texts could be seen by some in the publishing business as a boon.

     Chapter one, "What do we mean by 'Religion'?," delves into the difficulty in defining religion. Nongbri's argument is that the term 'religion' is a modern Western Christian invention that they and others have inserted into discussions of ancient traditions that he says are "in opposition to politics and other "secular" areas of life (24)."

     In chapter two, "Lost in Translation: Inserting 'Religion' into Ancient Texts," Nongbri examines terms from several ancient cultures that have been translated in modern texts to read 'religion'. Moreover, Nongbri traces the origin of three ancient terms "the Latin religio, Greek threskeia, and Arabic terms kin, milla, and umma demonstrating the array of meanings these words carried.

     Chapter three, "Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity," posits that by translating particular terms from ancient religions to our "religion" has led to the claim by many that religion existed in antiquity. Nongbri presents examples from second century B.C.E. Judaism, the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, Eusebius of Caesarea, and early Islam to make his case that rather than the emergence of religion (in the modern sense) these episodes are better understood to reflect ethnic or civic life.

     "Christians and 'Others' in the Premodern Era," Nongbri's fourth chapter, provides examples of the ways in which modern scholars have used 'religion' as a means of differentiating groups that pre-modern people would never have done, at least not in the manner of moderns. As Nongbri notes groups like Manicheans, Muslins, and various pagans were first identified by early modern Christians as either flawed or heretical Christians.

     The fifth chapter, "Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," further explores the development of the notion of religion that continues to be used in our time. Nongbri argues that our modern religious-secular divide is the result of the Reformation and the flood of new information that came from the exploration of "new" worlds in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as well as the rediscovery of the ancient world.

     Chapter six, "New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions," looks at the impact of these new peoples and their influence on the European developing notion of 'difference'. As Nongbri notes, European encounters with Americans, Asians and Africans proved to show that these clearly non-Christian groups did share some similarities with Christianity. These encounters with new cultural traditions led to more intensive cataloguing and classifying resulting in new religions.

     Chapter seven, "The Modern Origins of Ancient Religions," is an examination of how the modern notion of World Religions developed under the tutelage of historians and other scholars of ancient cultures. Nongbri presents the case of the way in which ancient Greece and Rome move from "pagans" to being "ancient Greek and Roman religions." He concludes this chapter by calling for those of us involved in teaching and studying ancient world religions to at the very least acknowledge that it is a modern construct unrecognizable by the ancients.

     Nongbri concludes, in his last chapter, "After Religion," by pleading for the end to "religion" as a descriptive tool in the study and teaching of ancients and makes a call for new categories to be employed in the study of these cultures. All this he hopes will open new vistas of knowledge of the ancients and their lives.

     I suppose I am convinced by his argument: however, while the term religion may not be the best possible designation for our study of ancient cultural traditions, it is what we have and have had since at least the 1600s. Moreover, teaching courses in World Religions and World Cultures is no easy task at best. Teaching them to twenty-first century community college students deeply influenced by conservative Christian teachings (Catholic and Protestant) even if they no longer attend institutional churches is exponentially more so. For conservative Texans, Christianity is in the very water they drink not only religiously but also politically, socially, and culturally. Therefore I continue to use the term religion but as I do so I balance its use by continually noting the multiple differences between Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity. I do this in a variety of ways. For example when I present Hinduism I begin by explaining that the term was a designation first used by the British to separate Muslims from the rest of the Indian population. I also explain that Hinduism is best understood as an umbrella term that covers a multitude of Indian cultural traditions. I use an essay assignment that requires students to discuss the human condition and its solution from both a Christian and a Buddhist perspective. Finally, I have adapted a worldview questionnaire to allow for a discussion of the various traditions in an organized manner without it being purely a Western (Christian) format. For example, the questionnaire asks what the tradition's views of afterlife and the absolute / ultimate are. Seeing the numbers of groups that have no belief in either god or afterlife helps put Christianity in perspective for many students.

Terry D. Goddard is Professor of History at Northwest Vista College, where he teaches world cultures and world religions. He can be reached at


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