“Religion” as a Modern Invention

Upon returning from my trip to England, I was delighted to find Amazon’s trademark smiling boxes waiting for me. I had ordered a number books before my trip, and among them was Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013). I first came across Nongbri’s book in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s forthcoming The Territories of Science and Religion (2014). Nongbri’s Before Religion follows a recent trend among historians of religion who have come to question the concept and even usefulness of the term “religion.” According to Nongbri, the “isolation of something called ‘religion’ as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics, and science is not a universal feature of human history.”

Brent Nongbri - Before ReligionNongbri is not the first scholar to draw our attention to the problematic nature of the term “religion.” This he readily admits. He is influenced first and foremost by the remarkable scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who in his The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), traced the development of the term “religion” (religio) in the west, showing how the it has changed meaning over time and how it was inextricably connected with polemics and apologetics. These claims are not without merit. Several studies beside Smith have traced the genesis of the term and have reached similar conclusions.

But Nongbri wants to move beyond Smith’s “reification” thesis. Here is follows Talal Asad’s view that “religion” and “secularization” are two sides of the same coin. That is, religion, according to Asad, is “a modern concept not because it is reified but because it has been linked to its Siamese twin ‘secularism.'” Thus Nongbri wants to address “how we have come to talk about ‘secular’ versus ‘religious.'” Indeed, how—and when—did we first divide the world between the “religious” and the “secular”? In short, Nongbri ventures an origins story. Or, as he puts it, “a diachronic narrative” of selected “representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period.”

Nongbri is also influenced by the work of deconstructionists Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell T. McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and in particular Jonathan Z. Smith and Peter Harrison. Pointing to post-Reformation hostilities, Nongbri maintains that these events “not only brought much bloodshed but also disrupted trade and commerce,” inspiring prominent public figures such as John Locke to argue “that stability in the commonwealth could be achieved not by settling arguments about which kind of Christianity was ‘true,’ but by isolating beliefs about god in a private sphere and elevating loyalty to the legal codes of developing nation-states over loyalties to god.” J.Z. Smith, in his incisive Drudgery Divine (1990), described the “Protestant, apologetic, historiographical project” of the reformers as “Pagano-papism,” which was, in a nutshell, Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics. Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990) also shows how “religion” was constructed “along essentially rationalistic lines.” Harrison too recognizes that “in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘paganopapism’ played a major role in the rhetoric of sectarian disputes.” Thus such early attempts to understand “religion” were often marred by polemics; they were attempts to show either the “superiority” of Protestantism over and against Catholicism and other Christian sects, or to promote a deistic, “natural” or “rational” religion. Nongbri returns to themes near the end of the book.

For now, Nongbri begins Chapter One, “What do We Mean by ‘Religion,'” with a discussion on the many different definitions of religion. In 1912, professor of psychology James J. Leuba offered more than fifty different definitions of religion. In 1966, anthropologist Clifford Geertz offered a more careful definition of religion as a system of symbols established on conceptions of reality, designed to move and motivate mankind. More recently, historian of religion Bruce Lincoln offered yet another definition of religion in his Holy Terrors (2003) as a “discourse” and “set of practices” within a “community” of believers guided and directed by an “institution.” Nongbri offers his own provocative definition, following the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (as interpreted, however, by Richard Rorty): “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition [he says] might be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christianocentric, and even a bit flippant; it is all these things, but it is also highly accurate in reflecting the uses of the term in modern languages.” What Nongbri intends by this definition is made clearer by the end of the book.

Nongbri goes on to add three more points. First, religion is understood, in this modern sense, as essentially private or spiritual, and thus immune from the constraints of language and history. Second, this way of understanding religion sees religion as a “genus that contains a variety of species” (as, e.g., in the “World Religions”). According to Nongbri, “The picture of the world as divided among major ‘religions’ offering alternative means to ‘salvation’ or ‘enlightenment’ is thoroughly entrenched in the modern imagination.”And third, in the academic context, religion is either used descriptively or redescriptively. That is, religion is either described from an observer’s point of view, using the classificatory “systems of a group of people being studied,” or it is redescribed, using a classificatory system completely foreign to the group being observed.

The imposition of modern categories of “religious” and “secular” on ancient writings, for example, is the subject of Chapter Two, “Lost in Translation: Inserting ‘Religion’ into Ancient Texts.” Here Nongbri scrutinizes the Latin religio, the Greek thrēskei, and the Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. These terms are often rendered “religion” in modern English translation; however, according to Nongbri, each term had a range of meanings—and none like our modern understanding of religion. “Those aspects of life covered by these terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion.” Thus using “religion” to describe the worldview of ancient peoples serves only to mar our understanding of them. In looking at ancient texts from Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian peoples, for instance, Nongbri finds much incongruity with  modern notions of religion. “We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize,” he writes.

In Chapter Three Nongbri traces “Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity.” Scholars typically find the events of the Maccabean revolt, the writings of Cicero (esp. his On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods) and Eusebius (esp. his Demonstratio evangelica and Praeparatio evangelica), and finally the rise of Islam, as marking the beginning of the concept of “religion.” But Nongbri contends each case. “In each of these cases,” he writes, “the episode that modern authors have identified as ancient ‘religion’ have turned out to involve discourses that ancient authors themselves seem to have understood primarily in ethnic or civic terms.”

Chapter Four examines “Christians and ‘Others’ in the Premodern Era,” that is, examples of Christian interaction with “other religions.” Nongbri first looks at Mani and the Manichaeans, who in fact viewed themselves as “Christians,” and who saw “orthodox” Christianity as “inferior, and even  “hereticial.” Many scholars have seen Mani as “founding a religion,” but according to Nongbri “Mani’s self-understanding” operated entirely “within the sphere of Christian activity.” Indeed, Jesus remained a key figure to Mani and his later followers. Thus neither the orthodox nor Mani and his followers saw Manichaeaism as the foundations of a new “religion.” And in fact neither did orthodox Christians. Mani and the Manichaeans were viewed, from the beginning, as heretics.

Nongbri then turns to John of Damascus and his remarks on Islam. In a tract entitled Peri hairesōn (not unlike Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion), John lists a number of heresies, including what he called the “Ishmaelites.” According to John, Islam was not a new “religion,” but rather a Christian heresy. As Nongbri points out, John in fact was not alone in claiming that Muslims were a erroneous Christian sect.

Finally, Nongbri examines the tale of the Christian saints Barlaam and Ioasaph. This story of Barlaam and Ioasaph was an incredibly popular narrative in the late Middle Ages. According to this legend, Abenner, the father of Ioasaph, wanted to protect his son from the reality of death, disease, old age, and poverty, and therefore built palace in a secluded location. But Ioasaph grew to become a curiously young man, eventually convincing his father to permit him to venture beyond his sheltered palace, only to be shocked to find the ravages of reality. He immediately fell into a great depression. But the devout Christian monk, Barlaam visited Ioasaph at his palace and shared with him the Christian message of the Gospel. The message freed from this depression, and Ioasaph was thus baptized. He would eventually Christianize his portion of the kingdom. The tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph has many close similarities to the legendary biography of Siddhārtha Gautama. Indeed, according to Nongbri, it was a “reworked version of the life of the Buddha,” who was, in a sense, canonized as a Christian saint. “The story of the Buddha,” he writes, “was not seen as part of a story of a separate religion; rather, a late medieval Christian, and an earlier Manichaean Christian or a Muslim, simply absorbed the story of the Buddha  and made it their own.”

From Buddhism to Islam, in short, these traditions were not seen as new “religions,” but, in some sense, as “flawed” Christianity.

In Chapters Five and Six, Nongbri finally provides an account of the development of the modern notion of “religion.” In “Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” he traces the development and consequences of the fragmentation of Christendom as a result of the reform movements. But first Nongbri wants to examine the idea of the vera religio, or “true religion,” among Italian Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance and seventeenth-century English deists. True religion or worship has always existed. Christianity was simply the best example of this vera religio. It follows that “non-Christian thought, even if vastly deficient, might be expected to show at least some qualities of this vera religio.” This was the position of Augustine, Eusebius, Lactantius, and Photius, among others. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the influx of “pagan” wisdom from translations of Greek and Arabic texts, the prisca theologia (“ancient theology”) became the guiding principle of Renaissance thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and, later, Giordano Bruno. The prisca theologia was the practice of finding harmony between Christianity and pagan philosophy, particularly the Platonic, but also the Hermetic, which emerged from the recent translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

In the wake of the reformation, Nongbri claims (citing Harrison), “the fragmentation of Christendom led to a change from an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding.” Once a quest for harmony, Protestant thinkers now saw parallels between pagan and Catholic practices as a corruption of the true, pristine faith of the Scriptures. This polemic of “pagano-papism” was not only used against Catholics but also “appeared in disputes among different groups of Protestants.” According to Nongbri, “this kind of polemic itself contributed to the formation of distinct religions.”

These disputes led to much bloodshed and warfare among vying Protestant sects. English “deists” such as Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Toland renewed the search for an “original religion.” Herbert, for example, found it in his “Common Notions.” But as Nongbri puts it, “by shearing away all the practices of ancient people in his discussions of what was essential and original” in all religions, “Herbert contributed to the growing sense that religion was a matter of beliefs apart from ‘various Rites, Ceremonies, and Sacred Mysteries.'” Religion was thus increasingly seen a “set of beliefs that could be either true or false.”

Before turning to the next chapter, Nongbri wants to further contextualize these ideas by setting them within the political philosophies of Jean Bodin and John Locke. Bodin maintained that state stability depended on the toleration of distinct groups. In his Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, Bodin concluded that “we are unable to command religion because no one can be forced to believe against his will.” Likewise, Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, maintained that “religion ought to be purely a matter of the salvation of the individual.” Any gathering of religious individuals therefore ought to be tolerated by the government, no matter the creed (except the atheists, which Locke excluded, for they interfered with the proper operation of the state). In the end, however, the “isolation of religion as a distinct sphere of life ideally separated from other areas of life allowed for a new kind of mental mapping of Europe and the world.”

In the following chapter, “New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions,” Nongbri seeks to outline the European struggle and reaction to “increasing amounts of information, primarily from the ‘New World,'” which called into question the biblical worldview of reality. He writes, “At the same time that the genus of religion was coming to be thought of as ideally an internal, private, depoliticized entity, interactions with previously unknown peoples were beginning to create new species of individual religions.” In this section Nongbri closely follows J.Z. Smith’s insightful essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998), where he suggests that a “world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it” (my emphasis). In particular, Nongbri traces the origins, construction, and classification of “religion” in India, Africa, and Japan. Here we begin to see emerging the “four grand Religions of the world,” that is, the Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Mohamedan, which eventually morphed into the modern framework of the modern “World Religions,” first promoted by Cornelis P. Tiele in the nineteenth century. Thus, according to Nongbri, there is “nothing natural or neutral about either the concept of religion or the framework of World Religions.”

Despite all this, Nongbri, in his Conclusion, maintains we should not altogether abandon the category of religion. He says, “I think there is still a place for ‘the study of religion’ in the modern world, provided that those doing the study adopt a self-conscious and critical attitude that has often been lacking.” In other words, something may be a historically construed term, but it does not follow therefore that it is useless. Or, as Paul Hedges recently argues in his article, “Discourse on the Invention of Discourse: Why We Need the Terminology of ‘Religion’ and ‘Religions'” (2014),  “if conventional knowledge is wrong because it is based upon socially constructed terminology, it is unclear why we should prefer another set of ideological socially constructed terminology which seeks to overcome it.” The critique of “religion” by Fitzgerald, McCutcheon, Masuzawa, and others, for instance, simply reintroduces “religion” by other names, whether it be “faith,” “sacred,” or “tradition.” Throughout his own book, moreover, Nongbri uses “religion” without the quotation marks. This suggests that “religion,” with the necessary qualifications, is here to stay. As Nongbri concludes, “if we are going to use religion as a second-order, redescriptive concept, we must always be explicit that we are doing so and avoid giving the impression that religion really was ‘out there,’ ’embedded in’ or ‘diffused in’ the ancient evidence.”

Nongbri’s book is a fine text that synthesizes a great deal of scholarship. It may serve as a useful, quickl reference guide for undergraduates and laypersons alike. However, a point unduly neglected, it seems to me, if one focuses solely on the modern construction of “religion,” is the contribution of Romanticism to the rise of the scientific study of religion (Religionswissenschaft). This was a point emphasized by H.G. Kippenberg in his essay, “Einleitung. Religionswissenschaft und Kulturkritik” (1991). Kippenberg, in brief, argued that the rise of a critical approach—which takes into account historical and cultural differences, but which emphasizes a non-sectarian, non-confessional, and non-reductive attitude—to the study of religion was given impetus by the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. This, it seems to me, was a necessary condition. Ahistorical explanations of religion, as “priest-craft” or infantile “wish-fulfillment” or “neuroses” are not conducive to the particularities of religion, of its long and complex history, or of its doubtless interconnectedness with different social and political contexts.

If Kippenberg’s argument is correct (and I think it is), the question then becomes: what were the origins of the Romantic worldview, and how did it become so crucial for understanding the study of religion?


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