Some (Mainly) Very Appreciative Comments on Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London: Yale, 2013).
In Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale: 2013, Brent Nongbri makes a significant contribution to Critical Religion that will be useful to both students and theorists. This is a clear and carefully written book, well researched and informatively referenced. Nongbri’s strength lies in his feeling for antiquity. With precision and skill, he reviews English translations of the word religion in influential early Greek, Roman and Arabic texts to argue that the term is an anachronism supporting the conventional notion that ‘religion’ refers to a recognizable and timeless phenomenon. Although such insight will be familiar to readers of the works of Timothy Fitzgerald, David Chidester, Richard King, Russell McCutcheon et al., Nongbri’s account is particularly notable for its sustained clarity and judicious selection of ancient source material.
Nongbri tells us that his questioning of the universality of “religion” began when he realized that the word did not exist in the Khasi language his father grew up speaking in northeastern India. Instead of referring to specific “religious” ideas or behavior that could be distinguished from “secular” varieties, “ka niam”, the Khasi term his father offered as an equivalent to religion, simply means “customs” in a broad sense. Further inquiry revealed that niam is actually a Bengali term signifying “rules” or “duties.” This discovery about his paternal tongue forms the paradigm that Nongbri identifies again and again in his investigation of ancient sources. As he leads his readers through myriad texts of early history, he points to the absence of “the modern concept of religion” and how the insertion of the word misrepresents authorial intentions.
Nongbri structures his arguments memorably around a few well-articulated themes. His chapter titled “Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity” is especially effective. Under this heading, he refutes claims that “religion” emerged in reference to the Maccabean revolt, in Cicero’s rhetoric, in Eusebius’ texts, or in Muhammed’s innovations. He also does an impressive job of showing that the tenets Tomoko Masuzawa identifies in the nineteenth century as formative for a discourse of world religions are actually well underway in the seventeenth century in the work of Alexander Ross et al.
Nongbri is convinced that the study of antiquity could be improved if “students of the ancient world [were] … to work on generating a better vocabulary for talking about the various ways that ancient peoples conceptually carved out their worlds, a better means of describing the clusters of practices and beliefs outlined by ancient authors…”(p.53). He writes that the task is not one of finding a better word for “it” – i.e. of uncovering what “religion” meant in antiquity – but rather of realizing that there never was an “it” in the first place. Nongbri believes that if his advice were heeded, we would not wind up with more “slightly tweaked” books about early religions, but rather with more specific and insightful studies on such subjects as “Athenian appeals to ancestral tradition, Roman ethnicity, Mesopotamian scribal praxis, Christian and Muslim heresiological discourses, and other topics that will encapsulate and thoroughly rearrange those bits and pieces of what we once gathered together as ‘ancient religions’ ”(159).
I suggest that Nongbri’s counsel for reforming the study of ancient history should be applied throughout the field of Religious Studies. Nongbri hesitates to recommend such an approach to scholars of contemporary “religions.” Instead, he concludes his book with what I find to be a contradictory and confusing call to “think outside of our usual categories” (159) by being aware that whenever we use the word ‘religion’ we are employing a “second-order” redescriptive concept. Surprisingly, Nongbri says that such a conscious – yet, to my mind, impossibly acrobatic – use of the term could even have some benefits in the study of antiquity. Thus, he momentarily argues against the thrust of his own conscientious analysis in his conclusion.
Despite this brief retreat from the implications of his critique, Nongbri succeeds in building a solid case for historians of antiquity to purge their intellectual toolbox of a distorting anachronism. In addition, his book also points to similar confusions and misrepresentations that occur with the use of ‘religion’ in reference contemporary times when the word is imposed on non-Western cultures like his father’s or when scholars continue to use rhetorical ploys such as “embedded religion” to reinscribe religion as “eternally present” (152).
The argument that Nongbri frames so clearly and competently in relation to ancient history is applicable in present times and possibly more urgent. By assuming that religion is an eternal and universal “it” that identifies a bounded sphere of human life, distinct from what we term “politics” or “economics” or “the secular,” we are doing more than hampering our understanding of epochs in the past. We are also obscuring our ability to see through the veils of ideologies that currently surround us. The task of lifting these veils, or, at least, of making them less opaque is one way to conceive of an objective for “Critical Religion” – an aim that Nongbri’s work helps to further.