Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept

Brent Nongbri

Yale University Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2023
In Before Religion Brent Nongbri argues that the modern concept of religion is a product of the European Renaissance and Reformation and that definitions are mostly variants on "anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity"; he argues against accepting religion as a "universal, natural, and necessary" category.

One obvious rejoinder to this argument is the existence of words such as the Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia and Arabic dīn. Nongbri analyses those and explains that:

"even though all these terms eventually come in the course of antiquity to be used in classification systems with the singular forms indicating a genus and the plural forms indicating various species, the entities being classified should not be confused with the modern religions. 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."

Nongbri looks at some possible beginnings of a modern concept of religion, candidate escapes from "the politico-religio-ethnic mixture of ancient life": the revolt of the Maccabees, in Cicero (still involving "civic and ethnic identity"), in Eusebius ("any non-Christian group can be seen as a deviation from a pure, ancient Christian past"), and among the early followers of Muhammad. And he explores how early Christians thought about alternatives if they weren't "different religions": the prophet Mani in the 3rd century, John of Damascus and the Ishmaelites, and an example of a story appropriation turning the Buddha into a Christian.

The Renaissance and Reformation saw the development of the popular notion of religion as "voluntary associations of people with similar 'religious experience'" and the emergence of a religious-secular divide; Nongbri traces key ideas from Italian Neo-Platonists such as Marsilio Ficino to Jean Bodin and John Locke ("the full emergence of this individualized religious self"). And in "New Worlds, New Religion, World Religions" he offers case studies from European contacts with India, South Africa and Japan, illustrating "how the category of religion came into being and how we have come to think of the world as being carved up into different World Religions".

"In the early twentieth-first century, the view of religion as a kind of pure unconditioned experience is still prevalent. In the typical World Religions textbook, each individual religion is celebrated for its uniqueness, and all are thought to be legitimate paths to individual 'salvation,' or 'liberation' or 'self-realization'."

(Nongbri's focus remains on Europe, but "Nuer Religon" or "the traditional religion of the Toraja" clearly pose no problem for his thesis.)

A final chapter looks at how this category has been applied to ancient religions, with Greek and Roman "religions" and "Mesopotamian religion" as case studies. Nongbri suggests avoiding the term "religion" completely in translations of ancient texts, but that "the use of religion as an explicitly second-order or redescriptive concept has a place in the study of antiquity".

His approach is very much historical and concrete rather than philosophical and abstract and whether one is convinced by Nongbri's thesis or not his examples are intriguing. Before Religion offers a new approach to thinking about "religion", but also a different perspective on specific periods and phenomena.

July 2023

External links:
- buy from
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- more history of ideas
- books about religion
- books published by Yale University Press
%T Before Religion
%S A History of a Modern Concept
%A Nongbri, Brent
%I Yale University Press
%D 2013
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780300216783
%P 275pp