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Before Religion: A History of a Modern Conceptby Brent Nongbri
Synopses & Reviews
For much of the past two centuries, religion has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri shows that the idea of religion as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.
Examining a wide array of ancient writings, Nongbri demonstrates that in antiquity, there was no conceptual arena that could be designated as “religious” as opposed to “secular.” Surveying representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period, while constantly attending to the concrete social, political, and colonial contexts that shaped relevant works of philosophers, legal theorists, missionaries, and others, Nongbri offers a concise and readable account of the emergence of the concept of religion.
"In his first book, Nongbri, a postdoctoral researcher who earned his Ph.D. at Yale, provides a succinct history of the development of the concept of religion. Through detailed analyses of ancient texts and ancient strategies for conceptualizing group differences, he contests the prevalent assumption that there is such a thing as 'ancient religion.' Instead, he traces the invention of religion to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the fragmentation of Christian Europe and colonization of the 'new world' led to the construction of religion as a privately held belief system distinct from the secular, political sphere. He argues that the tendency to think of religion as natural and universal is perpetuated by scholars who, while recognizing that the concept is anachronistic, continue to use the term and discuss 'ancient religions.' And while Nongbri ultimately concedes that 'religion can be used as a redescriptive concept for studying the ancient world,' he urges scholars to be more critical about the terminology they use. Although this book is both broad in scope and concise, forcing Nongbri to only briefly survey each historical episode, its cogent thesis and historical interpretation are compelling. It is a thought-provoking addition to scholarship on religion, history, and culture." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A fascinating exploration of religion as an invention of the modern world
About the Author
Brent Nongbri, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has held teaching positions at Yale University and Oberlin College.
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History and Social Science » World History » Ancient History