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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. (Jan.)
Tomoko Masuzawa
 “Recent scholarship exposing the modern origin of ‘religion’ has awaited a treatise precisely like this: a wide-ranging yet careful exploration of the prehistory of the powerful idea. Written with clarity, ease, and grace, it is exceedingly informative and provocative.”—Tomoko Masuzawa, author of The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism
Peter Harrison
"This book provides a wonderfully clear and concise account of our modern notion of ‘religion.’ Written with erudition and insight, it challenges us to rethink everything we have thought about religions, past and present."—Peter Harrison, The University of Queensland
Guy S. Stroumsa
“This lucid, broad and well-documented book focuses on the crucial periods of late antiquity and early modernity.  In it, Brent Nongbri makes a convincing case for a more careful and self-conscious use of the term religion. A remarkable synthesis.”— Guy G. Stroumsa, author of A New Science: the Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason 
Jan Bremmer
 “In this brief but challenging book Brent Nongbri defamiliarizes the notion of religion as commonly used. Even if one does not agree with all of his conclusions, the study of 'religion', be it in antiquity or today, will never be the same after the standards set by his book.”—Jan Bremmer, University of Groningen
Russell T. McCutcheon
 “Inevitably, we use our own concepts to make sense of the past; failing to realize this, however, is an indictment of our work. Luckily, Brent Nongbri’s genealogy of the concept ‘religion’ will help keep scholars honest by making it tougher for them to portray their modern interpretations as disinterested descriptions.”—Russell T. McCutcheon, author of Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia 
Barnes and Noble Review
“Sharp and learned . . . In addition to being an absorbing historical polemic, Before Religion is a fine example of the kind of curiosity and skepticism it advocates.”—Adam Kirsch, Barnes and Noble Review
The Dish - Andrew Sullivan
“Fascinating”—Andrew Sullivan, The Dish
First Things - William T. Cavanaugh
“Valuable . . . a coherent, lucid, book-length argument that ought to convince the skeptic that ‘religion’ is a problematic category. . . . Nongbri’s book is a great place to start to question the inevitability of modern categories.” —William T. Cavanaugh, First Things
Critical Religion - Naomi Goldenberg
"A significant contribution . . . a clear and carefully written book."—Naomi Goldenberg, Critical Religion
The Barnes & Noble Review

The title of Brent Nongbri's sharp and learned Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept sounds like a paradox. Isn't religion one of those basic features of human culture, like language, that have always existed? Ancient Greeks had their temples to Athena; before them, the Babylonians had Anu and Marduk; before them, the ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra and Osiris. In the same way, religion seems to exist everyplace on the globe, one phenomenon in many different forms. According to what Nongbri calls our conventional, "World Religions" model of thinking, the globe is like a map divided neatly into sections where different religions predominate: Islam here, Hinduism there. Wherever we turn, religion seems already there to meet us.

Nongbri's argument is that we see religion everywhere because religion is what we expect to see. The universality of religion is an illusion, caused by our way of thinking and talking about what are, in reality, vastly different spiritual mind-sets and practices. "Because of the pervasive use of the word 'religion' in the cultures of the modern Western world, we already intuitively know what 'religion' is before we even try to define it," he writes. Specifically, "religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity." Scholars and historians operating in the Western tradition unconsciously take that tradition—with its emphasis on inward spiritual experience and a canon of sacred texts—as a paradigm.

Before Religion hopscotches across centuries and continents, giving case studies of the ways very different spiritual traditions have been shoehorned into the Protestant model. Before the Renaissance, Nongbri shows, Europeans had no concept of the world as divided among different, equivalent religions. Early Christians trying to make sense of Islam categorized it, instead, as a Christian heresy; they could not imagine a rival to Christianity, only a deformation of it. Likewise, ancient Greek and Roman gods were not thought of as comprising a religious system. They were held to be devils and demons, which maliciously led people astray from the worship of the one true God.

This kind of parochialism was shattered, Nongbri writes, by the Reformation, which led to internal divisions within Christianity, and by the Age of Exploration, which brought Christians face to face with radically different conceptions of God. At first, Europeans in South America continued to think of native deities as Christian devils. When Pizarro despoiled the temple of the Incan god Pachacamac, according to a sixteenth-century chronicler, "the Christians explained to the Indians the great error in which they had been enveloped, and that he who was talking in that idol was the devil." Only gradually did Europeans come to conceive of non- Christian beliefs, including those of ancient Greece, as comprising religions with an integrity of their own.

Once this happened, however, the pressure was great to assign every culture a "religion," even when this meant distorting actual religious practice. Shintoism, for instance, was more or less invented by the Meiji emperors at the time of Japan's opening to the West, as a way of giving Japan a suitable national religion. It was, Nongbri writes, "a clear example of the creation of a religion specifically to fit the model of World Religions." Likewise, the spiritual tradition of India was not known as "Hinduism" until the late eighteenth century, and for a long time after that the word "Hindu" could refer to either religion or ethnicity.

In the end, Nongbri argues that while it may be impossible to avoid projecting our own assumptions about religion onto foreign cultures and ages, we should do so self-consciously rather than blindly. "If we want to go on talking about ancient Mesopotamian religion, ancient Greek religion, or any other ancient religion, we should always bear in mind that we are talking about something modern when we do so. We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize," he writes. In addition to being an absorbing historical polemic, Before Religion is a fine example of the kind of curiosity and skepticism it advocates.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300154160
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/29/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 379,990
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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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Read an Excerpt

Before Religion

A History of a Modern Concept


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15417-7

Chapter One


Is Religion "Simply There"?

In a 1964 case presented before the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices were asked to consider the legality of obscenity laws in the state of Ohio. In a short concurring opinion to the decision, Justice Potter Stewart wrote: "I have reached the conclusion ... that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area [obscenity] are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." There is a surprising, and amusing, similarity in the way people talk about defining hard-core pornography and the way the term "religion" is used in both popular and academic contexts today. Historian of comparative religion Eric J. Sharpe has written, "To define religion is, then, far less important than to possess the ability to recognise it when we come across it." When I ask my students to define religion, they generally respond with a wide range of conflicting definitions, but they usually can agree on "what counts" as religion and what does not.

The purpose of this book is to provide a history of the concept of religion. To do so, I need to talk about definitions of religion in a way that is more precise than the typical, vague "I know it when I see it" approach. The very fact that I want to write such a history suggests that I do not share the popular assumption that religion and faith are timeless mysterious things that have always been present to some degree in all human cultures throughout history. This sort of assumption runs deep. For instance, Sharpe has also declared, "Religion is simply there as an identifiable factor of human experience." This statement accurately reflects both popular and, to a large extent, academic views about religion (although, as we have seen, some academics would no doubt want to substitute "religiousness" or "faith" for Sharpe's "religion"). What I want to do is to provide a history of this thing that people like Sharpe propose is "simply there."

Meanings of Religion: Its Use in Ordinary Speech

At several points in this book, I use the phrase "the modern notion of religion" (or one of several synonymous words and phrases—"religion," "the concept of religion," and others) as a kind of shorthand. When I say this, I am not contrasting that phrase with any "ancient notion" of religion, for religion is a modern innovation. When I refer (using any of the phrases above) to that modern concept, religion, I refer to a dominant way the term is used in the United States in the present day.

But that formulation dodges the question in some ways. Isn't the problem the fact that religion is defined in so many different ways in contemporary discussions? It would take an entire book (or, more likely, several books) to catalogue the myriad attempts at defining "religion." In 1912, professor of psychology James H. Leuba wrote a book on the "psychological study of religion" that included an appendix with more than fifty different definitions of religion. Reflecting on this collection, historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith concluded not that defining religion is a hopeless pursuit, but rather that "it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways." The number of proposed definitions for "religion" has only increased in the century since Leuba wrote, and the industry of proposing new, "better" definitions of religion shows no signs of flagging, despite the decreasing sense that any universal definition will ever be accepted.

Yet scholars continue to wrestle with the term. Among the more sophisticated attempts at definition is that of Bruce Lincoln, a professor of the history of religions. He crafts his treatment of the idea of religion as a critique of the classic definition suggested by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who in 1966 defined "religion" as "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." Lincoln countered that Geertz's definition of religion was grounded in a particularly Protestant mindset that located religion on the interior of people, thus effectively denying the label "religion" to groups whose self-identification is more practice-oriented. Lincoln states his objection to Geertz's definition by pointing out that there are "things one intuitively wants to call 'religion'—Catholicism and Islam, for instance—that are oriented less toward 'belief' and the status of the individual believer, and more to embodied practice, discipline, and community." As an alternative, Lincoln proposes a "polythetic and flexible" definition that "allow[s] for wide variations, and attend[s], at a minimum, to these four domains":

(1) A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status, (2) a set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by a religious discourse to which these practices are connected, (3) a community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices, and (4) an institution that regulates religious discourse, practices, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.

As definitions go, this one has many commendable qualities, but what interests me is the impulse to which Lincoln refers at the outset—those "things one intuitively wants to call 'religion.'" There are certain "things" that people in the modern world are conditioned to regard as "religion," and attempts at definition are always subject to that impulse to be consistent with everyday speech. In this case, Lincoln feels that Geertz's definition excludes Islam and Catholicism. This omission causes a problem because in everyday usage of modern languages, both those entities usually count as "religion." It is the desire to be consistent with this everyday usage that drives the continued production of definition upon definition of the term. For this reason, I take a less technical and more pragmatic approach to the problem of defining it. In his later work, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of a word is not inherent in any proposed definition: "For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language." Because of the pervasive use of the word "religion" in the cultures of the modern Western world (the "we" here), we already intuitively know what "religion" is before we even try to define it: religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition might be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christiano-centric, 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. Every attempted definition of "religion" that I have seen has implicitly had this criterion at its base. Most of the debates about whether this or that "-ism" (Confucianism, Marxism, etc.) is "really a religion" boil down to the question of whether or not they are sufficiently similar to modern Protestant Christianity. This situation should not be surprising given the history of the category of religion.

Three Observations about the Use of the Word "Religion"

I need to say a bit more about definitions and current conversations about religion. For the sake of clarity, I articulate three points about the use of "religion" in contemporary popular and academic discussions. First and most important, for many modern people, religion represents an essentially private or spiritual realm that somehow transcends the mundane world of language and history. This dominant view of what religion is (or, rather, what it ideally should be) is expressed by the former nun and current best-selling author Karen Armstrong:

The external history of a religious tradition often seems divorced from the raison d'être of faith. The spiritual quest is an interior journey; it is a psychic rather than political drama. It is preoccupied with liturgy, doctrine, contemplative disciplines and an exploration of the heart, not with the clash of current events. Religions certainly have a life outside the soul. Their leaders have to contend with the state and affairs of the world, and often relish doing so. They fight with members of other faiths, who seem to challenge their claim to a monopoly of absolute truth; they also persecute their co-religionists for interpreting a tradition differently or for holding heterodox beliefs. Very often, priests, rabbis, imams and shamans are just as consumed by worldly ambition as regular politicians. But all this is generally seen as an abuse of a sacred ideal. These power struggles are not what religion is really about, but an unworthy distraction from the life of the spirit, which is conducted far from the maddening crowd, unseen, silent, and unobtrusive.

I want to stress that I do not think of this as a good definition; I only claim that it is popular, and we can learn a great deal about widely accepted notions of religion from this short quotation. Note the dichotomy between external history and "faith." The latter is internal, "psychic," and "contemplative." Religion is not political, not concerned with current events; it is about "the heart." It is "unobtrusive." And, most important for what follows, religion is thought to be divorced from history. Thus, in this view, "religious traditions" have "external histories," but there is something timeless and ahistorical about religion.

To appreciate how pervasive and influential this kind of characterization of religion is in the United States, one need look no further than the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which have characterized religion as operating in realms generally distinguished from the public sphere. For instance, in 1963, in the decision that declared formal recitation of prayers and reading of the Bible in public schools unconstitutional, the court wrote: "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind." It is worth noting the contrast with ancient legal perspectives, in which the gods and sacrality were very much in the public sphere. A legal ruling attributed to a fifth-century Roman emperor runs as follows: "Things sacred [res sacrae] are then those which have been consecrated by an act of the whole people [publicae consecratae sunt], not by anyone in his private capacity [non privatae]. Therefore, if someone makes a thing sacred for himself, acting in a private capacity [privatim], the thing is not sacred but profane [sacrum non est, sed profanum]."

The second point I want to make about the usage of the word "religion" (and "religions") in modern discussions is to note the habit of using the singular "religion" (largely conceived of in the way I just outlined) to refer to a genus that contains a variety of species, that is, the individual religions of the world, or World Religions. In such usage, these individual religions are generally presumed to be different "manifestations" of some sort of unitary "Ultimate Concern." For example, a recent edition of one college textbook on World Religions asserts that "all humanity, even in isolated nonliterate groups, has always been 'religious.'" The authors claim that various historical circumstances, including a growing sense of individualism brought on by the rise of complex societies, created new psychological problems that ushered in the emergence of World Religions: "It is to answer the questions raised by the crises of morality, mortality, and meaning that the great world religions emerged. Once city dwellers were individuated in their identities, the old answers provided by indigenous religions no longer worked ... That is the challenge the great world religions faced as they emerged in the three great centers of civilization in the ancient world—China, India, and the Middle East. Between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE all the great world religions developed their classical expressions, dividing much of the world among them." At this point, the text refers to a map—an important part of this concept of multiple World Religions. A common feature of college textbooks on World Religions is a map of the world colorfully indicating the geographic areas to which the various religions have "spread." The picture of the world as divided among major "religions" offering alternative means to "salvation" or "enlightenment" is thoroughly entrenched in the modern imagination. It is part of the common sense of twenty-first-century life. Yet, we have already seen that the assertion that people have "always been religious" is problematic, and the remainder of this book will show how the claim that the World Religions existed before the modern period is also deceptive.

At this point I offer one historical caveat. From its earliest usages, the English words "religion" and "religions" (and the medieval Latin religio and religiones before them) identified a genus and its species, but the entities being classified were not what we would normally think of as "religions." So, for example, sometimes when used in this genus/species manner these terms referred to different monastic orders. At other times they referred to what modern people might call different "sects." For instance, consider the fifteenth-century English bishop Reginald Pecock, who pondered the question, "Whi ben ther so manye dyuerse religiouns in the chirche?" The multiple "religiouns" were located "in the chirche" and referred to the different Christian monastic orders, a point to which I will return. For now, it is enough to note that seeing talk of multiple religions (or religiones) in medieval texts is not an indication of the antiquity of the modern notion of religion. That is to say, the Latin word religio, and even the English word "religion" (or "religioun"), existed before these definitions of religion as an internal, private experience arose.

My third point is more limited, having to do with how the term "religion" is used in academic discussions. In those contexts, the vocabulary of "religion" is often used in two quite distinct ways that are perhaps best called descriptive and redescriptive accounts, although an older, roughly equivalent vocabulary of "emic" and "etic" is still sometimes used. From an anthropological perspective, a descriptive account is an observer's best effort at reproducing the classification systems of a group of people being studied (this is not the "native" viewpoint itself, but the observer's best effort at reproducing that viewpoint). A redescriptive account, on the other hand, freely employs classification systems foreign to those of the people being observed. So, for example, the notion of organized political parties could be legitimately used as a descriptive concept when thinking about modern American culture, in which people routinely define themselves by "their political party" or their "political affiliation" or their rejection of the major political parties. If, however, we were giving an account of, say, ancient inhabitants of North America, the use of political parties in such an account would be redescriptive (the ancient North Americans themselves might have used other grouping strategies, such as tribal affiliation or kinship groups, which would thus be legitimate terms in a descriptive account). Unfortunately, in many academic discussions about religion, these two distinct usages can become blurred. Even quite sophisticated professionals can employ these two usages in very confusing ways. Consider the following statement from the anthropologist Benson Saler: "The testimony of various ethnographies affirms that people do not need a category and term for religion in order to 'have' a religion or be religious in ways that accord with notions of religiosity entertained by anthropologists." This is a very tricky statement. The end of the sentence shows that Saler is using religion as a redescriptive concept (religion is "notions of religiosity entertained by anthropologists"). The quotation marks around the word "have" are thus quietly doing an impressive amount of work for Saler. It is not the case that the people who are the subject of these ethnographies describe themselves as "religious" or "secular" or talk about "their religion." Rather, they "have" religion only insofar as anthropologists are free to impose their own framework for the purpose of study. (I look again at this kind of slippery rhetoric in more detail at the end of Chapter 7.)


Excerpted from Before Religion by BRENT NONGBRI Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

one What Do We Mean by "Religion"? 15

two Lost in Translation: Inserting "Religion" into Ancient Texts 25

three Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity 46

four Christians and "Others" in the Premodern Era 65

five Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries 85

six New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions 106

seven The Modern Origins of Ancient Religions 132

Conclusion: After Religion? 154

Notes 161

Bibliography 231

Index 263

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