Brent Nongbri

Jan 18, 2014

Before Religion

A History of a Modern Concept

Yale University Press 2013

purchase at We all know that religion is a universal feature of human history, right? Well, maybe not. In Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Brent Nongbri, Post Doctoral Fellow at Macquarie University, argues that throughout time people have conceptualized themselves in various ways but did not classify what they were doing as religious. As someone who works in the antique period Nogbri found it peculiar to find translations of ancient works referring to religion. In the first half of the book, he examines how and why terms like the Latin religio, Greek threskeia, or Arabic din, are repeatedly rendered as "religion" in translations. He also draws our attention to various births of the modern conception of religion, such as the Maccabean revolt or the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea. Ultimately, he concludes this phenomena could be more usefully described in other terms. Nongbri explains that in the pre-modern era Christians generally classified others as bad Christians or heathens and not as other religious traditions. The second half of the book contends that religion as an idea has a history and the way we generally understand it today can be traced back to a number of historical events. Nongbri points to the three moments as instrumental in a public of understanding of religion as a universal, private, non-political affair - Christian disunity following the Reformation, increasing colonial encounters with indigenous people, and the formation of Nation-states. He provides ample evidence for these claims through a number of vignettes tracing this transformation over time. With these complex issues surrounding the concept religion we might feel at a loss as to what we should be doing in Religious Studies. Nongbri offers some useful approaches to how we can examine social activities and ideas in the context of this loaded term. In our conversation we discuss definitions, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Manichaeans, Muhammad, John of Damascus, the story of Barlam and Ioasaph, John Locke, the early Muslim community, the World Religions model, the invention of Mesopotamian religion, issues of translation, and Talal Asad.

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Kristian Petersen is an Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at

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