Nongbri, “Before Religion”

At least since the Enlightenment, the West has assumed that “religion” and “civil government” are separate categories. “Religion” concerns spiritual things like the soul and salvation; civil government concerns the things of this world: health, property, leisure. In fact, the Enlightenment separated religion, not only from politics, but from disciplines like economics as well. Not all cultures share the assumption that religion should be strictly segregated from other aspects of social life, of course, and not everyone in the West does, either. But the Enlightenment assumption still informs much of what we do, whether we think about it consciously or not. Brent Nongbri of Sydney’s Macquarie University has written an interesting-looking book on the history of “religion” as a separate category in Western thought, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale 2012). The publisher’s description follows:

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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