Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, by Brent Nongbri – A Review

This is slightly modified version of a blog post published on July 28th on Quaker Universalist Conversations.

Brent Nongbri is a post-doctoral research fellow in early Christianity at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His 2013 book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, offers a corrective to the conventional modern uses of the term “religion.”

Before Religion, by Brent NongbriThat corrective stands as a direct challenge to Quakers who call themselves “universalist.” The challenge is not that universalist intuitions about human faith and practice are wrong, but that we confound our perceptions and prevent clear discernment by continuing to use the concept of “religion” in it’s traditional senses.

Crucial Distinctions

Nongbri emphasizes two sets of distinctions to undergird his argument. The first is the distinction between the ancient world and the modern world, the boundary being loosely defined by the 16th century Protestant Reformation. During this era there were profound shifts in how European Christians conceptualized what we now call “religion.”

The second distinction is between descriptive and redescriptive scholarly accounts of groups of people. Descriptive accounts are “an observer’s best effort at reproducing the classification systems” of the people being studied. A redescriptive account “freely employs classification systems foreign to those of the people being observed.” (21)

Since the 17th century, Western thinkers have described the cultic and contemplative practices, mythologies and sacred texts of other peoples using categories based on their conceptualization of Christianity. Even with the 19th century shift toward describing other cultures as independent phenomena rather comparing them with Christian cultures, scholars continued to expect those peoples to have “religions” with the same categories which they had defined for Christianity.

The crucial error, according to Nongbri, is that these categories are applied to Christian and other cultures as if they were descriptive, when in fact they are redescriptive. Post-Reformation thinkers have looked for what they define as “religion” by looking for those ingredients in the cultures they study. If they find phenomena which they can squeeze into their categories, they call that the “religion” of those people.

Inventing Ancient “Religions”

For example, the first European description of “the religion of India” comes from Henry Lord, an Anglican chaplain with the British East India Company.

A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians, by Henry LordFor his 1630 tract, A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians 1, Lord relied upon Brahman interpreters. However, since they merely did their best to answer the questions he posed, the tract is actually redescriptive, not the descriptive work he and his audience believed it to be.

For one thing, Lord grouped all the cultic practices, superhuman beings and holy texts of the Indian subcontinent under the rubric of the “Indian religion” (which, by the 18th century, came to be known in the West as “Hindooism” 2).

Having done this, Lord then tried to fill in the predefined categories which Christian colonialists carried with them into foreign lands.

For example, seeking to identify their “holy scripture,” he came up with “a booke of theirs called the SHASTER, which is to them as their Bible, containing the grounds of their Religion in written word.” (110-11) As Nonbri explains in a footnote, “‘Shaster’ in all likelihood refers to the Sanskrit term śāstra, which is a general term for a rulebook rather than the name of a specific text.” (208)

The History of “Religion”

The bulk of Nongbri’s book is a thorough and fascinating account of two historical processes.

Dance of ShivaFirst, Nongbri describes how medieval European Christians inserted the notion of “religion” into ancient texts by translating as that term words which had other meanings in the original languages. 3

In addition, whether they were considering cultures of the ancient world, such as Greece or Rome, or groups in their own time which practiced what they saw as heretical versions of Christianity (including, surprisingly, Judaism and Islam), they did as Henry Lord did with India and sought phenomena to fit into the expected categories of “religion.”

Second, Nongbri reveals how Reformation and Renaissance thought drastically changed Christian Europe’s conceptualization of the whole cluster of cultural phenomena which we now group under the heading of “religion.” Driving this shift was the change in the nature of European governance during the 16th and 17th centuries. During “religious wars” of that era, princes and leaders increasingly embraced the notion of “religion” as separate from “politics.

By the late 17th century, John Locke, a “prominent voice in the domestic and international affairs of the British government” (100), was describing “religion” 4 as

purely a matter of the salvation of the individual…. Whereas the medieval church had been conceived of largely “as an inviolably holy body, possessed of unchallengeable, because divine, authority,” Locke presented the church, or rather churches, as much more circumscribed entities….

The church was now a voluntary assembly of individuals who gather together for the sole purpose of obtaining salvation. Any gathering for this purpose ought to be tolerated by the civil authorities, provided that the participants played by the rules of the game, the most important of which was, do not disturb the functions of the state. (102)

That rule, “do not disturb the functions of the state,” is crucial in Locke’s schema. “Religion” is to be strictly a private matter, perhaps shared collectively by groups of believers, yet never to have a say in the legal or moral life of the state. For Locke, “religions” were convenient tools for socializing and controlling the behavior of their “members”—so long as they did not interfere with the commercial and colonial interests of nations.

By the 19th century, thinkers such as Rudolph Otto and William James had completed the redefinition of “religion” as being about private, internal experience, not about shared ethnic phenomena which are part of defining a people. In this new conceptualization, “each individual religion is celebrated for its uniqueness, and all are thought to be legitimate paths to individual ‘salvation’ or ‘liberation’ or ‘self-realization’.” (130)

Letting Go of “Religion”

A theme which Nongbri presents early in his book is that modern Westerners tend think to religion is “just there,” that religion is a human universal. What he hopes for us to learn from his work is that “religion” is a historically recent concept which we have extended outwardly through space and backwards through time.

In the natural way of all humans, we mistake the categories which we have learned or created for actual descriptions of reality, rather than remembering that they are artificial boundaries—redescriptions—marking out the patterns which our cultures and our own beliefs have seduced our brains into “seeing.”

What Nongbri wants us to be able to do is to see the phenomena themselves, to lay aside our categories so that we might recognize how other people, other cultures, organize their own narratives of interaction with the sacred.

Then, instead of seeking something to label as their “religion,” we might notice that the ancient Greeks, for example, organized their corporate rituals and belief systems around ancestral tradition. The ancient Romans organized theirs around what celebrated and preserved what they perceived as Roman ethnicity. And both the Christians and the Muslims organize theirs around heresiology, around the contentious question of who is worshiping correctly.

Using “Religion”

With this new openness and freedom of perception, Nongbri believes that we could then still use “religion” as a redescriptive term, employed in its mundane sense “to discuss things involving gods or other superhuman beings and the technologies for interacting with such beings.” (157)

We could, for example, focus our attention on the ways in which government entities such as the Supreme Court

determine what does and does not get to count as religion…. What sorts of interests are involved in such decisions? Who is doing the defining and why?

In other words, a good focus for those who would study “religion” in the modern day is keeping an eye on the activity of defining religion and the act of saying that some things are “religions” and others are not. (155)

We could also use the redescriptive approach to ask

“Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?” Take the example of capitalism…. [We] might ask different questions, such as “How might we understand human behavior differently if we, as a thought exercise, regard capitalism as a religion?” (155-56)

"Ebenezer," by Mike Shell


What would happen if we were able to let go of “religion” as a descriptive category?

Perhaps we would become more able to see clearly—and to appreciate and value, without necessarily embracing—what other people, other peoples, regard as sacred. Perhaps we would become more able to allow others their different narratives of interaction and interrelationship with the sacred.

We would not have to either agree or disagree with their narratives. We would simply ponder the sacred itself and, perhaps, learn from without having to gauge the truth of other people’s narratives.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,


1. Nongbri writes: “The name ‘Banian’ most likely derives (by way of the Portuguese and Arabic) from the Gujarati word vāṇiyo, a person of the merchant or trading class.” (208)

2. “The term hindu, which is itself ancient, was derived from the local name of the Indus river and was a geographical identifier, referring to people or things from India.” (110)

3. Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia and Arabic dīn, for example, each went through a range of connotations across the centuries, but none of them meant what modern English speakers mean by “religion.” Latin religio was used by the playwright Pautus in the 2nd century BCE to mean “scruples”; by Cicero in the 1st century BCE to mean “divine and human rules”; by the north African Christian Tertullian in the 3rd century CE to mean “worship,” “rite” or “reverence”; and by Augustine, northern African bishop of Hippo in the 4th-5th centuries CE, to mean “worship.”

4. In a tract entitled Letter Concerning Toleration.

Image sources

Cover of Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, by Brent Nongbri (2013).

Frontispiece of A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians, first volume of A Display of Two Forraigne Sects, by Henry Lord (1630).

Sculpture of the Dance of Shiva, from the blog, Wonder, silence, gratitude.

Ebenezer,” by Mike Shell. When my late mother moved to Florida from South Carolina after 40 years in her church choir, the members gave her this copy of the stained glass cross in the altar window.

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