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Taking exception to the ‘R’ word

23 August 2013

Once, that box wasn't on the form, says Duncan Dormor


Before Religion: A history of a modern concept
Brent Nongbri
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (use code CT559)

THERE is a very high chance that as a reader of this esteemed paper you will be described by others as "reli­gious" - as a person who practises a "religion" called Christianity. There are a number of reasons why you may feel uncomfortable with that label: the fact that it is a generic description might be one (religion as opposed to Christianity); and the implication that "it" involves a sphere of activity separable from the rest of life (social, political, and economic) might be another.

Profound discomfort with the concept or category of "religion" is very well established among scholars, be they anthropologists, historians, or theologians. So Nongbri's argument that, before the 16th century, cultures, nations, and ethnicities did not "have a religion", but rather had customs, rules, laws, and rituals, is not new. Nevertheless, given that volumes continue to be produced onThe Religion of the. . . - Incas, Greeks, Manichees, Hindus: just insert a name - there remains a real need for clear and closely argued books such asBefore Religion.

The real strength of Nongbri's contribution lies in the attention that he pays to texts and to the business of translation, and his breadth of knowledge of the ancient world. In carefully presented chapters, he documents the ways in which modern scholars have inserted "religion" into their translations of Greek, Roman, and Arabic texts, or have attempted to identify the birth of something that can be distinctively identified as a "religion" in the ancient

He then proceeds to consider the ways in which Christians categor­ised "others" in the pre-modern period with a heretic/idolater model, giving way to the fourfold distinction that included Jews, Mohammedans, and pagans (all considered to be deeply flawed Christians), as well as proper Christians.

The key historical moment for Nongbri comes in the 17th century with the advent of Deism, and political thinkers such as John Locke. Here a shift, which comes to see religion as an inward persuasion of the mind, and Churches as voluntary organisations, provides the foundation for a world in which Christianity is no longer the pin­nacle of true and genuine worship, but one manifestation of religion among others.

I have a couple of observations to make. At the outset, the reader is asked to accept Nongbri's account of what constitutes the modern concept of religion; a fuller justifica­tion would certainly have been helpful. Similarly, the implications of his thesis are not drawn out with the utmost clarity.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book, which makes its points with well-worked examples, such as the 18th-century account of the "Reli­gion of the Hottentots" (described as being very akin to that of the Jews), or the irresistible tale of St Josaphat, canonised, with his friend Barlaam, by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580.

Not only was the tale of Josaphat clearly a Christian reworking of the legendary biography of the Buddha: it came from India by way of an Arabic version in which Josaphat was portrayed as a Muslim mystic - pre-modern "religion" at its most creative. 

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean and President of St John's College, Cambridge.

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