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Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept Hardcover – January 22, 2013


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (January 22, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030015416X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300154160
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,761 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

 “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
(Tomoko Masuzawa 2012-08-09)

"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

(Peter Harrison 2012-03-28)

“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 
(Guy S. Stroumsa 2012-08-09)

 “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
(Jan Bremmer 2012-08-09)

 “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 
(Russell T. McCutcheon 2012-08-09)

“Compelling . . . a thought-provoking addition to scholarship on religion, history, and culture.”—Publishers Weekly 
(Publishers Weekly)

“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
(Barnes and Noble Review)

“Fascinating”—Andrew Sullivan, The Dish
(Andrew Sullivan The Dish)

“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
(William T. Cavanaugh First Things 2013-04-18)

"A significant contribution . . . a clear and carefully written book."—Naomi Goldenberg, Critical Religion
(Naomi Goldenberg Critical Religion)

About the Author

Brent Nongbri is a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Peter Wall on August 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is on the short list of those that shifted my world perspective fundamentally, then left me feeling like a fool for not reaching its conclusion on my own. I cannot recommend it highly enough to readers with any interest whatsoever in "religion," both the word itself and its many referents. Religion is contested vehemently these days: some insist that religion motivates or even causes the world's greatest evils, while others insist that people cannot get by in dignity without religion. If you hope to make sense of our world, and these disputes, without making a mess of your mind or fool of yourself, then pick up and read. Nongbri writes succinctly, persuasively, and engagingly. And the best part, if you like books that are doorways to other books, is that the endnotes, bibliography, and index comprise more than a third of the book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By D. Peter Humphrys on November 22, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is a very interesting and challenging book, which can easily come across as a book primarily written for other scholars; however I believe that the general reader will enjoy it as well. In a book with a main text of 159 pages, Nongbri has 70 pages of endnotes, with the pages keyed at the top of the page in the endnotes, and a 31 page bibliography, followed by a twelve page general index. The smaller print in endnotes suggests to me that at least a third of the information he wishes to convey to the careful reader is contained in his end notes. He usually translates and/or transliterates foreign language items although some book titles will remain a guess as to their translation for some readers and this could be at times frustrating, but I do not believe that it will significantly impact the readers ability to follow his arguments. Overall, I found the book to be well written, carefully edited, and most importantly enjoyable to read as he engages the reader over a wide geographical and chronological range of examples to build his case.

His key argument, as his book title implies, is that religion is anachronistically read back into pre-modern societies by modern scholars. In other words the ancient Romans had no concept of religion as a distinct category of analysis or behaviour when describing their own society, this is something that modern scholarship has imposed upon the data. This would also apply to many other societies where what we classify as religion is embedded in the culture and not suitable for extraction and examination in isolation from the rest of the culture. Hence, his argument is a challenge to the continuing production of books about religion in the ancient world as though the ancients would have ever recognized a distinct category known as religion.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Majhul on December 22, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Well enough written, but very old news. Wilfred Cantwell Smith first made the argument in the early 1960s. JZ Smith, Talal Asad, Guy Stroumsa, all have written precisely on this. Also T Masuzawa on "World Religions." But if this simplified book is widely read, then that's a good thing. Wish the author, however, had adequately credited his predecessors in this "discovery."
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Emily on February 5, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Great content and interesting subject but a very dense read.
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More About the Author

Brent Nongbri is a research fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University. He is a specialist in the study of religion with a focus on ancient Christianity. Nongbri has taught at Yale University and Oberlin College and published in academic journals in a variety of fields including early Judaism, biblical studies, and Greek papyrology, as well as method and theory in the study of religion. With over a decade of archaeological experience working on Roman era sites in Italy and Israel, he is well versed in the material culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. Raised in Texas, Nongbri is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and earned his doctorate at Yale University. He is married to classical archaeologist Mary Jane Cuyler, and they live in Sydney with perhaps the most well-traveled dog on the planet, Felix.

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Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept
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