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Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept Kindle Edition
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Top Customer Reviews
People who make their living from writing world religion textbooks and teaching world religion courses should be worried. Nongbri demonstrates that there is nothing to study except how the West thinks that it separated its faith(s) in its ultimate concern(s) in the last 400 years or so.
The book highlights numerous reasons as to why what is called "religion" today, was non-existent for people in the ancient and medieval worlds: ancient and medieval cultures did not have a "World Religions" concept, holy texts themselves such as the Bible and the Quran do not have a concept of "religion" or even equivalent words in the original languages; the terminology available in the ancient and medieval worlds (to express religiosity, the secular, the natural, and the supernatural) meant different things through time; terminology that we associate with "religion" today was not automatically associated with the supernatural, but included mundane uses as well; ethnic conceptions of "others" existed instead of privatized belief systems, etc.
However, once we get to the time of the Protestant Reformation, one begins to see the development of new terminology and uses of older words as inching towards the modern understanding of religion as privately held beliefs towards transcendental concerns. Such things occurred due to: the development of nation-states, splitting of Christianity into various sects, exploration and colonization, the encountering of distant cultures, interactions with different languages, and framing all of this in a Western Protestant Christian template (91-98). It is not surprising that today in academic circles and among the everyday people, "religion" is often associated and measured by things that look Christian-like (transcendental or supernatural components, holy texts, sacred buildings, revelations, rituals, etc). Even those who are supposedly nonreligious tend to talk about "religion" in such terms almost exclusively because they absorb the biases of the West. Thinking in these kinds of reductionist terms often misinforms people of historical realities and sometimes creates mutual exclusivity of actions and concepts when they never existed in the minds of people in the past. For example, the popular mentality of separating religious things from secular things is a modern invention. To us today, discovering that "secular clergy" existed in the medieval period might seem like an oxymoron, but for those in the medieval world, this was perfectly unproblematic and clear. In one sense, the ideas in this book do nullify lots of talk on "religion" (both positive and negative), but at least this history is now available to the public, instead of just among specialists.
Other good books on formation of language and concepts for speaking about "religion" are 'Religion' and the Religions in the English Enlightenment,The Invention of Religion in Japan (excellent detailed example on how the Japanese had no concept of "religion" in their own language or culture), and The Territories of Science and Religion.
The following is a short and non-exhaustive list of the contents:
1. What do we mean by "Religion"?
"Because of the pervasive use of the word "religion" in the cultures of the modern Western world (the "we" here), we already intuitively know what "religion" is before we even try to define it: religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition may be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christianocentric, and even a bit flippant; it is all these things, but it is also highly accurate in reflecting the uses of the term in modern languages. Every attempted definition of "religion" that I have seen has implicitly had this criterion as its base. Most of the debates on whether this or that "-ism" (Confucianism, Marxism, etc.) is "really a religion" boil down to the question of whether or not they are sufficiently similar to modern protestant Christianity. This should not be surprising given the history of the category of religion. I need to say a bit more about definitions and current conversations about religion. For the sake of clarity, I articulate three points about the use of "religion" in contemporary popular and academic discussions. First and most important, for many modern people, religion represents an essentially private and spiritual realm that somehow transcends the mundane world of language and history...Note the dichotomy between external history and "faith". The latter is internal, "psychic," and "contemplative". Religion is not political, not concerned with current events; it is about "the heart". It is "unobtrusive." And for most importantly for what follows, religion is thought to be divorced from history. Thus, in this view, "religious 'traditions'" have "'external' histories," but there is something timeless and ahistorical about religion...The second point I want to make about the usage of the word "religion" (and "religions") in modern discussions is to note the habit of using the singular "religion" (largely conceived of in the way I just outlined) to refer to a genus that contains a variety of species, that is, the individual religions of the world, or World Religions. In such usage, these individual religions are generally presumed to different "manifestations" of some sort of unitary "ultimate concern."...My third point is more limited, having to do with how the term "religion" is used in academic discussions. In those contexts, the vocabulary of "religion" is often used in two quite distinct ways that are perhaps best called 'descriptive' and 'redescriptive' accounts, although an older, roughly equivalent vocabulary of "emic" and "etic" is still sometimes used. From an anthropological perspective, a descriptive account is an observer's best effort at reproducing the classification systems of a group of people being studied (this is not the "native" viewpoint itself, but the observer's best effort at reproducing that viewpoint). A redescriptive account, on the other hand, freely employs classification systems foreign to those of the people being observed. So, for example, the notion of organized political parties could be legitimately used as a descriptive concept when thinking about modern American culture, in which people routinely define themselves by "their political party" of their "political affiliation" or their rejection of the major political parties. If, however, we were to giving an account of, say, ancient inhabitants of North America, the use of political parties in such an account would be redescriptive (the ancient North Americans themselves might have used other grouping strategies, such as tribal affiliation or kinship groups, which would thus be legitimate terms in a descriptive account)." (18-22)
2. Lost in Translation: Inserting "Religion" into Ancient Texts
The diverse uses and meanings of the Latin word "religio", the Greek word "threskeia", and the Arabic word "din" in both the ancient and medieval world; the Arabic "din" is better translated as "law" than "religion"
3. Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity
Four early examples of how ideas of religion were interpreted in ethnic and civic terms, not something like private beliefs or supernatural beliefs; "Greekness" is how people understood the term "hellenismos"; Josephus used the term "ioudaismos" which can be translated as "judaism", but all he meant by it was ethnic customs of the Judeans
4. Christians and "Others" in the Premodern Era
The way medieval Christians spoke about Muhammad and Islam was not as if he was a leader of another religion or that Islam was another religion, he was seen a heretical Christian of some kind and Islam was seen as a heretical Christian sect, though later on Muslims were seen idolaters or other similar terms; Buddha was seen as a saint in Christendom under a different name, and was not seen as a leader of another religion; "Groups that modern scholars discuss as different ancient "religions" did not discuss one another in that way." (84)
5. Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury is known as the "Father of Deism" in the 1600s wrote about the "Common Notions" of religions as 5 things: there is one supreme God, God ought to be worshiped, Virtue and Piety are chief parts of Divine worship, we ought to repent for our sins, Divine goodness dispenses rewards and punishments in life and after death; the Protestant Reformation affected many dimensions of societies besides spiritual matters; the formation of the State; issues like the Wars of Religion were not about religions per se, but of the creation of religions in terms of private matters being made irrelevant to political matters - after all, there were allegiances between rulers from different religions and even Catholic rulers resisted papal authority; John Locke heavily influenced the concept of religion by associating texts for the purpose of salvation and redefining "church" to be a voluntary and private affair that did not interfere with the state and because of that it was to be tolerated
6. New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions
"In the preceding chapter, I tried to show how a world that had previously not been differentiated into "religious" and "secular" spheres became one in which religion was conceived of as an ideally private and nonpolitical realm." (106); age of exploration and colonization prompted the need to differentiate between people, ideas, customs, and beliefs as Europeans came into contact with them; new terms emerged in India and Japan, for example, to differentiate; World Religions concepts
7. The Modern Origins of Ancient Religions
"Many specialists recognize that religion is a troublesome concept when handling ancient evidence. Yet few scholars are willing to abandon the term. Instead, they have cultivated rhetorical devices to smooth over these conceptual difficulties and make religion seem timeless and universal." (133); "Europeans have in some form or fashion been aware of the gods of Greece and Rome continuously from the time of the earliest Christians. From the fifth century until the sixteenth century, most people who thought of Greek and Roman gods regarded them as demonic minions of Satan...among the more educated population, this view existed alongside (or intermixed with) two others. For some the Greek and Roman Gods were heroic humans of old who had come to be regarded as divine at a very early period (the so-called Euhemerist explanation of the gods, associated especially with Lactantius and Isidore of Seville). For others, the gods and their stories were simply harmless allegorical expressions of virtues and vices. Thus the Greco-Roman pantheon could safely adorn the art and architecture of public spaces (and even churches) throughout Europe, and Christian Neo-Platonists could with clear consciences freely employ deities of Greece and Rome in their symbolic speculations. With the increasing number of newly discovered classical manuscripts and the birth of modern archaeology from the time of the Italian Renaissance on came a growing interest in classical antiquity and its many gods. Yet even the great humanists rediscovering ancient Rome regarded its deities as something less than gods." (133-134); interaction with other cultures in the New World and rejuvenated interest in Greek and Roman culture influenced people in the 16th century to create reified images of these cultures with their national "essences" including comments on their "religion" as embodying the spirit of the people in these cultures; in the 19th century seeking early or original myths became a preoccupation of classicists; how scholars invented "Mesopotamian religion" in the 17th century and placed it on top the archaeological finds and how they described Mesopotamians as a people; "Although the Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, and many other peoples have long histories, the stories of their respective "religions" are of recent pedigree. The formation of "ancient religions" as objects of study coincided with the formation of religion itself as a concept of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." (152); "If we want to go on talking about ancient Mesopotamian religion, ancient Greek religion, or any other ancient religion, we should always bear in mind that we are talking about something modern when we do so. We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize. In our current context, we organize our contemporary world using the concepts of religion and secular. Furthermore, we carve up the religious side of that dichotomy into distinct social groups, the World Religions. Intentionally or not, when we bring this vocabulary to ancient sources, baggage comes along with it. Religion is a modern category; it may be able to shed light on some aspects of the ancient world when applied in certain strategic ways, but we have to be honest about the v=category's origin and not pretend that it somehow organically and magically arises from our sources. If we fail to make this reflexive move, we turn our ancient sources into well-polished mirrors that show us only ourselves and our own institutions." (153)
8. Conclusion: After Religion?
Continual problems faced when anyone tries to define religion; "Ancient peoples were not in the business of dividing aspects of their lives into "religious" and "not religious," so the approach to studying religion in the modern word that I just outlined would not be very effective when applied to ancient evidence." (156); considerations to keep in mind when using the word "religion" so as to not put word in the ancients mouths that they never intended
Overall, bravo. This book will surely challenge perceptions.
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