As part of my preparations for comprehensive exams, I recently “read” Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale UP, 2013). It originally caught my eye because it promised to examine the historical events which have naturalized the category of “religion.” While I haven’t had a chance to read it in its entirety (a month before my comps, “reading a book” very much deserves to be enclosed in quotation marks), what I have worked through so far is very promising.
As someone who regularly teaches introductory courses in the academic study of religion, Nongbri’s aim to track “the emergence of this conception of religions as apolitical paths to individual salvation” piqued my interest (1). One of the challenges with teaching introductory courses in my discipline is bringing about the process of defamiliarization that has to take place in order to see familiar things in unfamiliar ways. As a result, I share Nongbri’s interest in the question of “how and when people came to conceptualize the world as divided between “religious” and ‘secular” in the modern sense, and to think of the religious realm as being divided into distinct religions, the so-called World Religions” (2). In a very readable overview in his introduction (which I now plan to assign to my undergraduate students in World Religions), Nongbri traces the modern usage of the category to the Protestant Reformation, the Wars of Religion, John Locke, and the subsequent creation of a public and private sphere. With this introductory framework provided, Nongbri moves on to look at the uses and misuses of the category in other scholarly contexts throughout the body of the book.
I was particularly delighted to see such careful attention paid to the category given that the last readable (read: teachable) genealogical coverage that I’m aware of is what W.C. Smith laid out in Chapter 2 of The Meaning and End of Religion (1962). I had planned to assign that in future courses, but now I’ll probably try assigning Nongbri first. Nongbri’s book adds to the genealogy in the style of Smith and manages to do so without sacrificing clarity of writing or forgoing critical edge.
We need more critical historicization of the category “religion” of the kind that Nongbri is undertaking here. Nongbri’s work is reminiscent of (and looks just as promising as) Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions (2005) as well as Peter Harrison’s “Religion” and the Religions of the English Enlightenment (2002). I look forward to having more time to work through it.
(1) Nongbri, 8.
(2) Nongbri, 5.