Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri - review by Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall

Leaps of Faith

Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept


Yale University Press 275pp £25

Like the late John Lennon, Brent Nongbri invites us to imagine there’s no religion. But unlike the former Beatle, he contends that it was never there in the first place, at least in most times and places. The argument of this engaging but ultimately rather dissatisfying book is that ‘religion’ (scare quotes are de rigueur in this short text) is an intellectual construction of post-Reformation and Enlightenment Europe, projected backwards onto classical and medieval civilisations, and outwards onto the non-European world. Attempts across space and time to delineate the essential characteristics of religion in general, or a particular religion, are based on a fundamentally false premise. Scholars who head down this path, Nongbri suggests, end up in the position of the justice of the US Supreme Court who, in a case of 1964, refused to define the kind of material that constituted hardcore pornography but added, ‘I know it when I see it.’

Nongbri is a specialist in the ancient Mediterranean world, and has instructive points to make on the impossibility of disentangling what is often regarded as ancient ‘religion’ from civic, ethnic, political and economic facets of life. He also takes us on some interesting whistle-stop tours through the broad range of

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