Brent Nongbri talks to Jack Tsonis about his recent book, "Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept". Nongbri provides an overview of the history of "religion" as a concept in the English speaking world, highlighting that the seemingly "natural" or "obvious" definition of the term is actually highly specific to the modern West.

About this episode

For much of the past two centuries, “religion” has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri has built upon a generation of critical scholarship to provide the first comprehensive history of “religion” as a category in western discourse. In his recently published work, Before Religion: a History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Nongbri shows that the idea of “religion” as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world. Discussing this book with Jack Tsonis, Nongbri begins by explaining various uses of the term “religio” in Roman and Christian antiquity, which were somewhat different from the modern term “religion”. The conversation then moves into the early modern period and the changes wrought by the Reformation, the rise of the political state, and the subsequent period of religious conflict.   At this point we begin to see something that looks like the modern English category “religion”, although that shift was not fully consolidated until the formalization of philology and ancient world studies in the nineteenth century. This podcast will interest all students of religion, regardless of their area of speciality. At the core of Nongbri’s project is a call for constant vigilance with the categories we use to describe  human behaviour.  While he does not advocate abandoning “religion”, understanding the history of the term does encourage us to use it with greater methodological reflexivity. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?

Related Resources

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Response

What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs? Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011).
Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Podcast

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day's recent book, ...
Whose fetish?

Response

Recognizing the influence of "Christian colonialist attitudes" on scholarly discourses about the value of sacred objects means understanding how we are all implicated by our field's ongoing use of the term "fetish." Echoing the lessons from Breann Fallon's interview with Prof. J. Lorand Matory, respondent Colby Dickinson calls us to account for the ways in which "we are all hypocritical in our assigning of values to certain things and downplaying the value in other things." This includes, he writes, the theories of fetishism by Marx and Freud to which our field seems inescapably connected.

Responses to this episode

Religion, threskeia (θρησκεία) and the Return of the Hellenes: On Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Nongbri’s work, as I see it, offers a very valuable tool not only in approaching and interpreting the ancient usage of terms such as religio and threskeia and their respective history but also how those ambiguous terms are adopted and used by modern people who long for those ancient practices that scholars label “religious” in order to establish claims that touch upon different matters

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality

Podcast

We begin this interview by asking what is ‘youth’? How do sociologists define it? What are some of the current trends in sociological research on youth? What, if anything, is distinctive about youth experience? Discussion then turns to ‘religion and youth’, focusing on why scholars might be interested in it, ...
Religion in the 2011 UK Census

Podcast

An 'emergency broadcast' from the Religious Studies Project... featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson. What did the 2011 census data actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?
Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast

This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture.
The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Podcast

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism,
Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast

Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.
Philology and the Comparative Study of Myths

Podcast

In this week’s podcasts, Dr. Paola Corrente gives us insights in how the use of the philological approach can be beneficial for, not only providing a common and solid framework for comparative research but also, for providing more suitable ways of classification according to linguistic criteria. Her work on the “dying gods” –i.e. gods that die but come back to life– of Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, which draws on the concept formulated by James George Frazer, provides a case for this exercise.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).