Thursday, January 24, 2013

Brent Nongbri's "Before Religion"

Brent Nongbri, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has held teaching positions at Yale University and Oberlin College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, and reported the following:
Since no ancient language has a term or concept that corresponds to what most modern people mean when they say “religion,” Before Religion provides an account of how religion emerged as a sphere of life distinct (or at least ideally distinct) from supposedly “secular” realms, such as politics, economics, and science. The book demonstrates that groups often described as “ancient religions” (for example, followers of Jesus, Mani, and Muhammad) actually identified themselves and were identified by outsiders using rather different conceptual schemes. The central chapters explore some of these alternative modes of organization in the medieval period before tracing out the eventual development of the concept of religion (as well as the idea of individual religions) in the era of European colonial expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The book concludes by examining the birth of the academic study of so-called ancient religions and reflecting on the ways in which such study continues to naturalize the concept of religion to make it appear universal and necessary.

Page 99 features two substantial quotations from the Jean Bodin’s influential Six Books of the Commonwealth, first published in French in 1576 and reprinted and translated frequently thereafter. One can get a reasonably good sense of Before Religion on the basis of this page because in Bodin’s writings we can really see the modern concept of religion beginning to crystalize. Bodin lived in the midst of the so-called Wars of Religion. He was a prominent political theorist but also found time to root out sorcerers and witches. In the Six Books (here in the English translation of 1606), Bodin argued that the ideal state would have no confessional disputes:
Seeing that not onely all wise law- givers and Philosophers, but even the very Atheists themselves also . . . are of accord, That there is nothing which doth more uphold and maintaine the estates and Commonweals than religion: and that it is the principall foundation of the power and strength of monarchies and Seignories: as also for the execution of justice, for the obedience of the subjects, the reverence of the magistrates, for the feare of doing evill, and for the mutual love and amitie of every one towards other, it is by most strait and severe lawes to be provided, that so sacred a thing as is religion be not by childish and sophisticall disputations (and especially by such as are publickely had) made contemptible.
Uniformity of confession upholds estates (property rights) and the government, but if such uniformity is impossible to achieve, confessional disputes among subjects should not be public. In fact, absent total confessional agreement, Bodin asserts that the best way for a government to achieve stability is to “destesteth. . . not the straunge religions of others; but to the contrarie permitteth every man to live according to his conscience,” as long as that conscience did not lead to practices that upset the state (thus, in part, Bodin’s worries over witches). Bodin’s proposals thus represent a new way of carving up the world. This restriction of loyalty to god to an interior, privatized, apolitical realm was a necessary condition for the creation of the “secular” nation state and an important step in the formation of the modern concept of religion. So, page 99 does in fact capture one of the main points of the book.
Learn more about Before Religion at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue