The birth of “religion”
by Ken Myers
“During the past thirty years, . . . experts in various academic fields . . . have observed that no ancient language has a term that really corresponds to what modern people mean when they say ‘religion.’ They have noted that terms and concepts corresponding to religion do not appear in the literature of non-Western cultures until after those cultures first encountered European Christians. They have pointed out that the names of supposedly venerable old religions can often be traced back only to the relatively recent past (‘Hinduism,’ for example, to 1787 and ‘Buddhism’ to 1801). And when the names do derive from ancient words, we find that the early occurrences of those words are best understood as verbal activities rather than conceptual entities; thus the ancient Greek term ioudaismos was not ‘the religion of Judaism’ but the activity of Judaizing, that is, following the practices associated with the Judean ethnicity; the Arabic islām was not ‘the religion of Islam’ but ‘submitting to authority.’ More generally, it has become clear that the isolation of something called ‘religion’ as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics, and science is not a universal feature of human history. In fact, in the broad view of human cultures, it is a strikingly odd way of conceiving the world. In the ancient world, the gods were involved in all aspects of life. That is not to say, however, that all ancient people were somehow uniformly ‘religious’; rather, the act of distinguishing between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is a recent development. Ancient people simply did not carve up the world in that way. . . .
“It is . . . unhelpful to think of ancient cultures’ dichotomies of sacred versus profane and pure versus impure as analogous to the modern distinction between ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular.’ Roman temples, for example, were sacred sites, but they could host a wide variety of activities, many of which modern people would not describe as ‘religious.’ In addition to their role as sites for sacrifices or festivals dedicated to a god or gods, temples in the Roman world functioned as meeting places for governmental bodies, as repositories for legal records, as banks, markets, libraries, and museums. Even ancient statements that appear to self-evidently proclaim a religious/secular divide to modern people (‘Render unto Caesar . . .’) seem to have been understood quite differently by ancient readers. All of this raises 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. . . .
“In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, old arguments over which form of Christianity was ‘true’ took on a new urgency as some Protestant groups were able to garner enough political support to seriously challenge papal authority throughout Europe. A result of this situation was the civil unrest in the conflicts now known as the Wars of Religion. Since these hostilities not only brought much bloodshed but also disrupted trade and commerce, prominent public figures such as John Locke argued that stability in the commonwealth could be achieved not by settling arguments about which kind of Christianity was ‘true,’ but by isolating beliefs about god in a private sphere and elevating loyalty to the legal codes of developing nation-states over loyalties to god. These provincial debates among European Christians took on a global aspect since they coincided with European exploration and colonial activities in the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere. The ‘new’ peoples whom Europeans discovered became ammunition for intra-Christian sectarian disputes. European Christians arguing about which form of Christianity was true drew comparisons between rival Christian sects and the worship practices of the new ‘savage’ peoples in Africa and the Americas. Europeans’ interpretations of the newly discovered peoples around the world in light of Christian sectarian strife at home led to what the historian Peter Harrison has quite appropriately described as ‘the projection of Christian disunity onto the world.’ This projection provided the basis for the framework of World Religions that currently dominates both academic and popular discussions of religion: the world is divided among people of different and often competing beliefs about how to obtain salvation, and these beliefs should ideally, according to influential figures like Locke, be privately held, spiritual, and nonpolitical. It was only with this particular set of circumstances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the concept of religion as we know it began to coalesce.”
— from Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013)
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