Saturday, 27 April 2013

It has become commonplace for critics of Islam to note that Islamic culture has no concept of secularism, the separation of church and state. This is generally regarded as a peculiarity of Islamic "civilisation". But what if it was a peculiarity of European civilisation instead? What if Europeans were the only ones who had developed the idea of secularism and, for the rest of the world's peoples, religion and culture were indissoluble.

That's the hypothesis advanced in a book called "Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept" by Brent Nongbri. At first glance the notion that Europeans invented religion must seem ridiculous. Historians and anthropologists have noted the existence of religion in all societies. But Nongbri's point is this: that in these non-European societies there is no distinction between what we Europeans would call religion and what we could call culture. The two were one. A sense of the supernatural was woven into the tapestry of everyday life. He argues that this was also true in older European cultures, such as those of ancient Greece or Rome. The term religion comes from the Latin 'religio'. Nongbri argues that this is customarily mistranslated as 'religion' and that, in its original use, it referred to something more like 'culture'.

It was the Protestant Reformation and the intra-European conflict it gave rise to that impelled Europeans to develop the twin concepts of religion and secularism, Nongbri believes, simply as a way to achieve a workable modus vivendi among themselves. Now in their foolishness and egotism, Europeans project these concepts on to their own past and on to the rest of the world, where they are tragically out of place.

For much of the past two centuries, both popular and academic thought has assumed that religion is a universal human 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, so the story goes, but there is an element that we call religion to be found in all cultures in all time periods. Introductory textbooks supply us with competing definitions of religion ranging from simple, confessional definitions (belief in God or belief in the supernatural) to more universal-sounding definitions (belief in an Ultimate Concern), but regardless of how they define religion, these books assure us that the institution of religion is ubiquitous. This ubiquity prompts different explanations. Some religious adherents claim that there are many false religions but that a “true” form of religion was revealed at some moment in history. It has become more common recently to hear that all religions (or at least the “better elements” in all religions) point to the same transcendent reality to which all humans have access. Or, as a number of authors from the scientific community have argued, it is possible that religion is simply, for better or worse, an evolutionary adaptation of the brains of Homo sapiens. For all their differences, these groups agree on a basic premise: religion appears as a universal given,
present in some form or another in all cultures, from as far back as the time when humans first became . . . well, human.

During the past thirty years, this picture has been increasingly criticized by experts in various academic fields. They 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.

In the academic field of religious studies, the claim that religion is a modern invention is not really news. The major (and still highly influential) study in English is Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind, which first appeared in 1963 and continues to be reprinted, most recently in 1991.3 Smith famously argued that we should stop using the term “religion” because it has come to refer to systems rather than genuine religious feelings. He preferred to use the designation “faith” to describe what he believed were the universal, authentic religious feelings of all humans. As part of his case, he narrated a history of religion as a story of what he called “reification,” that is, “mentally making religion into a thing, gradually coming to conceive it as an objective systematic entity.” 4 For Smith, a committed Christian with a sincere interest in religious pluralism, this process of reification was not a neutral development:
This much at least is clear and is crucial: that men throughout history and throughout the world have been able to be religious without the assistance of a special term, without the intellectual analysis that the term implies. In fact, I have come to feel that, in some ways, it is probably easier to be religious without the concept; that the notion of religion can become an enemy to piety. . . . In any case, it is not entirely foolish to suggest that the rise of the concept “religion” is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.

...The real problem is that the particular concept of religion is absent in the ancient world. The very idea of “being religious” requires a companion notion of what it would mean to be “not religious,” and this dichotomy was not part of the ancient world. To be sure, ancient people had words to describe proper reverence of the gods, but these terms were not what modern people would describe as strictly “religious.” They formed part of a vocabulary of social relations more generally. In Greek, for example, the word eusebeia frequently occurs in contexts referring to the proper attitude to hold toward the gods (as opposed to its opposite asebeia, the wrong attitude). Such words, however, were not limited to relationships involving gods. They referred to hierarchical social protocols of all sorts. Thus, near the conclusion of his Republic, Plato emphasizes the rewards for those who display eusebeia and punishments due to those who display asebeia “to gods and parents.” The ideal Roman held an attitude of eusebeia “toward the bonds of kinship.” What is modern about the ideas of “religions” and “being religious” is the isolation and naming of some things as “religious” and others as “not religious.”

The anthropologist Talal Asad has characterized the modernity of religion in a way I find much more helpful than that of Smith: “I would urge that ‘religion’ is a modern concept not because it is reified but because it has been linked to its Siamese twin ‘secularism.’”8 It is this simultaneous birth of religion and secularism that merits attention. That said, I want to stress that I am not interested in the so-called secularization thesis (how something called “secularism” encroached on a religious world and slowly rooted out religion until stalling at some time in the twentieth century as religion experienced a “resurgence”). Instead, one of the problems this book addresses is how we have come to talk about “secular” versus “religious” at all. These two words grew out of Latin predecessors, and the ancient words did point to a dichotomy, but not what is typically understood as the modern secular/religious dichotomy. In late medieval Latin (and even in early English), these words described different kinds of Christian clergy, with religiosus describing members of monastic orders and saecularis describing Christian clergy not in a monastic order (the usage persists among Catholics to this day).9 “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.”12 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.

It is also 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.10 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.11 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.
Asad’s suggestion to think of ideas of religion and secularism as conjoined twins is both helpful and troubling. It is a useful metaphor in that it stresses the codependence of religion and secularism, and the metaphor of childbirth is useful because a birth occurs in a particular time and place. Like all metaphors, though, this one has its limits. Historical discussions are rarely so clear-cut that one could isolate a particular moment when something like religion was “born.” Nevertheless, I do think one can posit a certain range of time and a particular historical context in which the ideas of religion and the modern secular nation-state began to take shape and in which the world came to be conceptually carved up into different 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.”12 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.

...The idea of religion as a sphere of life separate from politics, economics, and science is a recent development in European history, one that has been projected outward in space and backwards in time with the result that religion appears now to be a natural and necessary part of our world.
Source: "Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept" by Brent Nongbri

0 comments:

Search

Loading...

Blog Archive

Powered by Blogger.

Blog Archive

Total Pageviews