Why I’m religious, and not spiritual

I try to be religious, but I’m not spiritual.

Religion is at least mentioned in scripture. Latin religio and Greek thrēskeia meant diligence: carrying out our duties to our family, our community, our ancestors, our city and incidentally its gods. A “religious” or “pious” man was someone who could be counted on to do his part. There was no strong association of “religion” with any particular deity or docrine – that’s a much later idea that only recently got bolted on.

But spirituality means whatever anybody says it does, so it doesn’t mean anything at all.

I’ve recently read two books that have me thinking on the topic of religion, as the word was meant at the time of Christ, and as our culture uses it: Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities by Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, and Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri.

Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin’s Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities disappointed me in that I had hoped the authors would examine a number of different concepts that didn’t exist prior to the modern era, beginning with that of religion. But in fact, the book focuses specifically on the one topic of religion as it is often projected anachronistically onto medieval and ancient societies by modern writers.

And I hasten to add that they do this thoroughly. The Amazon blurb is an excellent summary:

What do we fail to see when we force other, earlier cultures into the Procrustean bed of concepts that organize our contemporary world? In Imagine No Religion, Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin map the myriad meanings of the Latin and Greek words religio and thrēskeia, frequently and reductively mistranslated as “religion,” in order to explore the manifold nuances of their uses within ancient Roman and Greek societies. In doing so, they reveal how we can conceptualize anew and speak of these cultures without invoking the anachronistic concept of religion. From Plautus to Tertullian, Herodotus to Josephus, Imagine No Religion illuminates cultural complexities otherwise obscured by our modern-day categories.

I’m to blame for reading the subtitle How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities and assuming this would be a wider discussion of newly-invented concepts – perhaps including worship, or faith.

In the end, this is a book you may well want to have on your shelf as a source, though you’ll probably only skim it and be satisfied that it delivers on its promise: Showing how ancient cultures had no ideas to match what modern writers mean by “religious” and “secular,” and that there is no universal category of human action that can be named “religion.”

(It’s worth noting that “religious” and “secular” come to us from the medieval Roman Catholic division of clergy into those who live a cloistered life under a monastic rule [religious] and those who serve parishes outside monastery walls [secular]. Until very recently no one described attending a worship service as a religious act in contrast to selling a horse as secular.)

Another book, less exhaustive but both more enjoyable and more useful to me, is Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri. He begins by recounting a conversation with his father in India, asking what word in their own Khasi language corresponded to the English word “religion.” The answer was a loan-word from Bengali, meaning simply “customs.” They had no word of their own for the category of action English-speakers thought of as religion.

Reviewer David T. M. Frankfurter, in Journal of Early Christian Studies, writes:

Brent Nongbri would like scholars to be much more self-conscious about the term “religion”: that it is properly a second-order “redescriptive” category and in no way should be imagined as a translation of some indigenous concept, since no culture outside of Protestant Christianity has ever had such a concept as our “religion.” The book consists of a series of short chapters examining moments and cases in the misapprehension of indigenous terms linked to our word “religion,” from early Christian heresiography to nineteenth-century orientalist scholarship. “Religion,” he argues, is so tainted with Protestant baggage that it should really be replaced with more pertinent and culturally particular amalgamations of cultural dynamics, like “ancestral tradition” or “scribal praxis” (159).

Nongbri prefaces his book,

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 context 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.”

As I read, I was reminded of a conversation with a friend in Nepal. He chided western orientalists for creating the concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism as religions, or as two separate ones. For him the South Asian continuum of traditions, literatures, arts, devotions, and mores is not related to the European notion of religion. He found it a little insulting to learn that practically all devotion in India is dismissively lumped together as a single -ism, or a pair of -isms, by far-off academics who are blind to the spectrum in which “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” exist on their own terms.

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 conflict 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.

One theme that Nongbri returns to in each chapter is the way Protestant scholars of religion continually try to find in ancient writings the kind of pietistic interiority, feelings, or personal experience of the Numinous, that to these scholars is “true religion.” This underpins practically all modern study of religion and much of interfaith activity. But the sources don’t point to any such thing in the ancient mind; ancient religion is a creation of modern scholarship.

Both books are of value – the one as a very thorough compendium of ancient writings on what “religion” was used to mean in pre-modern contexts, and the other as an account of the evolution over time of the modern concept called “religion” and its anachronistic, distorting imposition onto ancient cultures’ accounts of themselves.