Words and Things: From Critiquing Ancient Religion to Imagining No Religion

Andrew Durdin is a lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He will receive his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School in the spring of 2017. His research focuses on Roman religion, magic and religion in the Roman Empire, and issues of theory, method, and historiography of religion in the ancient Mediterranean world. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

A few years ago, I sat on an AAR/SBL panel dedicated to Nongbri’s Before Religion. Since then I’ve continued to reflect on the ideological import of seeing religion in ancient cultures and how it serves to bolster the lingering notion of religion as a universal human experience. My interest was piqued, then, when I looked over the 2016 AAR/SBL program book and saw two SBL/NAASR panels dedicated to interrogating the category of ancient religion. The first explored the continued relevance of Nongbri’s book. The second panel was titled after Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin’s newly released book, Imagine No Religion. The panels’ juxtaposition on the program implied them as complementary, and, what is more, Barton and Boyarin explicitly situate their book as an expansion of Nongbri’s initial “sketch.” They adopt what I see as an eminently useful form of critical philology in an attempt to situate Latin religio and Greek thrēskeia in their ancient vocabularies without appeal to religion as an interpretive category. Having attended the panels and read both books, I’d like to offer some reflections on moving from Nongbri’s critique of ancient religion to Barton and Boyarin’s practice of imagining no religion.

Nongbri’s critique of ancient religion raises the question for historians of ancient cultures: now what? And he concludes with a few suggestions. Most notably, he stops short of recommending that we discontinue religion in scholarly parlance: for all the distortions religion has wrought in ancient studies, Nongbri sees discarding it as “unhelpful” and “impractical”—after all, all of our words have a past. Instead, Nongbri advises scholars to show more “self-consciousness” in religion’s use. We should generate strategic definitions based on clear analytic goals, which set into relief instructive incongruities between the data and our scholarly models. Nongbri’s call for “self-consciousness” is premised on J.Z. Smith’s distinction between descriptive and redescriptive accounts of religion. The former procedure consists of getting straight on the categories and distinctions at play in the ancient sources; religion (especially a division between religion/non-religion) is to be avoided here since this wasn’t an operative distinction for ancients. The latter procedure analyzes these descriptions by means of a set of modern interpretive terms controlled by scholars and deployed for their purposes. Here religion might very well prove useful in setting certain modern scholarly issues into relief, such as gods and rituals in antiquity.

Barton and Boyarin, by contrast, find a strict demarcation between descriptive and redescriptive uses of religion counterproductive to their critical semantic approach, and opt instead for a more reciprocal relationship between these uses. Barton and Boyarin raise a set of concerns about the costs and benefits of establishing a disciplinary horizon for religion when so often it has resulted in distorting ancient sources. The difficulty with redescriptive uses of religion is that when scholars try to constrain and control a set of terms for their vocational interests, the act of cultural translation ends up tilting the unfamiliarity of ancient sources toward the familiar to an unhelpful degree. Barton and Boyarin find analytic categories important but wish to emphasize that these cannot be taken as a set of presorted, stable, and mobile methodological tools, able to be applied to whatever cultural terrain with only slight adjustments here and there. Rather, they must arise in a more dynamic interaction from the ancient sources: “[M]uch is systematically occluded when categories of analysis that are mobilized are not produced inductively but simply deployed without being subject to constant revision in the face of the words and categories of the cultures being studied” (Barton, Boyarin 6). In other words, not all incongruences between data and model are capable of creating cognitive power, and establishing redescriptive categories should be part and parcel of establishing our descriptive accounts. And religion, for its part, does little to incite reconsiderations of the data: it fails to effectively dissipate the anachronisms of ancient religion, or suggest other evocations from the ancient sources.

Of course, these matters are not lost on Nongbri. In his final paragraph, he returns to descriptive accounts of ancient sources. He notes that in light of his critique we shouldn’t aim to find some replacement for religion that better “fits” the usual things previously called ancient religion. Instead we should revise the evidence in ways that better correspond to ancient distinctions and taxonomies. Yet, when the job of describing “Athenian appeals to ancestral tradition, Roman ethnicity, Mesopotamian scribal praxis, Christian and Muslim heresiological discourses, and other topics” (Nongbri 159) is complete, what redescriptive definition of religion would give us any useful comparative purchase in interpreting these nuanced ancient discourses? Or, why subject these carefully traced semantic fields to a term with little track record of analytic clarity—whether as religion/non-religion or a more pre-theoretical (Tylor-esque) notion of gods, goddesses, and rituals? Really, it’s not a question of can we do it, it’s more, why would we want to? For Barton and Boyarin, critical self-consciousness is less scrupling over how we use the term religion, but rather admitting religion may just be more trouble than it’s worth to keep, and, as a result, accepting that other terms—troubled pasts and all—might usefully change our theoretical habits. As Barton and Boyarin put it: “We assert that the necessity and potential for comparisons is increased, not decreased, by abandoning as many of the predetermined abstract categories of the scholar as possible” (Barton, Boyarin 7).


Barton, Carlin A., and Boyarin, Daniel. Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London: Yale, 2013).

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