Adam Kirsch reviews Brent Nongbri’s fascinating recent book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, which argues that the “universality of religion is an illusion, caused by our way of thinking and talking about what are, in reality, vastly different spiritual mind-sets and practices”:
Before the Renaissance, Nongbri shows, Europeans had no concept of the world as divided among different, equivalent religions. Early Christians trying to make sense of Islam categorized it, instead, as a Christian heresy; they could not imagine a rival to Christianity, only a deformation of it. Likewise, ancient Greek and Roman gods were not thought of as comprising a religious system. They were held to be devils and demons, which maliciously led people astray from the worship of the one true God.
This kind of parochialism was shattered, Nongbri writes, by the Reformation, which led to internal divisions within Christianity, and by the Age of Exploration, which brought Christians face to face with radically different conceptions of God. At first, Europeans in South America continued to think of native deities as Christian devils. When Pizarro despoiled the temple of the Incan god Pachacamac, according to a sixteenth-century chronicler, “the Christians explained to the Indians the great error in which they had been enveloped, and that he who was talking in that idol was the devil.” Only gradually did Europeans come to conceive of non-Christian beliefs, including those of ancient Greece, as comprising religions with an integrity of their own.