By Ignoring Judaism, a New Book Errs in Trying to Explain the Origins of the Modern Idea of Religion

November 14, 2019 | Elaine Pagels
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In Religion as We Know It, Jack Miles, a renowned scholar of comparative religion, notes that modern Western notions of religion, and of the difference between the sacred and secular, have been “profoundly shaped by Christian assumptions.” Miles traces these assumptions specifically to early Christianity’s experience with persecution. But, writes Elaine Pagels in her review, his story of how this conception of religion came into being has a major flaw:

While Miles’s account apparently selects data through the lens of the “history of ideas,” a clearer sense of the social and political dynamics in the historical conflicts he mentions could add depth to his analysis. Historians of Judaism, for example, have shown that before the time of Jesus, many Jews throughout the world, forced to accommodate to domination by foreign armies—Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman—sought to separate their sacred practices from the demands of occupation forces. From the first century of the Common Era into the second, Jews, including many of Jesus’ early followers, benefited from an “atheist’s exemption” to demonstrate loyalty to Rome by paying taxes and offering sacrifice for the emperor’s welfare in their own temple.

In the same review, Pagels examines another recent book—Believers, by the anthropologist Melvin Konnor—about the permanence of religion:

Noting that the death of religion, so long predicted, has failed to arrive, Konner asks “what it is about the brain . . . that has made this so.” . . . [N]oting that “theorizing about religion’s origins is now a cottage industry,” he dives into scientific and social-scientific papers that investigate related questions, and offers a series of marvelously readable chapters to summarize the research they present.

Best of all, Konner refrains from offering a simple answer, which people asking questions about religion often expect. Instead, like Charles Darwin, he notes that “such a huge dimension of life must serve many functions.” Some readers may take this to mean he is ducking the question; yet the energy and passion articulated in the book belie that charge. In his final chapters, he clearly states his conviction that religion is “a part of human nature,” and so “very persistent, and, in my view, will never go away.”

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