Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities

Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities

Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities

Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities


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 threskeia, 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.


When one encounters the word “religion” in a translation of an ancient text:
First, cross out the word whenever it occurs. Next, find a copy of the text in
question in its original language and see what word (if any) is being translated by
“religion.” Third, come up with a different translation: It almost doesn’t matter
what. Anything besides “religion.”


We laughed when we came upon this wonderful apothegm of Judge’s while coming close to the end of writing this book and composing the introduction. Judge’s remarks reflected conclusions to which we had come early on when we discovered that we needed to “untranslate” religio and thrēskeia to return them to their original contexts, and to allow the contexts to convey the range of their meanings. This book, generated by semantic studies of Latin religio and Greek thrēskeia, has as its project to see what it was possible to see when we ceased to look for what was not there, when we ceased to rely on the anachronistic word “religion” and instead, attempted to study, in the most nuanced way that we were able, these conceptual networks and the cultures from which they came “on their own terms,” integrated back into the endless depths and complexities of mundane existence.

Brent Nongbri writes that, “[I]f we follow Judge’s dictum and do not allow ourselves to invoke the concept of religion in our descriptive accounts, we will force ourselves to think outside our usual categories.” Aligning our aspirations to his, we hope that our study of religio and thrēskeia might encourage the production of books, not on “Athenian religion,” the “Jewish religion,” or “Roman religion,” but rather books that will link what was conjoined in ancient cultures, and will explore the question of why the categories and boundaries of other cultures were drawn differently from our own. We hope to encourage books “that will encapsulate and thoroughly rearrange those bits and pieces of what we once gathered together as ‘ancient religions.’”

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