Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story

A brief, beautiful invitation to the study of religion from Jack Miles.

How did our forebears begin to think about religion as a distinct domain, separate from other activities that were once inseparable from it? Starting at the birth of Christianity—a religion inextricably bound to Western thought—Miles reveals how the West’s “common sense” understanding of religion emerged and then changed as insular Europe discovered the rest of the world.

“However clumsily attempted, the secular study of religion can open new worlds to the visitor’s gaze,” Miles writes at the start of Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story

He goes on to examine how this secular form of study emerged in the West, tracing religious practice in Western civilization as it diverges from more ancient cultures, where religion was integrated into every part of existence. 

Miles argues that it was the birth of Christianity, and its subsequent break with Judaism, that pushed what was to become religion apart from what was to become secular culture in the West, as early Christians detached a set of Jewish “religious” ideas from the rest of the Jewish way of life. 

As Western influence spread worldwide, this Christian separation of religion from other aspects of custom and culture spread with it, becoming in the end an essentially secular assumption in modern thought and practice. Miles writes:

...Christians did indeed acquire very early and thereafter never entirely lost the habit of thinking of their religion as a separate domain. Once this is conceded, it should come as no great surprise that as a corollary of this habit, they should have adopted early and never entirely lost the habit of thinking of other religions, rightly or wrongly, as similarly separate domains.

In a moving postscript, Jack Miles shows how this very story continues today in the hearts of individual religious or irreligious men and women.

Excerpt and Reviews:

An adapted excerpt from Religion as We Know It by Jack Miles, titled "The Paradox of Pluralism," was published in Commonweal on November 1, 2019.

Links to external reviews of Religion as We Know It are on this page of this site.

From the jacket:

Any student of theology will be enlightened by this deeply satisfying work.—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Jack Miles has written the perfect first book for religious studies beginners. He starts with the widely held American understanding of religion but ends arguing brilliantly that inescapable human ignorance creates the possibility of welcoming the new, the unexpected, even the religious. Our self-absorbed age needs this book.—Mark C. Taylor, Columbia University

The question of the origin of religion has rarely been addressed with the erudition and eloquence of Jack Miles. Drawing on a remarkable wealth of sources across time and place, he offers much for us to ponder in an essay that is at once highly learned and deeply personal.—Donald S. Lopez Jr., University of Michigan

November 12, 2019. WW Norton, 128 pages.

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