Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.

Deft as this is, there remains a certain ambiguity surrounding any such search for aspects of supposedly universal phenomena. His case studies have a sky-world and gods, and so do meet normal criteria for a religion, bearing within them an engagement with an Eliadean encompassing “non-ordinary reality.” But I have investigated another preconquest situation that appears not to. It is from one of the places Bellah does not write about, southern Africa. For South Africa in early times, I did not need religion in reconstructing how agropastoralists lived and how they apparently saw themselves living.

To rephrase: in the cases Bellah examines, the Carib- and Navajo-speakers and desert aboriginal Australians, it is the gods or spirits and an “other world” that allow us to easily attribute religion to them. But what to do in other cases? Bellah correctly refuses to call “religious” the basic (totemic) phenomena Émile Durkheim examined in Australia and repudiates the notion of a universal, primordial monotheism. Yet he is not so interested in the question of when religion is, or is not, and he recognizes religion in his argument, in fact, by many different criteria.

In southern Africa, ancestors were chiefs and other fathers in the past, whose presence had registered in men’s collective actions and fates. The personal movements of ancestors occurred in “greatness,” bogologolo, a space equally similar to Western “history” as it is comparable to the Dreaming of the Walbiri that Bellah discusses. It is problematic to see religion in it. For one thing, at first, in missionaries’ accounts, the notion of having an old religion was absent in South Africa. Only after basic translations were accomplished and rehearsed in rituals (in church), did the old religion appear as a concept. It therefore began its life as a disjointed series of improbable beliefs, customs, and rites, immediately preceding Christianity or Islam, their corrected versions.

To make this point in tangible form, consider the distance between two phrases, both originating in the same Sechuana words. The first is a phrase people heard from early missionaries, some version of the following: “The chief’s (or the ancestor’s) people will be gathered and their production made fertile and they will have a lovely settlement.” These words meant just that, and might be said in various circumstances, most straightforward, some metaphorical. After the old deployment of patriarchal terms connected to power and to ancestral chiefs uniting men was ended, however, leaving behind the Christians’ use of the same vocabulary, the above phrase became, “God’s people will be saved and dwell in a millennial kingdom on earth (or go to paradise after death).” The same phrase in a different context, so a different meaning: that shift defined the creation of religion in South Africa.

Missionaries had only local concepts and locutions in which to express themselves, and they had difficulties because they did not know the language right away, and because they had not yet enlisted Africans in group behaviors and rituals that would create their world. The vocabulary they wanted to use was already heavily trafficked, and had to do with past chiefs, fatherhood, ancestry, and larger forms of subordination with immediate import; it motivated men and women to endure hardship or go to war. Ancestors and chiefs of the past and in the present formed a latticework of possible affiliations, some of which were activated, and some of which were allowed to die over time. A communal ethos, a common body of oral lore, offered people (married men especially) a set of strategic choices, and in turn conditioned public memory. The life of this ethos blocked Christianity’s way.

Missionaries well grasped the necessity of constructing the sacred realm with existing terms, choosing underused words that might more easily take new meanings. Missionary Robert Moffat protested that he was frustrated because African people had no spiritual realm and were instead utter pragmatists, trusting only of what they could see with their own eyes. There were real forces binding people to the communities they lived in, under which they used the word ancestor (modimo); but no one, single [M]odimo (“God” in the missionaries’ lexicons) governed the world. Yet this was what Modimo was said to be! Thus its introduction as a concept used by Christians required their nullification of its meaning in ordinary interactions. From then on, ancestor and God diverged, two branches from a single concept and word.

The history of this working-out of religion and not-religion, insofar as we know it, unfolded from the later half of the nineteenth century, not before. It was only then that ordinary black peasants in the middle of South Africa midwived the religious domain among themselves, and the process was (in-line with Paul Feyerabend’s argument in Against Method) not instantaneous. After about 1840 one could adopt a new faith and meaningfully protest that one’s loyalty to a chief would continue; after 1880 one could preach as an Anglican and be a Sotho even during wartime (never before); after 1915, one could for the first time be a Christian and Zulu at the same time.

Talal Asad has shown how problematic colonialism makes the whole project of describing what people “believe,” as has Greg Dening. Among archaeologists, the category of cultic or religious (as is well known) is conveniently large, good for grouping together objects whose functions are mysterious. On slender evidence (it seems to me) whole lost societies are imagined to have operated as religious centers. It has often been much the same in ethnographies of African and Polynesian societies (on which archaeologists draw), wherein opaque chains of reference or ritual are grouped together as religion. My view is they may be better positioned within the realms of ideology, politics, and art. The danger in factoring in “religion” to political explanations of preconquest societies is that scholars sometimes imagine that their own lack of knowledge was a native opacity, and so a source of indigenous occult power. The sign of their ignorance slips somehow into the evidence pile.