So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.



Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.

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