In this week's episode, Timothy Fitzgerald speaks with David G. Robertson about why the history of the category “religion” should make us reconsider many other modern categories like politics, liberal, secular. Can these interrelated terms ever escape their origins in centuries of colonial epistemé?

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A transcript for this episode is available below

About this episode

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System [transcript]

Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.


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