Politics, Religion, Decolonisation

How will excluded, "interested" voices return to the academy through decolonization? Find out in this response to our interview with Natalie Avalos by Eleanor Tiplady Higgs.

Essay by:

In response to:

Eleanor Tiplady Higgs received her PhD in Gender Studies from SOAS University of London in 2018. She is an outgoing Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies (2018-2020), University of Cape Town, South Africa, and shortly to begin a Fellowship at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth, Germany (2020-2021). Her interests centre on gender and sexuality, narrative, identity, ethics, Christianity, and coloniality; about which she writes in her forthcoming monograph as part of the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality series.

Eleanor Tiplady Higgs

Eleanor Tiplady Higgs received her PhD in Gender Studies from SOAS University of London in 2018. She is an outgoing Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies (2018-2020), University of Cape Town, South Africa, and shortly to begin a Fellowship at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth, Germany (2020-2021). Her interests centre on gender and sexuality, narrative, identity, ethics, Christianity, and coloniality; about which she writes in her forthcoming monograph as part of the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality series.

Decolonizing Religious Studies and Its Layers of Complicity

What layers of complicity in colonialism are still embedded in the field of religious studies? How can we learn from decades of decolonial work in Native American and Indigenous Studies? Dr. Natalie Avalos speaks with RSP co-host David McConeghy about the urgency of decolonial scholarship to start the RSP's 10th season.

Politics, Religion, Decolonisation

A response to ‘Decolonizing Religious Studies and its Layers of Complicity’

by Eleanor Tiplady Higgs

I thoroughly enjoyed learning from Dr. Natalie Avalos in this episode of the RSP podcast. I listened with two things in the forefront of my mind. First, the immediate historical and political context in which it was recorded (as suggested by host David McConeghy): protests by Indigenous activists against the colonial state at the monument known as Mount Rushmore. This context and especially the state’s response, the deployment of National Guard troops, illustrates how colonial power relations and the harms they cause are contemporary; they cannot be approached as if they have come to an end. Second, I was thinking about the ongoing discussion about decolonising the study of religions (SoR), using theoretical resources drawn from the wider interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship of decolonisation and decolonial critique as addressed in the previous podcast with Mallory Nye (e.g. ‘Decoloniality and the Study of Religion’ series at Contending Modernities).

Dr. Avalos defined decolonising work as making visible colonial hierarchies, categories, and power relations that have been naturalised and challenging them. Further, for colonised and formerly colonised peoples, decolonisation entails a personal dimension: healing from the historical and ongoing trauma of colonisation, alongside efforts to recover the spiritual or religious knowledges, practices, and cosmologies that have been disrupted and disputed through colonisation. [1] Colonial hierarchies of knowledge that devalue the religious/spiritual traditions and practices of colonised and formerly colonised peoples are the same as those that position rationality and ‘objectivity’ as unquestionable academic goods. Dr. Avalos discussed this in the podcast in terms of the ‘marginalisation’ of ‘interested’ theological voices.

I think Dr. Avalos would agree that we should recognise the unmarked Christian theological assumptions that inform SoR in deep, profound ways and work on excavating these. The relationship between Christianity and colonisation was not incidental. However, this task stands in tension with the idea that decolonising SoR could usefully refer to the contributions of liberation, Black, and feminist theologians. Dr .Avalos suggested that these should be considered as ‘proto-expressions’ of decolonial thought; I agree. Thinkers at the radical edges of Christian theology have launched decolonising projects to disentangle colonial and Eurocentric assumptions from spiritual and religious experiences and ideas. [2] Dr. Avalos points out that contributions to the decolonial analysis of religion such as these, are marginalised and approached with scepticism partly because they are framed as ‘interested’ voices.

Decolonisation and decolonial theory identify the ways in which knowledge production is inherently political and ‘interested’; there are plural knowledges generated by experiences of being at different positions in structures of power. Colonial power relations have denied the legitimacy of worldviews that make different ontological and epistemological assumptions and claims. [3] Resistance to recognising knowledge as plural in this way, seems to me to be connected to the moral panic about ‘liberal professors’ in popular discourse. To critique academic knowledge production in the arts and humanities as problematically ‘interested’ has been established as socially, culturally legitimate, even necessary. The so-called ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, and the authors of the ‘Sokal Squared’ hoax, for instance, broadly speaking, oppose left-leaning political and ethical projects in/as scholarship because such projects challenge existing arrangements of power and access in the academy. This is even reflected in a recent campaign by Progress SA on campus at University of Cape Town. Decolonising is construed as precisely this