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Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion

Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion by Tyler M. Tully

A response to Episode 337: “Decolonizing the Study of Religion” with Malory Nye by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The invitation to decolonize the academic study of religion that Malory Nye extends in his interview with Chris Cotter is both necessary and complex in that it asks us to acknowledge the field’s formation in, as, and through implementations of colonial power—which, as the most recent round of Black Lives Matter protests is at pains to teach us, is also about the implementation of race/ist power. Nye’s response further asks us to account for how these colonial attachments materialize going forward.

 

French copy of an original Chickasaw/Alabama map, 1737 courtesy of the Centre des Archives d’Outre-mer.
Like their Choctaw and Creek neighbors to the south, the Chickasaws understood themselves as being birthed out from the sacred maternal navel of Nanih Waiya, a Mississippian era mound with a platform enclosure spanning one square mile in what is now central Mississippi. The sun circle motif at the center of this 1737 map represents the central council fire of the Chickasaw Nation and reflects how they saw themselves in relation to the sun and thus also the divine spirit. While the circles on the periphery loosely reflect the Chickasaw’s neighbors, their function portrays levels of social association (such as trade, kinship ties, alliances, etc.) rather than physical proximity.

I am grateful to Nye for his example in facilitating these collaborative conversations, and I appreciate his admonition that this is less about improving the discipline than it is about taking responsibility for it. Rather than reaching an end goal or point of arrival, Nye wants religionists to consider what this “legacy means” and asks “how this discipline can become more critically aware of its past and more rigorously able to define itself beyond the structures of power and exploitation that gave rise to it” (Nye 2019a, 8-9). Ostensible responses to these questions would incorporate critical analyses of a field still largely organized around colonial cartographies, whose research projects, assumptions, and norms continue to ennoble Eurowestern, or white supremacy.

 

Following critical race and Indigenous studies scholars Eve Tuck (Unangax^/ Aleut) and K. Wayne Yang who remind us that “decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck & Yang 2012), Nye affirms that decolonization is “a matter of life and death” for peoples still living under colonial projects and not merely colonial legacies (Byrd & Rothberg 2011). Interpreting Tuck and Yang to mean decolonization in the “political, social, and legal” sense, however, Nye differentiates the former against what he sees as decolonizing knowledge and education systems (Nye 2019a, 8). While Nye concedes that this inevitably involves some degree of overlap with the political sphere, he sees the two as somewhat separate and focuses attention on decolonizing religion. Given this emphasis on epistemologies, Nye’s invitation to co-think our material and discursive attachments to what bell hooks famously described as “capitalist imperialist white supremacist (cis-hetero)patriarchy” is not unlike similar discussions occurring elsewhere in the academy (hooks 1992).

 

What these discussions suggest is that colonialism—as constitutive of modernity, and indeed as a producer of the modern world system—sacrifices not just Indigenous peoples, but also (and coterminously) their geographies of knowledge, or what I’m calling epistemological sacrifice zones. If epistemological sacrifice zones are Native peoples and their traditional knowledges and irreducible kinship relations rooted in place (Aikenhead et al 2007; Corntassell et al 2014; Simpson 2014; Watts 2013) that are involuntarily immolated for the benefit of Eurowestern knowledge production as I am arguing, then they are not unlike what environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon refers to as “unimagined communities” (Nixon 2010). But where Nixon means “communities whose vigorously unimagined condition became indispensable to the maintenance of a highly selective discourse of national development,” I want to instead center these communities on their own terms and thus avoid what Chickasaw decolonial thinker Jodi Byrd calls confusing an “effect for a cause” (Byrd 2014).

 

Epistemological sacrifice zones are made hyper-visible during an apocalypse—whether that crisis is the ongoing genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples, or the state response to the novel coronavirus, which are attain the same ends. As crises cohere over intervals of time, they illuminate epistemic landscapes while intensifying disparities of power. COVID-19, for example, enlarges existing inequities, such as the domestic labor of home-schooling children, the gendered dimensions of knowledge production in higher ed, or the ‘digital divide’ between white/non-white, urban/rural, wealthy/poor populations—depending on which “ethico-onto-epistemological” cuts one makes (Barad 2007).

 

However, not all crises are commensurable, and those spanning over longer periods of time and space are often more difficult to perceive for those not negatively affected by them. In this way, it can be helpful to think of colonialism, not as an event confined to the past, but rather a transmutative set of civilizing projects whose “logics of elimination” and replacement remain largely invisible to white settler-colonial peoples (Wolfe 2006).

 

But ongoing dynamics like these are always hyper-real for Natives and descendants of enslaved Africans in what is currently called the United States of America. A recently published exposé in High Country News, for example, reveals how the U. S. government deceived and coerced approximately 250 tribes to seize 11,000,000 acres of land in the making of America’s public universities. These institutions of higher education, some of which were built by enslaved people, also maintain campus police forces with longstanding histories of racialized terror against Black and Indigenous students. Because the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established these institutions requires the tracking of monies raised from university lands in perpetuity, researchers have been able to calculate their exact value at almost $500,000,000 when adjusting for inflation. The enormity of wealth stolen from these still extant tribes—the amount of which does not include endowment interest, building and land improvements, athletics income, or returns on intellectual property generation—seems especially poignant given the significant disparities in spending and funding exposed by COVID-19, which overwhelmingly affects Native and Black populations in disproportionate ways, to say nothing of university reparations owed to Black students and faculty also.

 

If colonialism’s projects are context-specific (even as its reach remains global), then white North American scholars must be especially vigilant in discussions around decolonizing education systems given the irreducible entanglements between Native dispossession and university infrastructures built by enslaved Africans. Like Black peoples whose lives are circumscribed by the afterlife of slavery (Sharpe 2016), Native peoples also still exist in spite of colonialism and its afterlives. The genocide of Natives and the ongoing theft of their lands and resources combined with the hyper-visible onslaught of police brutality against Black Americans (matters of “life and death”) work to unsettle settler-colonial divisions between the socio-political and the epistemic.

 

In exposing these disparities and terrestrial defalcations as they affect the original peoples of Turtle Island and the descendants of enslaved Africans (who have continually experienced successive waves of crises since European invasion), I hope to lift up exactly what’s at stake in discussions around the material and epistemological invocations of decolonization—which in the end are coterminous for colonized people still living in North America. These crises involve land and they involve persons, but they also involve politics of knowledge production that make religious studies—and the humanities—possible.

 

While Mignolo et al’s collective on Modernity/Coloniality remains perhaps the most popular iteration of “decolonial theory” in academe, decolonial discourse as it relates to knowledge involves a much larger set of conversations in the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean, where Indigenous and Black peoples unlink from the hegemonic values, disciplines, and methods of Eurowestern knowledge production (Wynter 1994; Diop 1974; Sefa Dei 2019; Grosfoguel 2011; Mbembe 2015). Decoloniality can thus be seen as an intentional movement away from race/ist colonial hegemony via the processes of epistemic disobedience, reclamation, and reconstitution—not reform. Bolivian feminist and Indigenous activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, for example, describes decoloniality as form “sweeping counterhegemonic strategies” that draw their inspiration from the past towards new Indigenous futurities (2012, 95-96). As Cusicanqui and many others point out (Cheah 2006; Pappas 2017; Noxolo 2017; Esson et al 2017), adopting decolonial theory as a fashionable methodology “without altering anything of the relations of force in the ‘palaces’ of empire” reproduces the same racialized coloniality it seeks to undo (Cusicanqui, 98).

 

Nye agrees that decolonizing religion means much more than merely expanding one’s reading list. He wants us to employ practical ways of relating religion’s role in the formation of colonial knowledge-complexes and to account for the discipline’s contrapuntal relations with race and racialization (Nye 2019). Multiple iterations of decolonial theory stress that knowledge generation is never non-political or value-neutral. If scholars are serious about decolonizing religious studies—and I hope we do take Nye’s invitation seriously—then this would at least mean taking responsibility for how universities not only traffic in but depend upon ongoing violence against Black and Native bodies of knowledge.


References

Aikenhead, G. S., Ogawa, M. (2007). Indigenous knowledge and science revisited. Cultural Studies of Science Education 2, 539-620.

Byrd, J. A. (2014). Arriving on a different Shore: US empire at Its horizons. College Literature 41(1), 174-181.

Byrd, J. A., & Rothberg, M. (2011). Between subalternity and indigeneity: Critical categories for postcolonial studies. Interventions 13(1), 1-12.

Corntassel, J. (2012). Re-envisioning pesurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1), 86-101.

Corntassel, J., & Hardbarger, T. (2019). Educate to perpetuate: Land-based pedagogies and community resurgence. International Review of Education 65(87), 87-116.

Diop, C. A. (1974). The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality (M. Cook, Trans.). New York, NY: Lawrence Hill & Company.

Grosfoguel, R. (2011). Decolonising post-colonial studies and paradigms of political economy: Transmodernity, decolonial thinking, and global coloniality. Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1(1), 1-36.

Mbembe, A. (2015). Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive. Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Nye, M. (2019). Decolonizing the study of religion. Open Library of Humanities 5(1): 1-45.

Nye, M. (2019). Race and religion: Postcolonial formations of power and whiteness. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 31: 210-237.

Nixon, R. (2010). Unimagined communities: Developmental refugees, megadams and monumental modernity. New Formations (69), Summer, 62-80.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3): 1-25.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.

Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Decolonizing the Study of Religion

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be familiar with the critique of the category of ‘religion’. Our podcasts with, for example, Naomi Goldenberg, James Cox, and Tim Fitzgerald, demonstrate that ‘religion’ is a distorting anachronism with roots in European colonial exploitation that has been utilized to justify the cultural superiority of Christian Europe, and is at base ‘a citation of Christianity as idealized prototype’ (Goldenberg 2018: 80). But what might it mean to decolonize the study of religion? How can we take this well-rehearsed critique and put it into practice?

In this podcast, Chris is joined by Malory Nye to discuss the decolonizing project. Why is it necessary? Should we speak of decolonizing rather than decolonization? How can the field address its whiteness, and its colonial origins and legacy? What are the theoretical, methodological, historical and pedagogical challenges that this might entail? How can ‘we’ ensure that this is a thorough decolonizing project and not merely a nod to neoliberal higher education agendas? And what can those of us who have limited time and resources at our disposal do to address this urgent and thoroughly pervasive problem with the study of religion? These questions and more animate this broad-ranging discussion with the author of Religion: The Basics, and two key journal articles – “Race and religion: postcolonial formations of power and whiteness” and “Decolonizing the Study of Religion”.

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Decolonising the Study of Religion

Podcast with Malory Nye (30 June 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/decolonising-the-study-of-religion/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Regular Listeners to the Religious Studies Project will probably be quite familiar with the critique that the whole notion of the category of religion, and particularly the development of the world religions paradigm, is tied to a history of colonialism, exploitation and is built upon Western, European, Protestant Christian models, and so on. Though also, possibly, if you’ve listened back in our catalogue to an interview we had with Rudy Busto, you’re familiar with the idea that just as religion is a constructed and problematic category, so too is the notion of race. And joining me today to discuss something which grows out of both of these arguments is Malory Nye. And we’re going to be discussing decolonising the study of religion and what it might mean for us to decolonise the study of religion. And to sort-of own, and build from, and move on from the problematic entanglement of the study of religion with colonialism, racism, and exploitation. Malory Nye is an independent scholar, based in Perth in Scotland, with teaching activities at the Universities of Glasgow and Sterling. And he’s also a research scholar at the Ronin Institute. And he’ll be known to many Listeners through his book, Religion: The Basics, which is now being updated for a third edition; or perhaps, his blogging at Medium.com; his podcasts Religion Bites and History’s Ink; or through his editorship of the journal, Culture and Religion. Of particular relevance to today’s podcast are his 2019 articles, “Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness“, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, and, “Decolonizing the Study of Religion“, in Open Library of Humanities. So that’s the topic of today’s interview. And also his forthcoming book with Bloomsbury, which is due out later this year – entitled Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Difference – which I’m very excited to get my hands on when it comes out. So first off, Malory, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Malory Nye (MN): Well, thanks very much! It’s very good to be here. Thanks for inviting me on.

CC: Not a problem. We’re recording at Edinburgh, just before you’re going to give a paper, in the Religious Studies research seminar, on the topic of today’s interview. But before we get into the meat of it, I suppose there’s a few key things to get out of the way. What does decolonisation mean? Or decolonising? I think you want to make a distinction between those two notions. And then, also –although I said Listeners would be familiar with the entanglement of the categories of religion and race with colonialism etc., it might be good for us to begin with a reiteration of those critiques.

MN: Well, yes. They’re big questions. We could probably spend most of the time just on those, even before we get to the substance of that. Decolonising – I put it in the active, rather than decolonisation. It’s not something that’s going to happen, as a thing, and we can say “Great, we’ve done it! We’ve ticked that off. We’ve achieved the metrics.” Of course decolonisation, or decolonising, has become one of those buzz words on the left of academia. It’s become a word like “intersectionality”. “Let’s decolonise so and so.” And very often this is picked up by the management, by the universities, as an aspiration to show that universities can attract the right sort of students, can show that they’re meeting their so-called “woke” credentials of being fair, being just, showing that they’ve got diversity. Now, for me, decolonisation and a decolonising approach is a lot more profound than that. Of course decolonisation refers to something that happened politically, economically, structurally in the mid-twentieth century. The end of the European empire or the formal European empires, such as the British leaving South Asia, the Malay Peninsula, from Africa, and so on. Newly-formed independent countries becoming de-colonial countries. It happened also with France and other European powers. And so, of course, from that we’ve got the famous French scholar Fanon, also Albert Memmi, writing about the decolonising process (5:00). And emerging from that a wave of African scholars – Mbembe, Ngugi, and so on – talking about, what does it mean to be a decolonised person, to be a decolonised nation, to be a decolonised culture? And those question have not gone away. Now, as I talk about that political process, there is also the rise across political studies, post-colonial studies, of the idea of settled colonialism. The idea . . . the recognition that that’s fundamental to a lot of the political order of today: settler colonialism, European, predominantly British colonialism, that didn’t de-colonise. That so much of the United States, and Canada, and other former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand/Aortearoa, are the products of that settler colonialism, of people who came and settled, did it through land appropriation, through land theft and usually through displacement and very often genocide of the indigenous peoples. And that is still with us today. And we can only look . . . . Most recently, this week was the week of the Oscars in California. And for the first time, a recipient of an award actually doing a land acknowledgement, acknowledging that the place of the award of the Oscars is on the land of people who were former holders of that land. And still are. Always are, always were. Always were, always will be. That settler colonialism is part and parcel of the current world system, and decolonisation, or decolonising, is also a recognition that the structures of colonialism might have been decolonised formally, but are also very much in place within the world that we live in today: economic colonisation, cultural imperialism. And I follow writers such as Mignolo and Quijano who argue that we’re in a new form of colonial modernity, that’s coloniality modernity, that is not the same as it was, say, a hundred years ago. But the idea of knowledge, of science, of politics, of economics, of world structures being very much about supporting a particular power interest. And that’s very much a sort-of European power interest. So decolonisation is arguing, in many respects, what does a world look like if we challenge that, if we go beyond that? Particularly in the sphere of academia – what we’re doing as academics – whether it be in the study of people in terms of sociology, political science, history, English studies, literature, or within the specific studies of religion. What does decolonising mean, once we recognise the current situation, and the history that got us to where we are now? So that’s not sort-of a simple process. That is a very large process. Understanding the history, understanding the present and understanding the people and things that we’re studying within the context of all that history and all that politics. And – just in this initial introduction – to also recognise that this isn’t just simply a game: it’s not just simply a matter of putting a woke badge on, about putting decolonising on your syllabus, or decolonising your curriculum. It is about recognising it’s not a metaphor – Eve Tuck – this argument that decolonisation is a matter of life and death. It’s something that, as I said, in terms of settlement, in terms of land, in terms of genocide, in terms of the political structures of today, decolonising is recognising the violence, recognising the injustice, recognising the problems of today’s world and trying to think of ways in which we can decolonise the knowledge systems behind that. And that’s sort-of where my work is trying to challenge some of the ways in which we take what we’re doing for granted, in terms of the idea of religion, in terms of studies of religion. And so that sort-of answered your first question.

CC: Yes but you’re linking nicely into, then . . . . So, if we’re going to decolonise our knowledge production and the way in which the whole discipline has been built up, or the whole field has been built up, yes, we need to talk a little bit about what is the history (10:00). So I think, if you could take us through, quite quickly, through the history of these intertwined notions of religion and race as sort-of academic constructs. But then we’ll get onto: so, if we have that critique, and we accept it, and we even teach it – but, what does it mean to teach it? And what does it mean to revise things?

MN: As you said, I think many listeners to the RSP podcasts will be familiar with some of the critiques of the world religions approach. That is so integral to the way the discipline the study of religion is being taught at all levels, from schools, through to universities, and indeed much research. And, particularly, job appointments. World religions is very much the idea that structures how people think about the study of religion: you’re going to be a specialist in a particular topic; you’re going to be in a particular religion, a part of the world, dividing up. And that is part of that history. Of course, Tomoko Masuzawa’s work on the critiquing, or thinking through, how this particular idea of understanding the world – of the pluralism, the diversity, the universalism of nineteenth century European thought – produced that world religions paradigm. And, of course, part-and-parcel with that, the structures of empire, the structures of racism within the empire. And both these evolved, of course, together. They developed together in the nineteenth and twentieth century at the height of the European industrial empire, structural empire. But of course it was slowly forming in the long period from round about the 1500s onwards, following the growth of European colonialism under the Spanish, under the Portuguese, and then under the Dutch. The British, the Germans and the French implemented it in various ways, of course: through industrial chattel enslavement, through the slave trade; through the creation of different people under different rubrics, under racialised rubrics of creating Africans, creating Asians; creating religions or non-religions that go with them; the “primitive” religions – Hinduism, Buddhism – that then became the technology of knowledge, the technology that structured the Empire. Through, too, its systematisation in the nineteenth century, as I said, with the formation of the world religions paradigm, and the slight displacement of the theological centrality of Christianity within the academy – which of course, in the 20th century, became the field of Religious Studies. So it’s got relatively short roots in the crystallisation in the disciplines that we know today, such as Religious Studies, but very long roots in terms of the formation of these ideas of religion and race as somehow separate but intertwined, very much; ways of thinking about difference and ways in which that difference could be managed by the states, by empires, under colonial rule.

CC: And as you pointed out in some of your writing, Religious Studies, as it emerged, whether it’s called Religious Studies, or Study of Religion or whatever, it became the study of the “other”. I guess in the UK context we have Theology – or here we’re in a School of Divinity – and Religious Studies becomes the place where the “other stuff” is studied, under these headings of the different isms. But even things like Philosophy – you pointed out that, well, we’ll have Philosophy departments which are effectively Western European Philosophy departments, and then people who are specialists in philosophies from other regions, or associated with other traditions, find themselves in the Study of Religions department, in some way teaching that philosophy, rather than in Philosophy. So it is sort-of built into the structure of the way disciplines, and fields, and departments work as well.

MN: Yes, I mean these are huge debates, going across much of the Humanities. Is Philosophy just simply white philosophy or European philosophy? And added to that is the question, were the Greeks Europeans? Can we really count the Greek and the classical world? This is a big debate going on in Classics: where does the classical world end? Were the Egyptians part of that classical world? The classical Egyptians, the ancient . . . .

CC: Yes.

MN: And so on. (15:00) But also, in terms of Philosophy, what about the great philosophical systems? How European philosophy has been defined can perhaps include Chinese philosophies, Indian, South Asian philosophies, indigenous African philosophies, and so on. It’s very much about boundary maintenance within all of these fields. Religious Studies has been a little bit more eclectic. And this, perhaps, sort-of is one of the reasons why I was attracted to it as an anthropologist. It hasn’t sought to put the walls around what Religious Studies is doing in the way that Philosophy has, in terms of whiteness, in terms of the great white tradition, or white civilisation tradition, that Philosophy has, and Classics has. Rather it’s sort-of like, as you said, “the other” – and here I’m waving my fingers about – the otherness of South Asians, of other traditions than Europeans. And it has been constructed in that way. It’s not an accident that that’s happened as you said. Thinking through the way in which Sociology became, in a sense, the home of white European society, or the study of white European society – or derived society – in North America. And Anthropology became the study of anything that goes beyond that. So we can go to look at the debates happening in Sociology at the moment, trying to re-find or rediscover the disciplinary history of Sociology, particularly with the writer WEB Du Bois who has been excluded from the history of the telling of the history of Sociology, although his Atlanta school in the late nineteenth century, earlier twentieth century predates many of the founders, such as Robert Park’s in Sociology, in Chicago. He was one of the first sociologists. But because he wrote about black sociology, African American sociology, he has been sort-of left out of that history. Because it doesn’t fit within the idea of the study being about white European society, or however it might be defined. Of course there were structural racism and actual racism involved. He couldn’t be a great sociologist being a person of colour, being an African American. The idea that somehow he couldn’t be one of that canon of the great men because he was perceived to be of the wrong colour, racialised differently. So religious Studies has that as its starting point, studying beyond. And it has revelled, it has celebrated its positon as being about studying people who are different from white Christianity, people who are different from the norms of white European society, of white society. But yet, it has stumbled in its simplicity, I’d say, of trying to deal with that. And particularly it has largely ignored these questions of race and racialisation. The questions up until quite recently – the last few decades of Empire and colonialism – have been left off the table, as they were in anthropology, up until the 1980s and 1990s. And the question of how to understand that, and put that into practice, in terms of the people that Religious Studies has been looking to try and understand, to write about, to empathise with, to engage with – either as insiders or outsiders – and so on within the field of the study of religion. These issues just have not been addressed. And particularly I’d put that, the centrality of whiteness, within the field of Religious Studies. Although up until the eighties there were a few scholars of colour – people of colour doing scholarship in the study of religion – very often on the fringes. In Japan, if we look at the histories of Religious Studies, up until the seventies and eighties, there were small numbers of people of colour, but most of the big questions and the research agendas go back to people such as, of course, in Britain, Ninian Smart and similar white scholars in North America. And that has set the agenda for where we are today. So it’s no surprise that questions of race and colonialism have been sort-of put aside as well. Putting aside, of course, the funding issues, the universities . . . and, as I said, in today’s world perhaps you might get funding for talking about decolonising or decolonisation from a beneficent university. Back in the sixties and seventies, you were less likely to ask the critical race questions of the study of religion (20:00). And these questions of whiteness, there’s been a lot of work being done in Legal Studies, in Sociology, in Political Studies, which is yet to even start to be discussed in the field of Religious Studies. I see it somewhere on the fringes. There are people beginning to put this as a research agenda. There’s certainly no texts. No introductory texts are really taking this history, these research questions, these issues of race and colonialism alongside, of course, an intersectional interest in how this works in terms of gender and other structural issues: gender is created by race, and race is created by gender and colonialism and our history – how all these things go together. The field of Gender Studies is beginning to develop, and it needs to develop in terms of how it works with race and colonialism as well.

CC: That’s excellent, thanks. And what I’ve often discovered, you know, plenty of the studies or books or courses and what-not will pay lip-service to the . . . they’ll say “Religion is a constructed category, bound up in colonial history and referring to Protestant Christianity.” And then, “Let’s just get on with using it, just like we would normally do.” That’s something that we should try and avoid! Also in my own teaching, I’ve got a course here on Atheism, Humanism and Non-religion, I’m aware that everyone I’m looking at is white. I’ve put a week into the course structure where I focus on issues of gender and ethnicity into one week – which isn’t an ideal solution. It’s my first attempt to go “Right, at least raise that this is an issue, and let’s try and think about it.” But I didn’t have the time, or skill, or expertise to properly infuse it throughout the course. So what can we do to avoid simply just pulling up another chair at the table, and saying, “You can have a voice in here, too”? Or just saying, “We’ll nod that to that as an issue. We’ll acknowledge it, but not really do very much with it.” What can we do?

MN: OK, so . . . .

CC: (Laughs) How do we decolonise the Study of Religion?

MN: I’ve been quite mild, I would say, in terms of where I’ve been going so far. Some of things I know have sort-of got quite radical edges. But the idea of decolonising, as I said, is not just simply doing something performative that is seen as being good, and it will add a little bit extra to your syllabus, or your thinking, or your bibliography. And as I put it in my most recent article on decolonisation, it’s not about an extra chair at the table, it’s about changing the whole damn room. It’s about getting rid of the tables, reconstructing the tables, doing whatever you want. But decolonising is saying that what we’re doing at the moment is wrong, is not working. And that, for me, has implications that I’m still trying to work out in terms of . . . like that word “religion”. You know, should we be talking about religion, and faith, and sacredness, and all these things? Even if it is a native . . . even if it is an insider category, it’s got such huge historical and political baggage to it. Should we not just simply say we’re going to try and deconstruct it? I know this is an argument: what do we do after we’ve deconstructed it? What then? Well, we carry on deconstructing. There’s that long discussion we have following one of your earlier interviews with Tim. There’s a lot more to be done in terms of trying to put the idea of religion . . . in terms of these categories of race and religion. So if we’re struggling, I would say, to find a reading – even if we put it in those simplistic terms of: why is my curriculum white? – #whyismycurriculumwhite – the big question in decolonising . . . which is quite a straightforward thing if we’re looking at say the English Studies canon, because there’s plenty of English literature that is written by people racialised as non-white. If we’re doing it there, that might be quite easy. We can even do that in broad terms, if we look hard enough, in terms of the history of the Study of Religion (25:00). And, as I said, the history, the development of the discipline isn’t solely by people who racialise themselves as white European and North American white, and so on. We can do that, but I would say, “Step back further, and ask the question, ‘What are the questions I’m asking here, that lead to this body of knowledge that I’m choosing to teach, or to write about, or to research?’” If there is not this engagement with race theory, intersectional theory, gender theory, queer theory and so on, in what I’m doing, perhaps – and here, as I said, I’m getting quite radical – maybe we’re doing it wrong? I’d say we are doing it wrong, if we’re not doing the race theory, if we’re not doing the intersectional gender theory, and seeing how it works within the contexts. And I don’t mean just simply saying having a week at looking at queer theory and non-belief – I’m sure it can be done – or race theory and non-belief. It’s about saying, “How does that change all the questions I’ve got? And how does it change how the people I want to teach, I want to write for, I want to engage with . . . how does it change all of that? So even if that means us having to take a sabbatical, and reading it up, to try and formulate those questions to our field of research, I’d say that’s time well worth spending. Because otherwise we’re leaving out the big elephant in the room – what I call the white elephant in the room. Or, put it another way: in white club, the first rule of white club is that we don’t talk about whiteness. Because we just assume it’s there. It’s invisible. It’s an empty space. But it is so much feeding into the questions that we’re asking. As I say all this, I’m very conscious: here we are, two white men, sitting in a room talking about whiteness. There’s no celebration here of the fact that two men, after centuries of scholarship, have finally got together and started talking about whiteness. It should have happened two hundred and fifty plus years ago, that this consciousness of how it’s going. . . . But it is also about recognising that the perspectives that I’m bringing, that others are bringing, other white scholars and so on, is only part of a much bigger picture. And it is about recognising that there is a lot of scholarship going on which is directly bearing on whatever we’re doing, and a lot of that is by marginalised people in the academy. Very often people who don’t have fulltime jobs, don’t have job security, because they’re marginalised in terms of their place in the academy, and also because of their race, their racialisation, their colour, their gender, and other issues. It’s a very harsh, hostile environment, I’d say, for people working within the field, within the intersections, between these sorts of areas. And the question is, why aren’t we using their scholarship more? Do we have to go back to the learned professor who’s got there, and we all recognise them and . . . . I’ll take one example, Charles Taylor. If you want to talk about secularism, everybody goes to Taylor. Now he’s a great scholar, he says some great things. I was just recently looking at Vincent Lloyd’s work on secularisms and race, and how the idea of secularity . . . how the idea of the secular state is a thoroughly racialised idea. But there’s nothing in Taylor about that. There is nothing in Taylor that sort-of explores the way secularisation is defined as a white space, as a place for whiteness in America to be expressed. And then how that becomes racialised against other categories such as religion and church, and black churches. It comes down to a particular example of Martin Luther King becoming this folk hero of post-racialisation, where the Martin Luther King monument, in Washington, doesn’t mention his many statements about race and race equality, and doesn’t even mention much of his preaching as a Christian minister. So, going back to what I was saying: look for the scholarship, look for what marginalised voices are saying within a particular sphere, and see how that bears – I mean, whether it be looking in terms of people of colour, women of colour, queer people of colour – how is that challenging what you’re doing? Even if you don’t agree with it (30:00). But how is that challenging? And, of course, pass that on. Amplify it, in terms of scholarship, in terms of teaching. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, and I’m not saying “Here’s a white fellow saying that you’ve got to do this,” and whatever. I’m just saying that I see my position as somebody who’s lived with a lot of privilege within the academy, because of being structurally in this particular place of being a white man at the time when it favoured people such as myself. It still does. Stand back and think, “Well, what can I do to challenge those structures, to challenge the thinking that has brought me to where I am?” And engage with that thinking. Engage with how that relates to how you’d like to see your study of religion. And to see the Study of Religion as something that recognises its past, recognises its racialisation, recognises how the very critical concepts that we’ve got are so rooted, so blood-soaked with that colonial history – the violence and, of course, the current politics of today. We’re not detached from it, even if we’re well-meaning enough to put ourselves aside from it.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up on time. But I think, as a final question, I would want to ask you, yeah . . . so you’ve been getting at it there, and I was hinting at it as well. I think we both, in this room, and many of our Listeners will be thinking, “Yes, I want to not just diversify my knowledge-base, but also radically rethink a lot of the assumptions that I’m bringing to my work, and be more conscious of a lot of these issues, and the entanglements of the Study of Religion with racism, exploitation with whiteness, maleness. I want to be that better scholar. I want to do it. But when am I going to find the time? What am I going to do? How can I do that if I don’t have the luxury of having that sabbatical?” Or that sort of thing. I guess, as a final question for people like me who want to do better, but don’t even really know – apart from to go and do a Masters in Gender Studies or Critical Race Theory, or so on – are there any, like, key things – key texts, or key scholars, or key departments that are doing great work in this area – things where you can maybe say, “Well if you’ve not got that much time, this would be a great place to start.” Apart from your book, of course – which is naturally a place people should go to, as well!

MN: I must add a caveat on top of what you said at the beginning. It’s 2020 that we’re talking here, early 2020. We’re not going to see the book out this year, unfortunately. So I was seriously ill last year, and a lot of things have been knocked back. And I’m still working on the revisions for my Religion: The Basics book, which hopefully will be out . . . or at least ready to be out by the end of this year. I’m not saying that my book’s going to be the only place to explore these issues. There is a lot of good scholarship. And I’m trying to put this together. And that’s part of what my blogging is trying to do. Not just simply to say, “Here’s what Malory Nye’s got to say about these things.” But point to the great scholarship that . . . .

CC: That you’re encountering.

MN: Yes, sitting on the shoulders of. And trying to say, “Have you noticed this?” Basically. “This is going on.” So, I won’t give a list here, but there are long bibliographies. I’d also say, ask some basic questions. It’s not just simply “Have you read Du Bois? Or have you read Vincent Lloyd? Or have you read some of these great volumes that are coming out about race and religion? Have you read about this wealth of scholarship about decolonising and decolonisation? But also ask some basic questions about what you’re doing. And this is part of what I did in that paper on “Decolonising the Study of Religion”. I picked up one text that I’ve sort-of dipped into and never taught, thank goodness, but dipped into Daniel Pal’s book, Seven Theories / Nine Theories of Religion. And I was hugely depressed to read one particular part of it. I’ve not gone much further. I’m toying with the idea of doing a more substantial critique (35:00). But his discussion of Durkheim as a theory- Durkheim’s theory of religion. I’ve got nothing against Durkheim and his theory of religion – apart from the gross colonialism and racism of the work, taking this particular group in Central Australia, indigenous people, and saying they are indicative, they are representative of humankind’s early history. That they are the primitive elementary form of the religious life. Now that was Durkheim back in the beginning of the twentieth century, where it was OK to be a racist.

CC: Yes, he could maybe be forgiven for being a product of his time in some way – but we can still know it’s not ok.

MN: This is the time of Du Bois, as well. It’s not to say that he should be given a free pass on that. But my problem is more of Pal’s amplifying that racism, in a book that’s still being published, saying that Durkheim is taking this as representative of the sort-of primitive stage of humankind – these people who were, at that point, being displaced, who were being herded into camps, whose children were being stolen from them in Central Australia, somehow being classified as this great sort-of representation of early humanity – that can tell us about what religion is about. And I would just simply say, “Ask some basic questions. If this seems racist, it is racist.” As simple as that. Is this amplifying, is this demonstrating the racism of colonialism or the colonialism of racism? I use a lot Patrick Wolfe’s phrase, “Race is colonialism speaking”. Whenever we talk about race, there is colonialism. And we see this today in the politics of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, all this. That goes back to what Quijano, and all these others, are saying about colonial modernity. It’s all there. It all being reproduced and it’s being reproduced in scholarship as much as it’s being reproduced in world politics, of policy of Africa. So what I’m saying is, ask these questions. And if you’ve got further questions there is no simple answers. I sort-of thought I should hold this as an idea that I’d like to develop. Nobody’s got the monopoly on these things. I’d like to put together another Seven Theories of Religion which go completely against the grain of Daniel Pal’s: writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, W. Du Bois, and so on. Writers who challenge our concepts of religion, and what religion is, and even the idea that religion is this thing that we can define, and explain, and talk about, and talk about its functions. Ways in which the idea of religion is a historical sort-of product of colonialism – what we talk about as that. And, of course, Tomoko Masuzawa is one of those people who has done that in a very sort-of blinding way, in terms of pushing through a particular understanding of: this is how we got to where we are, in talking about this. So I’d love to sort-of say, “Here’s a great place to start,” whether it was written by me, or written by some other scholar who could probably do it a lot better than I could. But ask these questions. And google is your friend, there! Google scholar is your friend, in terms of finding that scholarship on decolonisation. There is a lot of it out there. But one of the people I take huge inspiration from is the scholar Sarah Ahmed who was previously at Goldsmith’s college, before she resigned over issues of student dealing with sexual harassment and assault. But now has become an independent scholar who blogs very regularly. She’s just recently done a lot of work on complaint in the university. But her most recent book is Living a Feminist Life, based on her feministkilljoy blog, which I would strongly recommend – both the book and the blog. And there’s a particularly good one, on the site, I use about white men saying that it is so easy – going back to what I was saying about Taylor and others: white men cite other white men. And if we go along with that game we’re reproducing not just an event, we’re reproducing the whole structure of white patriarchy, of a colonial modernity within our scholarship. And, as I said, work against the grain of that as much as you can, in terms of the questions that you ask, and the people that you choose to read. That’s not to say it’s an easy task. It’s one . . . I don’t think that there’s a lot of time for any of us to do that.

CC: It’s a life-long task. And one that will probably never be possible to complete (40:00). But Malory, you’ve left us with some . . . a lot of in-depth material, but also a lot of questions that can, and should, be taken to basically everything that anyone who’s listening to this is working on! So, with that, this podcast has served a double purpose, at least – if not more! So, thanks very much.

MN: OK. Well thanks very much, too. I mean look out for my third edition of Religion: The Basics when it comes out. I will be dealing with a lot of these issues, briefly, in that. And that’s part of the problem why it’s taken so long. I was asked to get working on that about eight years ago and it’s still in process. But, yes, my book on Race and Religion – or whatever it may be called in the end – that should be appearing in the next few years, anyway.

CC: Fantastic. We look forward to it.

MN: Thanks very much.

 

 

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The Gods of Indian Country

Dr. Jennifer Graber’s new book, “The Gods of Indian Country,” grew out of lingering questions from her first book, a study of American Quakers and prisons. Graber learned that Quakers served as missionaries to Native American reservations in the West. She combined this interest in Quaker missions with her research into Native American captivity, so that the resulting narrative contrasts the motives of U.S. officials with Kiowa captives on an Oklahoma reservation. The main claim of Graber’s book is that there were two “gods” of Indian Country — the religious beliefs of the Kiowas (onto which Western explorers superimposed monotheistic terms like “Great Spirit”) versus the Christianity of Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Religion in Graber’s narrative emerges as a site of contestation in the creation of the American West.

Using Kiowa material culture and artwork, which Kiowas used to record their history in non-alphabetic ways, Graber shows how the Kiowas adjusted their religious beliefs through contact with the Comanches and other Great Plains Indian nations, as well as the Americans, during the nineteenth century. Kiowas embraced new religious practices, such as the Sun Dance and the two Ghost Dance movements, to gain spiritual power, “dwdw,” which could be used to repel American invaders. The Red River War of 1874–75 failed to reclaim Indian Country, but Graber cautions her readers not to read inevitable defeat into this narrative. Letters, drawings, and other objects mailed to the reservation reveal how, after the war, Kiowa men in prison and Kiowa children in boarding schools made sense of their dislocation and retained their culture. Kiowa religion to this day remains an effort to rectify the world.

Dr. Graber shows how colonists cloak violence beneath a veneer of gentility and conquered peoples use religion to preserve their sense of community. This book provides a powerful argument against U.S. “nation-building” and the use of state power to break up families — something that the Trump administration is currently doing to Hispanic migrant families along the southern border.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The Gods of Indian Country

Podcast with Jennifer Graber (17 September 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Graber_-_The_Gods_of_Indian_Country_1.1

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): So I understand it’s very hot in Texas, Dr Graber!

Jennifer Graber (JG): It is! It’s about 100 degrees here, today!

DG: Now it’s making me wish for a never-ending winter. I’m calling from, practically, Canada!

JG: OK. That’s right!

DG: So today we’re going to be talking about your new book, The God’s of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in studying Native American history – particularly since your previous project was looking at Quakers and prisons?

JG: So the connection actually is prisons. And when I was doing research for my first book, which is on Antebellum prisons, I came across several stories in which I’d read about Native people being incarcerated after they had participated in uprisings, or other sorts of military uprisings, with the Americans. And the more I read into these stories I became curious about following up on them, after my first book was finished. And as I began to read a little bit about some of these episodes I found that religious reformers and missionaries were often active in forms of ministry to incarcerated Native people. And so that actually sounded a lot like some of the stories from my first book. And so, actually, prison was really the connection. But then I also . . . my very first job at a liberal arts college, I was asked to teach a course on Native American Religions. My predecessor in the job had taught such a class and it was really popular – and when you’re a young untenured faculty member you kind-of say “yes” to a lot of things!

DG: Yes!

JG: So I agreed to teach a semester-long class on Native American religions, which meant I needed to do a lot of research to prepare. And what I found was that the more research I did to prepare for that class, it helped me to understand a little bit more about what was going on in these episodes of Native incarceration that I was already interested in. And that’s kind-of how those two things came together.

DG: I see. So, well, this is jumping more to the topical elements of your book. We’re talking about the experience of incarcerated persons – I was seeing on the news this morning about the incarceration of migrant children at the border, and this sort-of perverted school that they make the children attend, where they’re inculcating them with American values, even while they can’t leave these prison camps. And I was just curious, with this book about reservations, do you see it as having import for what we’re going through right now?

JG: I do and there’s a very kind-of particular element, because I think we talk about the connection between incarceration and education in a couple of different ways, currently. The way that you’re talking about, in terms of children who are either seeking asylum or who have immigration cases being adjudicated while they’re being incarcerated, they have experience of educational structures kind-of put in place: forms of incarceration for migrants. But then also we talk about the connections between education and incarceration when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. When it comes to youth in cities, especially folks who are African American or Latino, who’ll find themselves disciplined in their educational settings, and being moved into forms of disciplined . . . or actually through the legal structure in the United States, or through policing. And I think there’s a precedent in the 19th century and you can see it in Native history, but it’s actually reversed. One thing I noticed about the 19th century, and the way that these things are connected to Native people, is that it’s a prison-to-school pipeline, instead.

DG: Interesting.

JG: Insofar as some Native people who are incarcerated – in a particular instance in my book they’re incarcerated after the 1874 Red River War – they were sent to a military prison, in this case. And an officer in the army administrated this prison, and put in place several forms of discipline that he thought to be very effective. He changed people’s hairstyles, he changed people’s clothing, he made people go to church, he made people go to class. And then, after this period of incarceration was over, he found this experiment to be so successful and so compelling that he then bought a military barracks and opened the very first off-reservation boarding school. He modelled that boarding school on the military prison that he had administered in earlier years. So it’s actually a kind of reversal. It’s a prison-to-school pipeline instead. But you can see how those structures are connected.

DG: Absolutely. And one thing I’ve been thinking about in some of my own research, looking at Philadelphia: you had the ethnic Jewish neighbourhood near the docks, but not far from that was one of the major boarding schools for Native Americans. So one thing that’s always struck me was that you had these children being transported thousands of miles to a completely new urban environment. I can’t imagine what the dislocation would be like.

JG: Right, and actually there’s one thing we have evidence of – which I find very compelling and really heart-breaking – we have some examples of letters that Native students in off-reservation boarding schools wrote back to their families on reservations. And then letters that families sent to them, in school. And these are letters in which people are trying to update one another about, you know, who is sick and who is healthy; who has a job; who’s actually living and who might have died – because such periods of times happened between these families being able to be in actual physical contact with each other. And so, there’s a kind-of heart-breaking archive of materials that go back and forth between the reservation and the off-reservation school. And the loneliness that pervades those letters is really . . . it’s very palpable.

DG: Now the story you’re telling – as you mentioned – with Indian Country, is this idea . . . it’s at the intersection of a couple of crumbling empires, France and Spain, and also the New American Empire. So I am curious – these letters that were coming back: what language were they being written in?

JG: So, it’s interesting. I look particularly, in this book, at the Kiowa Indians and at this point of time they don’t have a written language for spoken Kiowa. That doesn’t develop until the 20th century. So when they write letters home some of them were written in English and would have been sent back to the reservation, where they could be read by someone with English-speaking skills – which were just starting to kind-of be more widely held across the population in the last two decades of the 19th century. Sometimes they also wrote them in this pictorial language that mimicked, and put on paper, the motions of Plains Indian sign language. So you could see these visual records, or non-alphabetic writing. And then, of course, for other Indian nations . . . . There were other Indian nations that already had written languages and so they could write back in those languages. Or they could write back in English. But there’s a real variety of ways that people communicated with each other. And then people would also send each other drawings, and sometimes artefacts like moccasins, or other pieces of clothing. So lots of things were circulating between that loop between reservation and off-reservation boarding school.

DG: So, with this book, you mentioned in other interviews that this is a real contribution to material culture – which is, I guess, what historians have been calling archaeology lately. One theory I’ve thought about, when reading your book, was Jules Prown who’s talked about the importance of empathy in writing history: you actually handle the objects, you gain the sensory information, you figure out how they were used. In what environments were you finding these objects? Did you have to go to the Kiowa reservation? Were these in archives across the country?

JG: So, many of these things are actually not in the hands of Kiowa people. There is a tribal museum and there are some artefacts from the 19th century in that museum, but actually very few. So most of the things that I was looking at – things like drawings; tepee covers; shields; calendars, which is this form of historical remembered keeping – they’re in museums. So I spend a lot of time at the National Anthropological Archives, which is part of the Smithsonian institution. They have enormous holding in what we would think of as Plains Indian material culture. So it was there where I interacted with a lot of these materials. But then, other museums around the country have just hundreds and hundreds of Plains Indian drawings. And you can go. And some of those places you’re actually allowed to handle those objects yourself, sometimes those are really restricted – you might only be able to look at them while you’re wearing gloves. Or you might not – they might only make facsimiles available if the items are really very delicate. But they’re all over the place – except in Indian Country.

DG: So what are your views on repatriation, then?

JG: I would . . . I’m a person who would love to see more repatriation of objects and the support of the Native communities repatriating them within their own spaces and on their own terms. There are folks at the Kiowa tribal museum who interact with the Smithsonian, and do work on kind-of some cultural preservation kinds of projects. But there are a lot of Kiowa materials that are very far away from Kiowa people. So, one thing I try to do in my own research is gather digital images of objects that are in other places. And I’m working with the tribal museum to make some of those accessible. And, right now, digital might be one of the forms where we can do that most easily. Repatriation has been a really thorny issue, ever since NAGPRA was passed in the ‘90s. And I think we still have a long way to go.

DG: So we’re talking about this idea of repatriation. This then calls to mind the related concept of, I guess, decentring our narratives about American history. So when I think back to my . . . well, I’m not that old! But when I think of just a few years ago, when I was in High School, there really was no Native American history being taught to us. Even though the narrative of American religion has expanded to include other faiths, Native American religions really aren’t a part of that. I was curious if you’ve thought at all about how we should be teaching Native American religions to children?

JG: Oh that’s great. And I have. So I think there’s a couple of levels on which I could respond to that question. When I teach at UTE, the University of Texas, I have lots and lots of students who also have had very little background in their . . . at least their high school years, with Native American history. Many of them do a unit in their Texas history class about Native nations that had either occupied or moved through what became Texas – but it’s very much a pre-colonial story. And then, once there are kind-of Texans here, Native people disappear from that story – which is part of Texas history, actually. So what I find is that students are really eager to learn more. And one thing I’ve done in my classes at UTE is just up the number of lectures and syllabus content percentage that cover Native materials. So, I begin my class on American Religious history at Cahokia, in the high middle ages, and we start with a major Native city along the Mississippian. Many of my student are really surprised that we start, you know, in the year 1100. But that’s where we start. And I actually, this past year, ended the class with the protest at Standing Rock. So I wanted to try to push deeper into Native past in North America, but also not allow Native people to disappear, once we get into the 20th and 21st century. But I can also think about this question . . . . Both my children, who just finished 4th and 7th grade, just finished Texas History in public school. And both of them had units that interacted with Native history in Texas. And that’s one where I think, you know, Texas has a particular and really difficult history around Native people. And I think some real honesty about Texans and their real effort to rid the state of Native people in the mid-19th century – we have to grapple with that when we teach this as a part of Texas history. It is Texas history. And I’d love to see a little bit more kind-of grappling with that story.

DG: Well it’s interesting, with you living in Texas. And I’m thinking that many of the major high school textbook companies are also based in Texas. And they’re advancing, well – shall we a say, a conservative reading of American history?

JG: Yes. That’s right. And Texas, of course, is a textbook market that then shapes the national market. There are other states that are interested in the same sort of narrative crafted for Texas. That narrative is also favoured in other places. So what happens in Texas textbooks then happens elsewhere, as well. So actually reshaping that story here, and thinking about that story, has been an important part of a lot of historians who work in universities here in Texas. There’s a kind-of network of us who, at times, go and talk at the Texas Board of Education meetings, at their public hearings, kind-of working on these questions about who is represented, how the past is represented. It’s an uphill battle here.

DG: I was thinking that in April I was in Oklahoma City, and I went to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

JG: Yes.

DG: And you can see there that this battle is being fought in the museum. Because you can tell that it very clearly started as the Cowboy Museum – and now they’re bringing in the Native American exhibits.

JG: Yes. And that’s a really amazing museum, insofar as you’re absolutely right; for a long, long time it was the Cowboy Museum – the National Cowboy Museum.

DG: A story they tell well.

JG: And they have really … the name change that adds Western Heritage, and then kind-of tries to broaden and be more inclusive about who’s within that Western heritage, kind-of mirrors much bigger  trends in public history that are really important. You know . . . and that museum actually had a ton of incredible Plains Indian material culture in their archive! It’s one of the places I went to do research. They have amazing holdings!

DG: That’s not on display.

JG: But it’s not on display – you’re absolutely right. That’s another place where I think they’re taking baby steps, or initial steps, to make a more inclusive story. But there’s still a long way to go.

DG: While I was at the museum they had an exhibition of painting by – I believe he was Muscogee Creek Seminole – his name was Jerome Tiger. He painted in the mid-20th century. And his paintings are distinctive because the figures are . . . it’s a flat background. There’s no sense of depth to the picture. And when I was reading your book and looking at the many photographs of – well, I guess they’re digital scans – of these drawings that Kiowa people made, it’s very similar design with this lack of depth, this flat image.

JG: Yes.

DG: I was curious, have you looked at Kiowa art since the reservation . . . well, I guess we’re still in the reservation period. Rather, have you looked at paintings made in the last 100 years? The art forms that were developing in the 19th century – do they continue?

JG: They do. Actually so . . . there was a set of artists – that have been called by some folks “The Kiowa Five” and, eventually, there was a realisation that there was also a female artist there, and she’s now part of a group called “The Kiowa Six” – artists who grew up and were young children at the end of the 19th century/ turn of the 20th century, and who kind-of inherited many of the artistic traditions. They would have seen people drawing; they would have seen people painting on tepees; they would have seen Kiowa calendars, where people did history; and they would have seen these kinds of artistic practices. They then were sent to school. And one of the places they were sent to school there was a teacher who really tried to help them develop artistic skills, without having them, necessarily, abandon the particular Plains Indian visual style that they had learned as young people. And so there was a kind of school of artists, really popular in the 1920s and 30s, called the Kiowa Five. And there are actually now, in the contemporary period, many Native artists who have a Plains Indian background who kind-of riff on Native art. And they take the kind-of flat presentation that you’re talking about and they bring that into . . . they combine that with contemporary materials. So this idea – that style, that developed on the plains in the 18th and 19th century, on tepees and later on paper – is still being riffed on by Native artists. And it’s pretty exciting.

DG: I remember in the book you don’t talk too much about the materiality of how the drawings were made, so I was curious if you might elaborate a little bit? They’re creating drawings, they’re sending them back from school. Previously they would have been making drawings on buffalo hide. Do you have any information about this transition of Kiowa art forms being done on natural materials, to on the materials that are provided by the American Empire?

JG: Yes. And so . . . it’s that critical moment with contact with the American that brings theses new drawing materials into play. There’s an anthropologist at the Smithsonian who has been trying to find if we have any examples of Kiowa drawing on paper, really, prior to the reservation period. And she has not been able to find any, even though we have ample examples of shields, tepees, buffalo hide – as you suggested. But it was really contact with the Americans, first through the establishment of the reservation, but then also for some Kiowa in the period of incarceration. The man who ran the military prison, where many Kiowas were sent after the Red River War, gave out paper and pencils and coloured pencils as a way for people to pass the time, and later noticed that the Native men were creating these drawings with one another. And then he encouraged them to sell drawing to tourists – which is one of the reasons that they show up in Eastern Seaboard museums so often. So really it’s that contact with Americans that makes paper and pencil available. And, in some ways, there’s a sort of . . . I mean, paper and pencils are just easier to use than buffalo hide! So, in some ways, it just becomes easier to draw, and to paint with these new materials. And the artists just really take up those new materials with gusto.

DG: So I’d like to transition a little bit from the theoretical material to talk about the narrative of the book, in particular.

JG: OK

DG: You begin The Gods of Indian Country with this evocative description of the 1873 Sun Dance on the Sweetwater Reservation, which is newly created in what’s modern Oklahoma. I was thinking of past books on Native American history, for instance, Anthony Wallace’s Death and Rebirth of the Senaca or Tracy Leavelle’s’ The Catholic Calumet – those also start in the middle of a ritual, the way you do. Were you consciously trying . . . . Is this a trope that you were working with? Or is that kind-of an accidental comparison?

JG: You know, that’s interesting that both of those books also begin with a ritual. Actually, my inspiration for this was the beginning of Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street! (Laughs).

DG: Oh, right! That would be the street possession.

JG: Which also began with a ritual and what I remember, when I was trying to figure out how to start the book . . . . Because it’s a book that technically begins in 1803, but I didn’t think actually starting in 1803 was the place to start, because there really wasn’t much contact between Americans and Kiowa, like there’s no contact in that period. So I was thinking about, “How do I set up all that’s at stake in this contact, at least potentially would be at stake, with this contact between Kiowas and Americans?” And this particular Sundance had a lot of witnesses – or not witnesses, necessarily . . . in some ways – witness documents left over, and a lot of anthropological material, ethnographic interviews, where people reflected back on it. So there was a lot of shall-we-say evidence about this particular one. And to me it had a lot of interpretive potential, because it was one where we have the first American – or, at least, the one that we know for sure there’s an American witnessing the ritual. And he wrote so much about it, about his experiences of it. So I started to think that it could be a really great place to start. But I also didn’t want to foreground the Quaker who witnessed it. I didn’t want to foreground his experience. I wanted to try to kind-of make the reader go into the Kiowa world, and not just the Quaker’s world as he experienced the Kiowa. And that made me think about Bob Orsi and how effectively in his book he brings the reader, with this kind-of dramatic story, into the world of the Catholics who are celebrating the Festa for Mount Carmel, in Harlem. And I know people have lots of things to say about the beginning of that book, but I found that book really effective in drawing readers in and bringing them into this question about intercultural encounter. And so, yes, he’s really the inspiration there.

JG: You know, I was not expecting Italian Catholics in Manhattan. But now that you mention it, it does work.

JG: But that’s the joy of Religious Studies, right? You can take reflections on a ritual somewhere and use those tools in a ritual in different part of the world.

DG: Yes, but comparison is tricky. For instance, when I mention the flat drawing without the sense of perspective that you see in European art, my mind originally went to, actually, the drawings that you see in Ancient Egyptian artefacts. And then I was thinking, “Well, is that a fair . . . you know – is that a fair a comparison to make, since they’re so far apart?”

JG: Well it’s interesting. Art historians have really done a lot of heavy-lifting when it comes to interpreting and understanding, Plain Indian visual art. And I think one of the things that they have really argued is to take this art very seriously as art, despite it’s having a different sense of perspective, and despite . . . . Because in the 19th century there were many people, many Americans, when they encountered this art they thought it was childlike and simplistic. And actually, early anthropologists were not interested in it because they wanted to see works on buffalo hide, not paper, right? They didn’t want Native people to be changing. They wanted to preserve this kind-of timeless and older idea that they thought Native people had been performing. They didn’t want to look at this paper stuff which they considered an innovation. So it’s been art historians who have really tried to say, “This is art and we need to take it seriously as art.” In the same way that we, you know – we don’t even question any more whether what ancient Egyptians were creating was art. It’s art, right?

DG: Right.

JG: But it took a longer time for folks to be able to talk that way about Plains Indian art.

DG: One thing I appreciate about your book is that you’re using these . . . . You’re not only using the drawings and paintings as validations of Native American art, you’re also using it to show that they’re recording their history as it’s happening. For instance, you have, after the Osage Indians attack, in 1823 I believe, you have these drawings showing the Kiowa memorialising their dead.

JG: Yes. And that is . . . . Oh sorry, I won’t interrupt!

DG: No it’s alright. I was just getting excited about this! As the book goes on you have just example after example into the reservation period, as their land is being taken away, they’re interpreting their history in a completely different language from the Americans.

JG: Right. And that’s one of the most kind-of pervasive ideas that is part of the whole complex that we talk about in terms of the “vanishing Indian”. The way that Americans were kind-of writing Native people out of the future. And one of the kind-of tropes that would be constantly kind-of brought up in the vanishing Indian rhetoric was, “These are people with no history. They have no sense of their own history.” This would be one of the many reasons that these folks would see that there would be an eventual disappearance of Native people. And so part of what I . . . and I think this is a bit perpetuated by historians who are kind-of unwilling to deal with non-alphabetic sources. There are sources outside of alphabetic and textual sources. And so what I really wanted to do was to push against, or at least show how hard Americans were working to vanish Indians, while at the same time Native People were absolutely creating . . . they were historicising themselves. And they had debates about, “Which events do you memorialise? What’s going to go into the calendar as the most significant event of the year?” And different calendars have different events memorialised. So not only are they keeping that history, they debate that history. Yes. So it was important to me to really frontload those sources and then also kind-of send the message to historians – who often say that it’s difficult to work on Native materials if you don’t have textual or written language in any period – like, “Yes, you can!” You just have to be creative about it.

DG: In designing the layout of book, did you select the position of the images, or did your editors do that?

JG: We kind-of worked together. I usually suggested a placement. And sometimes they took the suggestion and just went with it. And other times we negotiated where things might go. I feel really lucky. From the beginning I asked them for colour plates, like, a section of colour plates. And I was really shocked when they said, “Yes”. So unfortunately the plates can’t be interspersed in the text, just because that would make production very difficult. But I’m really glad they’re there .They mean you have to kind-of tunnel through the text a little bit, when one of those plates comes up. But I’m really glad that it’s present. And one of the things I found early on, with the editors and the outside reviewers, is that they were very open to the placement of especially Kiowa drawings, and Kiowa calendar examples, as ways to reinforce this message that they are documenting themselves, remembering their past, and interpreting their new situations.

DG: There’s an encyclopaedic component to the book, I suppose, in that you’re bringing these images to a wider audience. You also supply an extensive appendix of historical figures from the Kiowa community. I forget the word Wikipedia uses. I think its “disambiguating”. Because you say there are all these name variations. And you put them all in one place for the first time.

JG: Yes. And actually, I worked with an anthropologist who’s been active in Kiowa country for a very long time, and he was very generous. He has worked for a long, long time to collect not only all the possible Kiowa name variations that are possible – because they appear in lots of different ways in different kinds of sources . . . . So he was really vital in my effort to get names spelt correctly, and represented correctly. Because there’s just so many ways, and there’s a long history of Native names being mangled by American authors. So I just wanted to be as careful as I possibly could, and do the best work around naming, and making sure that I could give the best and most thorough account of naming that I could. Because naming is one of the places where I think there’s been shortcuts taken in the work of American history.

DG: What would you say the book’s thesis is?

JG: I’d say it has two. I have a thesis about the Americans who were involved in the process of colonising the Kiowa, and then a thesis about the Kiowa themselves. In terms of the Americans who were operating to colonise Kiowas, I was interested in the folks who saw themselves as a peaceful vanguard coming into Indian country. These were folks who decried what was happening with the military, and when there were the military attacks on Native people, they hated Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Bill. But they were absolutely kind-of foundational and crucial to American expansion. And I think that their effort to designate expansion as a potentially peaceful enterprise was very effective. And it really . . . they very effectively masked other kinds of colonial violence. They weren’t Andrew Jackson, they weren’t Sherman, they didn’t operate in those ways, but they were absolutely essential to the occupation and suppression of Kiowa people, and somehow, very successfully, made that a peaceful process. So that was what I wanted to study about that. Like, how did they effectively take something violent and name it peace, and convince everybody? Because I think they did. I think they convinced other people that this was peaceful. So that’s my main kind-of concern with those folks. I think the thesis in terms of the Kiowa response – I wanted to show that religion was one of the central ways and one of the central places that Kiowas could draw on traditions, but also create these new sorts of rituals to address changing situations. So I wanted to show that there were ways of riffing on the past, and bringing the past into the present. But also those kind-of incredible ritual effects of credibility and creativity that helped them as they tried to resist occupation.

DG: In terms of resistance – you don’t use the word “prophetic” to describe the sort of religious practices that are happening on the reservation: the Sun Dance, the Ghost Dance, eventually experiments with peyote, even interpretations of Christianity. What was your choice not to use the word “prophetic”?

JG: There are a couple of reasons for it. Partly because in the 19th century, and this happened with movements around the United States, that word could be used derisively by Americans. They would talk about maybe a tribal nation that had some sort of revitalisation movement in direct response to American occupation. And they would talk derisively about a prophet who was at the centre of it, right? And usually be meaning “prophet” in scare quotes, like, not a real prophet, but a prophet to these people with bad religion. So I wanted to get away from it because it had been used pejoratively. And then, I think, also there’s so much great work in Religious Studies about varieties of movements in colonial settings where religion is kind-of reimagined to address a colonial situation, that I wanted to draw on language from that work. I felt that those writings – whether they be about colonial era, occupations of parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, or in Australia – that work was really, to me, way more useful, and the language out of those projects was so much more compelling and rich that I thought, “You know what, I just don’t need this word prophet.” It would have been a little easier, right? Like I think when you say, Native American prophecy it communicates something to readers, right. They might think of Tecumseh’s brother and they might think of Handsome Lake. So there’s some effectiveness and usefulness to it but I was willing to kind-of give that up, because I wanted to see if we could do something else with some other kinds of language.

DG: So we’re just about out of time, but we’re almost up to the present, talking about the endurance of Kiowa religion. At the close of your book in the epilogue, you talk about your own journey to Kiowa country in Oklahoma, and witnessing these ceremonies. And, you know, you’re seeing things that outsiders typically don’t. And it’s very fraught to be white person to be present there. How do Kiowa people respond to you wanting to tell their story without being a full member of the community?

JG: Well, when I went to visit, one of the things I always tried to make clear was that I was not an anthropologist: I wasn’t doing interviews, I wasn’t going to quote, I wasn’t taking big observations, I wasn’t trying to be a kind-of classic participant observer. So, in some ways, I didn’t necessarily bear the burden I think that anthropologists often bear, when they go to work within Native communities. I have some friends who are anthropologists in Kiowa communities, and they are people who have these kind-of decades-long sets of relationships. So one thing I tried to make clear was that my story is studying historical sources, but that anyone working in Native American history today also talks about how there’s a responsibility to the present. And you know, Peter Nabokov in his books talks about this: there’s no Native history that doesn’t have a connection to today. So I think one of the things I felt like I needed to do was just to try my best to understand the present, without really asking anything. So when I would go there, I just would do things like show up at church and if folks wanted to talk to me – great! If not – great! And that kind-of helped me. I just started by showing up. I really wanted to be clear about, “I’m not asking for anything”. And I think I just kept showing up enough that I made some friends. And I think, along with that, I’ve always tried to signal that my hope is I will, if anything is desired of me, I will give it back. So you know, I think it’s a different . . . I think when historians are dealing with Native communities, even though you have this kind-of project that’s related on documents from the past and you don’t necessarily ever have to . . . .You know – I could have written this book and never gone to the reservation. But I also feel that by going there, I was able to write about the past with an eye toward the present. Especially because I can see those communal values that I write about in the past, those are still operative, and I witnessed those things. And that was really kind-of powerful, and I think it helped me write a better book.

DG: We have been speaking to Jennifer Graber at the University of Texas, Austin. Thank you very much for your time!

JG: Thanks so much. I had fun!


Citation Info: Graber, Jennifer and Daniel Gorman Jr. 2018. “’The Gods of Indian Country”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 September 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-gods-of-indian-country/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Intersections of Religion and Feminism

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our editor in charge of sales and marketing, Sammy Bishop.

When asked to choose a podcast to flag up as my ‘editor’s pick’, one immediately sprang to mind: Chris Cotter‘s interview with Dawn Llewellyn on ‘Religion and Feminism‘. Starting on a personal note, this podcast was my initial step toward being involved with the RSP, as it was the first one that I provided a response to; and it was a joy to listen to their conversation.

Not only does the discussion provide a great introduction to how feminism, religion, and the academic study of both, might (or indeed, might not) interact; but Llewellyn also does an excellent job of flagging up how future work in these fields could become more productively interdisciplinary. The interview was recorded in October 2016 – so is very new in terms of academic timelines – but even since then, various forms of contemporary feminism have enjoyed a huge rise in prominence. The themes raised in this interview have more relevance than ever, and are worth revisiting in light of recent discussions on the intersections of feminism and religion.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

 

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Lancashire cheese, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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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.

Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting

Karl Jaspers created the term “Axial Age” in 1949 after considering that the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon, the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Jeremiah, the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the Daodejing, and the Analects of Confucius were just a few of the philosophical and theological texts penned in the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. For Jaspers, this collection of philosophical and theological works was a sign of an era of social and intellectual maturity, a maturation that Jasper felt left simpler formulations of such thinking in its wake. The notion of the “Axial Age” has held through to the 21st century, the most recent manifestation of the theory being seen in Robert N. Bellah’s 2012 monograph Religion and Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.

 

398px-1890sc_Pears_Soap_AdTo discuss the “Axial Age”, its consequences, credibility, and critiques, Breann Fallon sat down with long-time team-member of the Religious Studies Project, Dr Jack Tsonis. Dr Jack Tsonis has recently taken up a position at Western Sydney University, teaching the Masters of Research Program. They discuss the origin and historiography of the term “Axial Age” before diving into an analysis of the term as used in Religious Studies. Tsonis gives a fiery critique of the racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes upon which the term is founded, and the subsequent need for avoidance of the term “Axial Age” and all that it embodies. Later, they discuss the difficulties of the immediate post-PhD years, particularly the delicate research-teaching balance, resulting in some useful advice for anyone in their final PhD months or for those who have recently submitted.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cheese, office stationery and more.

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

Podcasts

Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion

Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion by Tyler M. Tully

A response to Episode 337: “Decolonizing the Study of Religion” with Malory Nye by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The invitation to decolonize the academic study of religion that Malory Nye extends in his interview with Chris Cotter is both necessary and complex in that it asks us to acknowledge the field’s formation in, as, and through implementations of colonial power—which, as the most recent round of Black Lives Matter protests is at pains to teach us, is also about the implementation of race/ist power. Nye’s response further asks us to account for how these colonial attachments materialize going forward.

 

French copy of an original Chickasaw/Alabama map, 1737 courtesy of the Centre des Archives d’Outre-mer.
Like their Choctaw and Creek neighbors to the south, the Chickasaws understood themselves as being birthed out from the sacred maternal navel of Nanih Waiya, a Mississippian era mound with a platform enclosure spanning one square mile in what is now central Mississippi. The sun circle motif at the center of this 1737 map represents the central council fire of the Chickasaw Nation and reflects how they saw themselves in relation to the sun and thus also the divine spirit. While the circles on the periphery loosely reflect the Chickasaw’s neighbors, their function portrays levels of social association (such as trade, kinship ties, alliances, etc.) rather than physical proximity.

I am grateful to Nye for his example in facilitating these collaborative conversations, and I appreciate his admonition that this is less about improving the discipline than it is about taking responsibility for it. Rather than reaching an end goal or point of arrival, Nye wants religionists to consider what this “legacy means” and asks “how this discipline can become more critically aware of its past and more rigorously able to define itself beyond the structures of power and exploitation that gave rise to it” (Nye 2019a, 8-9). Ostensible responses to these questions would incorporate critical analyses of a field still largely organized around colonial cartographies, whose research projects, assumptions, and norms continue to ennoble Eurowestern, or white supremacy.

 

Following critical race and Indigenous studies scholars Eve Tuck (Unangax^/ Aleut) and K. Wayne Yang who remind us that “decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck & Yang 2012), Nye affirms that decolonization is “a matter of life and death” for peoples still living under colonial projects and not merely colonial legacies (Byrd & Rothberg 2011). Interpreting Tuck and Yang to mean decolonization in the “political, social, and legal” sense, however, Nye differentiates the former against what he sees as decolonizing knowledge and education systems (Nye 2019a, 8). While Nye concedes that this inevitably involves some degree of overlap with the political sphere, he sees the two as somewhat separate and focuses attention on decolonizing religion. Given this emphasis on epistemologies, Nye’s invitation to co-think our material and discursive attachments to what bell hooks famously described as “capitalist imperialist white supremacist (cis-hetero)patriarchy” is not unlike similar discussions occurring elsewhere in the academy (hooks 1992).

 

What these discussions suggest is that colonialism—as constitutive of modernity, and indeed as a producer of the modern world system—sacrifices not just Indigenous peoples, but also (and coterminously) their geographies of knowledge, or what I’m calling epistemological sacrifice zones. If epistemological sacrifice zones are Native peoples and their traditional knowledges and irreducible kinship relations rooted in place (Aikenhead et al 2007; Corntassell et al 2014; Simpson 2014; Watts 2013) that are involuntarily immolated for the benefit of Eurowestern knowledge production as I am arguing, then they are not unlike what environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon refers to as “unimagined communities” (Nixon 2010). But where Nixon means “communities whose vigorously unimagined condition became indispensable to the maintenance of a highly selective discourse of national development,” I want to instead center these communities on their own terms and thus avoid what Chickasaw decolonial thinker Jodi Byrd calls confusing an “effect for a cause” (Byrd 2014).

 

Epistemological sacrifice zones are made hyper-visible during an apocalypse—whether that crisis is the ongoing genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples, or the state response to the novel coronavirus, which are attain the same ends. As crises cohere over intervals of time, they illuminate epistemic landscapes while intensifying disparities of power. COVID-19, for example, enlarges existing inequities, such as the domestic labor of home-schooling children, the gendered dimensions of knowledge production in higher ed, or the ‘digital divide’ between white/non-white, urban/rural, wealthy/poor populations—depending on which “ethico-onto-epistemological” cuts one makes (Barad 2007).

 

However, not all crises are commensurable, and those spanning over longer periods of time and space are often more difficult to perceive for those not negatively affected by them. In this way, it can be helpful to think of colonialism, not as an event confined to the past, but rather a transmutative set of civilizing projects whose “logics of elimination” and replacement remain largely invisible to white settler-colonial peoples (Wolfe 2006).

 

But ongoing dynamics like these are always hyper-real for Natives and descendants of enslaved Africans in what is currently called the United States of America. A recently published exposé in High Country News, for example, reveals how the U. S. government deceived and coerced approximately 250 tribes to seize 11,000,000 acres of land in the making of America’s public universities. These institutions of higher education, some of which were built by enslaved people, also maintain campus police forces with longstanding histories of racialized terror against Black and Indigenous students. Because the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established these institutions requires the tracking of monies raised from university lands in perpetuity, researchers have been able to calculate their exact value at almost $500,000,000 when adjusting for inflation. The enormity of wealth stolen from these still extant tribes—the amount of which does not include endowment interest, building and land improvements, athletics income, or returns on intellectual property generation—seems especially poignant given the significant disparities in spending and funding exposed by COVID-19, which overwhelmingly affects Native and Black populations in disproportionate ways, to say nothing of university reparations owed to Black students and faculty also.

 

If colonialism’s projects are context-specific (even as its reach remains global), then white North American scholars must be especially vigilant in discussions around decolonizing education systems given the irreducible entanglements between Native dispossession and university infrastructures built by enslaved Africans. Like Black peoples whose lives are circumscribed by the afterlife of slavery (Sharpe 2016), Native peoples also still exist in spite of colonialism and its afterlives. The genocide of Natives and the ongoing theft of their lands and resources combined with the hyper-visible onslaught of police brutality against Black Americans (matters of “life and death”) work to unsettle settler-colonial divisions between the socio-political and the epistemic.

 

In exposing these disparities and terrestrial defalcations as they affect the original peoples of Turtle Island and the descendants of enslaved Africans (who have continually experienced successive waves of crises since European invasion), I hope to lift up exactly what’s at stake in discussions around the material and epistemological invocations of decolonization—which in the end are coterminous for colonized people still living in North America. These crises involve land and they involve persons, but they also involve politics of knowledge production that make religious studies—and the humanities—possible.

 

While Mignolo et al’s collective on Modernity/Coloniality remains perhaps the most popular iteration of “decolonial theory” in academe, decolonial discourse as it relates to knowledge involves a much larger set of conversations in the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean, where Indigenous and Black peoples unlink from the hegemonic values, disciplines, and methods of Eurowestern knowledge production (Wynter 1994; Diop 1974; Sefa Dei 2019; Grosfoguel 2011; Mbembe 2015). Decoloniality can thus be seen as an intentional movement away from race/ist colonial hegemony via the processes of epistemic disobedience, reclamation, and reconstitution—not reform. Bolivian feminist and Indigenous activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, for example, describes decoloniality as form “sweeping counterhegemonic strategies” that draw their inspiration from the past towards new Indigenous futurities (2012, 95-96). As Cusicanqui and many others point out (Cheah 2006; Pappas 2017; Noxolo 2017; Esson et al 2017), adopting decolonial theory as a fashionable methodology “without altering anything of the relations of force in the ‘palaces’ of empire” reproduces the same racialized coloniality it seeks to undo (Cusicanqui, 98).

 

Nye agrees that decolonizing religion means much more than merely expanding one’s reading list. He wants us to employ practical ways of relating religion’s role in the formation of colonial knowledge-complexes and to account for the discipline’s contrapuntal relations with race and racialization (Nye 2019). Multiple iterations of decolonial theory stress that knowledge generation is never non-political or value-neutral. If scholars are serious about decolonizing religious studies—and I hope we do take Nye’s invitation seriously—then this would at least mean taking responsibility for how universities not only traffic in but depend upon ongoing violence against Black and Native bodies of knowledge.


References

Aikenhead, G. S., Ogawa, M. (2007). Indigenous knowledge and science revisited. Cultural Studies of Science Education 2, 539-620.

Byrd, J. A. (2014). Arriving on a different Shore: US empire at Its horizons. College Literature 41(1), 174-181.

Byrd, J. A., & Rothberg, M. (2011). Between subalternity and indigeneity: Critical categories for postcolonial studies. Interventions 13(1), 1-12.

Corntassel, J. (2012). Re-envisioning pesurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1), 86-101.

Corntassel, J., & Hardbarger, T. (2019). Educate to perpetuate: Land-based pedagogies and community resurgence. International Review of Education 65(87), 87-116.

Diop, C. A. (1974). The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality (M. Cook, Trans.). New York, NY: Lawrence Hill & Company.

Grosfoguel, R. (2011). Decolonising post-colonial studies and paradigms of political economy: Transmodernity, decolonial thinking, and global coloniality. Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1(1), 1-36.

Mbembe, A. (2015). Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive. Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Nye, M. (2019). Decolonizing the study of religion. Open Library of Humanities 5(1): 1-45.

Nye, M. (2019). Race and religion: Postcolonial formations of power and whiteness. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 31: 210-237.

Nixon, R. (2010). Unimagined communities: Developmental refugees, megadams and monumental modernity. New Formations (69), Summer, 62-80.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3): 1-25.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.

Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Decolonizing the Study of Religion

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be familiar with the critique of the category of ‘religion’. Our podcasts with, for example, Naomi Goldenberg, James Cox, and Tim Fitzgerald, demonstrate that ‘religion’ is a distorting anachronism with roots in European colonial exploitation that has been utilized to justify the cultural superiority of Christian Europe, and is at base ‘a citation of Christianity as idealized prototype’ (Goldenberg 2018: 80). But what might it mean to decolonize the study of religion? How can we take this well-rehearsed critique and put it into practice?

In this podcast, Chris is joined by Malory Nye to discuss the decolonizing project. Why is it necessary? Should we speak of decolonizing rather than decolonization? How can the field address its whiteness, and its colonial origins and legacy? What are the theoretical, methodological, historical and pedagogical challenges that this might entail? How can ‘we’ ensure that this is a thorough decolonizing project and not merely a nod to neoliberal higher education agendas? And what can those of us who have limited time and resources at our disposal do to address this urgent and thoroughly pervasive problem with the study of religion? These questions and more animate this broad-ranging discussion with the author of Religion: The Basics, and two key journal articles – “Race and religion: postcolonial formations of power and whiteness” and “Decolonizing the Study of Religion”.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Decolonising the Study of Religion

Podcast with Malory Nye (30 June 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/decolonising-the-study-of-religion/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Regular Listeners to the Religious Studies Project will probably be quite familiar with the critique that the whole notion of the category of religion, and particularly the development of the world religions paradigm, is tied to a history of colonialism, exploitation and is built upon Western, European, Protestant Christian models, and so on. Though also, possibly, if you’ve listened back in our catalogue to an interview we had with Rudy Busto, you’re familiar with the idea that just as religion is a constructed and problematic category, so too is the notion of race. And joining me today to discuss something which grows out of both of these arguments is Malory Nye. And we’re going to be discussing decolonising the study of religion and what it might mean for us to decolonise the study of religion. And to sort-of own, and build from, and move on from the problematic entanglement of the study of religion with colonialism, racism, and exploitation. Malory Nye is an independent scholar, based in Perth in Scotland, with teaching activities at the Universities of Glasgow and Sterling. And he’s also a research scholar at the Ronin Institute. And he’ll be known to many Listeners through his book, Religion: The Basics, which is now being updated for a third edition; or perhaps, his blogging at Medium.com; his podcasts Religion Bites and History’s Ink; or through his editorship of the journal, Culture and Religion. Of particular relevance to today’s podcast are his 2019 articles, “Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness“, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, and, “Decolonizing the Study of Religion“, in Open Library of Humanities. So that’s the topic of today’s interview. And also his forthcoming book with Bloomsbury, which is due out later this year – entitled Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Difference – which I’m very excited to get my hands on when it comes out. So first off, Malory, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Malory Nye (MN): Well, thanks very much! It’s very good to be here. Thanks for inviting me on.

CC: Not a problem. We’re recording at Edinburgh, just before you’re going to give a paper, in the Religious Studies research seminar, on the topic of today’s interview. But before we get into the meat of it, I suppose there’s a few key things to get out of the way. What does decolonisation mean? Or decolonising? I think you want to make a distinction between those two notions. And then, also –although I said Listeners would be familiar with the entanglement of the categories of religion and race with colonialism etc., it might be good for us to begin with a reiteration of those critiques.

MN: Well, yes. They’re big questions. We could probably spend most of the time just on those, even before we get to the substance of that. Decolonising – I put it in the active, rather than decolonisation. It’s not something that’s going to happen, as a thing, and we can say “Great, we’ve done it! We’ve ticked that off. We’ve achieved the metrics.” Of course decolonisation, or decolonising, has become one of those buzz words on the left of academia. It’s become a word like “intersectionality”. “Let’s decolonise so and so.” And very often this is picked up by the management, by the universities, as an aspiration to show that universities can attract the right sort of students, can show that they’re meeting their so-called “woke” credentials of being fair, being just, showing that they’ve got diversity. Now, for me, decolonisation and a decolonising approach is a lot more profound than that. Of course decolonisation refers to something that happened politically, economically, structurally in the mid-twentieth century. The end of the European empire or the formal European empires, such as the British leaving South Asia, the Malay Peninsula, from Africa, and so on. Newly-formed independent countries becoming de-colonial countries. It happened also with France and other European powers. And so, of course, from that we’ve got the famous French scholar Fanon, also Albert Memmi, writing about the decolonising process (5:00). And emerging from that a wave of African scholars – Mbembe, Ngugi, and so on – talking about, what does it mean to be a decolonised person, to be a decolonised nation, to be a decolonised culture? And those question have not gone away. Now, as I talk about that political process, there is also the rise across political studies, post-colonial studies, of the idea of settled colonialism. The idea . . . the recognition that that’s fundamental to a lot of the political order of today: settler colonialism, European, predominantly British colonialism, that didn’t de-colonise. That so much of the United States, and Canada, and other former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand/Aortearoa, are the products of that settler colonialism, of people who came and settled, did it through land appropriation, through land theft and usually through displacement and very often genocide of the indigenous peoples. And that is still with us today. And we can only look . . . . Most recently, this week was the week of the Oscars in California. And for the first time, a recipient of an award actually doing a land acknowledgement, acknowledging that the place of the award of the Oscars is on the land of people who were former holders of that land. And still are. Always are, always were. Always were, always will be. That settler colonialism is part and parcel of the current world system, and decolonisation, or decolonising, is also a recognition that the structures of colonialism might have been decolonised formally, but are also very much in place within the world that we live in today: economic colonisation, cultural imperialism. And I follow writers such as Mignolo and Quijano who argue that we’re in a new form of colonial modernity, that’s coloniality modernity, that is not the same as it was, say, a hundred years ago. But the idea of knowledge, of science, of politics, of economics, of world structures being very much about supporting a particular power interest. And that’s very much a sort-of European power interest. So decolonisation is arguing, in many respects, what does a world look like if we challenge that, if we go beyond that? Particularly in the sphere of academia – what we’re doing as academics – whether it be in the study of people in terms of sociology, political science, history, English studies, literature, or within the specific studies of religion. What does decolonising mean, once we recognise the current situation, and the history that got us to where we are now? So that’s not sort-of a simple process. That is a very large process. Understanding the history, understanding the present and understanding the people and things that we’re studying within the context of all that history and all that politics. And – just in this initial introduction – to also recognise that this isn’t just simply a game: it’s not just simply a matter of putting a woke badge on, about putting decolonising on your syllabus, or decolonising your curriculum. It is about recognising it’s not a metaphor – Eve Tuck – this argument that decolonisation is a matter of life and death. It’s something that, as I said, in terms of settlement, in terms of land, in terms of genocide, in terms of the political structures of today, decolonising is recognising the violence, recognising the injustice, recognising the problems of today’s world and trying to think of ways in which we can decolonise the knowledge systems behind that. And that’s sort-of where my work is trying to challenge some of the ways in which we take what we’re doing for granted, in terms of the idea of religion, in terms of studies of religion. And so that sort-of answered your first question.

CC: Yes but you’re linking nicely into, then . . . . So, if we’re going to decolonise our knowledge production and the way in which the whole discipline has been built up, or the whole field has been built up, yes, we need to talk a little bit about what is the history (10:00). So I think, if you could take us through, quite quickly, through the history of these intertwined notions of religion and race as sort-of academic constructs. But then we’ll get onto: so, if we have that critique, and we accept it, and we even teach it – but, what does it mean to teach it? And what does it mean to revise things?

MN: As you said, I think many listeners to the RSP podcasts will be familiar with some of the critiques of the world religions approach. That is so integral to the way the discipline the study of religion is being taught at all levels, from schools, through to universities, and indeed much research. And, particularly, job appointments. World religions is very much the idea that structures how people think about the study of religion: you’re going to be a specialist in a particular topic; you’re going to be in a particular religion, a part of the world, dividing up. And that is part of that history. Of course, Tomoko Masuzawa’s work on the critiquing, or thinking through, how this particular idea of understanding the world – of the pluralism, the diversity, the universalism of nineteenth century European thought – produced that world religions paradigm. And, of course, part-and-parcel with that, the structures of empire, the structures of racism within the empire. And both these evolved, of course, together. They developed together in the nineteenth and twentieth century at the height of the European industrial empire, structural empire. But of course it was slowly forming in the long period from round about the 1500s onwards, following the growth of European colonialism under the Spanish, under the Portuguese, and then under the Dutch. The British, the Germans and the French implemented it in various ways, of course: through industrial chattel enslavement, through the slave trade; through the creation of different people under different rubrics, under racialised rubrics of creating Africans, creating Asians; creating religions or non-religions that go with them; the “primitive” religions – Hinduism, Buddhism – that then became the technology of knowledge, the technology that structured the Empire. Through, too, its systematisation in the nineteenth century, as I said, with the formation of the world religions paradigm, and the slight displacement of the theological centrality of Christianity within the academy – which of course, in the 20th century, became the field of Religious Studies. So it’s got relatively short roots in the crystallisation in the disciplines that we know today, such as Religious Studies, but very long roots in terms of the formation of these ideas of religion and race as somehow separate but intertwined, very much; ways of thinking about difference and ways in which that difference could be managed by the states, by empires, under colonial rule.

CC: And as you pointed out in some of your writing, Religious Studies, as it emerged, whether it’s called Religious Studies, or Study of Religion or whatever, it became the study of the “other”. I guess in the UK context we have Theology – or here we’re in a School of Divinity – and Religious Studies becomes the place where the “other stuff” is studied, under these headings of the different isms. But even things like Philosophy – you pointed out that, well, we’ll have Philosophy departments which are effectively Western European Philosophy departments, and then people who are specialists in philosophies from other regions, or associated with other traditions, find themselves in the Study of Religions department, in some way teaching that philosophy, rather than in Philosophy. So it is sort-of built into the structure of the way disciplines, and fields, and departments work as well.

MN: Yes, I mean these are huge debates, going across much of the Humanities. Is Philosophy just simply white philosophy or European philosophy? And added to that is the question, were the Greeks Europeans? Can we really count the Greek and the classical world? This is a big debate going on in Classics: where does the classical world end? Were the Egyptians part of that classical world? The classical Egyptians, the ancient . . . .

CC: Yes.

MN: And so on. (15:00) But also, in terms of Philosophy, what about the great philosophical systems? How European philosophy has been defined can perhaps include Chinese philosophies, Indian, South Asian philosophies, indigenous African philosophies, and so on. It’s very much about boundary maintenance within all of these fields. Religious Studies has been a little bit more eclectic. And this, perhaps, sort-of is one of the reasons why I was attracted to it as an anthropologist. It hasn’t sought to put the walls around what Religious Studies is doing in the way that Philosophy has, in terms of whiteness, in terms of the great white tradition, or white civilisation tradition, that Philosophy has, and Classics has. Rather it’s sort-of like, as you said, “the other” – and here I’m waving my fingers about – the otherness of South Asians, of other traditions than Europeans. And it has been constructed in that way. It’s not an accident that that’s happened as you said. Thinking through the way in which Sociology became, in a sense, the home of white European society, or the study of white European society – or derived society – in North America. And Anthropology became the study of anything that goes beyond that. So we can go to look at the debates happening in Sociology at the moment, trying to re-find or rediscover the disciplinary history of Sociology, particularly with the writer WEB Du Bois who has been excluded from the history of the telling of the history of Sociology, although his Atlanta school in the late nineteenth century, earlier twentieth century predates many of the founders, such as Robert Park’s in Sociology, in Chicago. He was one of the first sociologists. But because he wrote about black sociology, African American sociology, he has been sort-of left out of that history. Because it doesn’t fit within the idea of the study being about white European society, or however it might be defined. Of course there were structural racism and actual racism involved. He couldn’t be a great sociologist being a person of colour, being an African American. The idea that somehow he couldn’t be one of that canon of the great men because he was perceived to be of the wrong colour, racialised differently. So religious Studies has that as its starting point, studying beyond. And it has revelled, it has celebrated its positon as being about studying people who are different from white Christianity, people who are different from the norms of white European society, of white society. But yet, it has stumbled in its simplicity, I’d say, of trying to deal with that. And particularly it has largely ignored these questions of race and racialisation. The questions up until quite recently – the last few decades of Empire and colonialism – have been left off the table, as they were in anthropology, up until the 1980s and 1990s. And the question of how to understand that, and put that into practice, in terms of the people that Religious Studies has been looking to try and understand, to write about, to empathise with, to engage with – either as insiders or outsiders – and so on within the field of the study of religion. These issues just have not been addressed. And particularly I’d put that, the centrality of whiteness, within the field of Religious Studies. Although up until the eighties there were a few scholars of colour – people of colour doing scholarship in the study of religion – very often on the fringes. In Japan, if we look at the histories of Religious Studies, up until the seventies and eighties, there were small numbers of people of colour, but most of the big questions and the research agendas go back to people such as, of course, in Britain, Ninian Smart and similar white scholars in North America. And that has set the agenda for where we are today. So it’s no surprise that questions of race and colonialism have been sort-of put aside as well. Putting aside, of course, the funding issues, the universities . . . and, as I said, in today’s world perhaps you might get funding for talking about decolonising or decolonisation from a beneficent university. Back in the sixties and seventies, you were less likely to ask the critical race questions of the study of religion (20:00). And these questions of whiteness, there’s been a lot of work being done in Legal Studies, in Sociology, in Political Studies, which is yet to even start to be discussed in the field of Religious Studies. I see it somewhere on the fringes. There are people beginning to put this as a research agenda. There’s certainly no texts. No introductory texts are really taking this history, these research questions, these issues of race and colonialism alongside, of course, an intersectional interest in how this works in terms of gender and other structural issues: gender is created by race, and race is created by gender and colonialism and our history – how all these things go together. The field of Gender Studies is beginning to develop, and it needs to develop in terms of how it works with race and colonialism as well.

CC: That’s excellent, thanks. And what I’ve often discovered, you know, plenty of the studies or books or courses and what-not will pay lip-service to the . . . they’ll say “Religion is a constructed category, bound up in colonial history and referring to Protestant Christianity.” And then, “Let’s just get on with using it, just like we would normally do.” That’s something that we should try and avoid! Also in my own teaching, I’ve got a course here on Atheism, Humanism and Non-religion, I’m aware that everyone I’m looking at is white. I’ve put a week into the course structure where I focus on issues of gender and ethnicity into one week – which isn’t an ideal solution. It’s my first attempt to go “Right, at least raise that this is an issue, and let’s try and think about it.” But I didn’t have the time, or skill, or expertise to properly infuse it throughout the course. So what can we do to avoid simply just pulling up another chair at the table, and saying, “You can have a voice in here, too”? Or just saying, “We’ll nod that to that as an issue. We’ll acknowledge it, but not really do very much with it.” What can we do?

MN: OK, so . . . .

CC: (Laughs) How do we decolonise the Study of Religion?

MN: I’ve been quite mild, I would say, in terms of where I’ve been going so far. Some of things I know have sort-of got quite radical edges. But the idea of decolonising, as I said, is not just simply doing something performative that is seen as being good, and it will add a little bit extra to your syllabus, or your thinking, or your bibliography. And as I put it in my most recent article on decolonisation, it’s not about an extra chair at the table, it’s about changing the whole damn room. It’s about getting rid of the tables, reconstructing the tables, doing whatever you want. But decolonising is saying that what we’re doing at the moment is wrong, is not working. And that, for me, has implications that I’m still trying to work out in terms of . . . like that word “religion”. You know, should we be talking about religion, and faith, and sacredness, and all these things? Even if it is a native . . . even if it is an insider category, it’s got such huge historical and political baggage to it. Should we not just simply say we’re going to try and deconstruct it? I know this is an argument: what do we do after we’ve deconstructed it? What then? Well, we carry on deconstructing. There’s that long discussion we have following one of your earlier interviews with Tim. There’s a lot more to be done in terms of trying to put the idea of religion . . . in terms of these categories of race and religion. So if we’re struggling, I would say, to find a reading – even if we put it in those simplistic terms of: why is my curriculum white? – #whyismycurriculumwhite – the big question in decolonising . . . which is quite a straightforward thing if we’re looking at say the English Studies canon, because there’s plenty of English literature that is written by people racialised as non-white. If we’re doing it there, that might be quite easy. We can even do that in broad terms, if we look hard enough, in terms of the history of the Study of Religion (25:00). And, as I said, the history, the development of the discipline isn’t solely by people who racialise themselves as white European and North American white, and so on. We can do that, but I would say, “Step back further, and ask the question, ‘What are the questions I’m asking here, that lead to this body of knowledge that I’m choosing to teach, or to write about, or to research?’” If there is not this engagement with race theory, intersectional theory, gender theory, queer theory and so on, in what I’m doing, perhaps – and here, as I said, I’m getting quite radical – maybe we’re doing it wrong? I’d say we are doing it wrong, if we’re not doing the race theory, if we’re not doing the intersectional gender theory, and seeing how it works within the contexts. And I don’t mean just simply saying having a week at looking at queer theory and non-belief – I’m sure it can be done – or race theory and non-belief. It’s about saying, “How does that change all the questions I’ve got? And how does it change how the people I want to teach, I want to write for, I want to engage with . . . how does it change all of that? So even if that means us having to take a sabbatical, and reading it up, to try and formulate those questions to our field of research, I’d say that’s time well worth spending. Because otherwise we’re leaving out the big elephant in the room – what I call the white elephant in the room. Or, put it another way: in white club, the first rule of white club is that we don’t talk about whiteness. Because we just assume it’s there. It’s invisible. It’s an empty space. But it is so much feeding into the questions that we’re asking. As I say all this, I’m very conscious: here we are, two white men, sitting in a room talking about whiteness. There’s no celebration here of the fact that two men, after centuries of scholarship, have finally got together and started talking about whiteness. It should have happened two hundred and fifty plus years ago, that this consciousness of how it’s going. . . . But it is also about recognising that the perspectives that I’m bringing, that others are bringing, other white scholars and so on, is only part of a much bigger picture. And it is about recognising that there is a lot of scholarship going on which is directly bearing on whatever we’re doing, and a lot of that is by marginalised people in the academy. Very often people who don’t have fulltime jobs, don’t have job security, because they’re marginalised in terms of their place in the academy, and also because of their race, their racialisation, their colour, their gender, and other issues. It’s a very harsh, hostile environment, I’d say, for people working within the field, within the intersections, between these sorts of areas. And the question is, why aren’t we using their scholarship more? Do we have to go back to the learned professor who’s got there, and we all recognise them and . . . . I’ll take one example, Charles Taylor. If you want to talk about secularism, everybody goes to Taylor. Now he’s a great scholar, he says some great things. I was just recently looking at Vincent Lloyd’s work on secularisms and race, and how the idea of secularity . . . how the idea of the secular state is a thoroughly racialised idea. But there’s nothing in Taylor about that. There is nothing in Taylor that sort-of explores the way secularisation is defined as a white space, as a place for whiteness in America to be expressed. And then how that becomes racialised against other categories such as religion and church, and black churches. It comes down to a particular example of Martin Luther King becoming this folk hero of post-racialisation, where the Martin Luther King monument, in Washington, doesn’t mention his many statements about race and race equality, and doesn’t even mention much of his preaching as a Christian minister. So, going back to what I was saying: look for the scholarship, look for what marginalised voices are saying within a particular sphere, and see how that bears – I mean, whether it be looking in terms of people of colour, women of colour, queer people of colour – how is that challenging what you’re doing? Even if you don’t agree with it (30:00). But how is that challenging? And, of course, pass that on. Amplify it, in terms of scholarship, in terms of teaching. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, and I’m not saying “Here’s a white fellow saying that you’ve got to do this,” and whatever. I’m just saying that I see my position as somebody who’s lived with a lot of privilege within the academy, because of being structurally in this particular place of being a white man at the time when it favoured people such as myself. It still does. Stand back and think, “Well, what can I do to challenge those structures, to challenge the thinking that has brought me to where I am?” And engage with that thinking. Engage with how that relates to how you’d like to see your study of religion. And to see the Study of Religion as something that recognises its past, recognises its racialisation, recognises how the very critical concepts that we’ve got are so rooted, so blood-soaked with that colonial history – the violence and, of course, the current politics of today. We’re not detached from it, even if we’re well-meaning enough to put ourselves aside from it.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up on time. But I think, as a final question, I would want to ask you, yeah . . . so you’ve been getting at it there, and I was hinting at it as well. I think we both, in this room, and many of our Listeners will be thinking, “Yes, I want to not just diversify my knowledge-base, but also radically rethink a lot of the assumptions that I’m bringing to my work, and be more conscious of a lot of these issues, and the entanglements of the Study of Religion with racism, exploitation with whiteness, maleness. I want to be that better scholar. I want to do it. But when am I going to find the time? What am I going to do? How can I do that if I don’t have the luxury of having that sabbatical?” Or that sort of thing. I guess, as a final question for people like me who want to do better, but don’t even really know – apart from to go and do a Masters in Gender Studies or Critical Race Theory, or so on – are there any, like, key things – key texts, or key scholars, or key departments that are doing great work in this area – things where you can maybe say, “Well if you’ve not got that much time, this would be a great place to start.” Apart from your book, of course – which is naturally a place people should go to, as well!

MN: I must add a caveat on top of what you said at the beginning. It’s 2020 that we’re talking here, early 2020. We’re not going to see the book out this year, unfortunately. So I was seriously ill last year, and a lot of things have been knocked back. And I’m still working on the revisions for my Religion: The Basics book, which hopefully will be out . . . or at least ready to be out by the end of this year. I’m not saying that my book’s going to be the only place to explore these issues. There is a lot of good scholarship. And I’m trying to put this together. And that’s part of what my blogging is trying to do. Not just simply to say, “Here’s what Malory Nye’s got to say about these things.” But point to the great scholarship that . . . .

CC: That you’re encountering.

MN: Yes, sitting on the shoulders of. And trying to say, “Have you noticed this?” Basically. “This is going on.” So, I won’t give a list here, but there are long bibliographies. I’d also say, ask some basic questions. It’s not just simply “Have you read Du Bois? Or have you read Vincent Lloyd? Or have you read some of these great volumes that are coming out about race and religion? Have you read about this wealth of scholarship about decolonising and decolonisation? But also ask some basic questions about what you’re doing. And this is part of what I did in that paper on “Decolonising the Study of Religion”. I picked up one text that I’ve sort-of dipped into and never taught, thank goodness, but dipped into Daniel Pal’s book, Seven Theories / Nine Theories of Religion. And I was hugely depressed to read one particular part of it. I’ve not gone much further. I’m toying with the idea of doing a more substantial critique (35:00). But his discussion of Durkheim as a theory- Durkheim’s theory of religion. I’ve got nothing against Durkheim and his theory of religion – apart from the gross colonialism and racism of the work, taking this particular group in Central Australia, indigenous people, and saying they are indicative, they are representative of humankind’s early history. That they are the primitive elementary form of the religious life. Now that was Durkheim back in the beginning of the twentieth century, where it was OK to be a racist.

CC: Yes, he could maybe be forgiven for being a product of his time in some way – but we can still know it’s not ok.

MN: This is the time of Du Bois, as well. It’s not to say that he should be given a free pass on that. But my problem is more of Pal’s amplifying that racism, in a book that’s still being published, saying that Durkheim is taking this as representative of the sort-of primitive stage of humankind – these people who were, at that point, being displaced, who were being herded into camps, whose children were being stolen from them in Central Australia, somehow being classified as this great sort-of representation of early humanity – that can tell us about what religion is about. And I would just simply say, “Ask some basic questions. If this seems racist, it is racist.” As simple as that. Is this amplifying, is this demonstrating the racism of colonialism or the colonialism of racism? I use a lot Patrick Wolfe’s phrase, “Race is colonialism speaking”. Whenever we talk about race, there is colonialism. And we see this today in the politics of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, all this. That goes back to what Quijano, and all these others, are saying about colonial modernity. It’s all there. It all being reproduced and it’s being reproduced in scholarship as much as it’s being reproduced in world politics, of policy of Africa. So what I’m saying is, ask these questions. And if you’ve got further questions there is no simple answers. I sort-of thought I should hold this as an idea that I’d like to develop. Nobody’s got the monopoly on these things. I’d like to put together another Seven Theories of Religion which go completely against the grain of Daniel Pal’s: writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, W. Du Bois, and so on. Writers who challenge our concepts of religion, and what religion is, and even the idea that religion is this thing that we can define, and explain, and talk about, and talk about its functions. Ways in which the idea of religion is a historical sort-of product of colonialism – what we talk about as that. And, of course, Tomoko Masuzawa is one of those people who has done that in a very sort-of blinding way, in terms of pushing through a particular understanding of: this is how we got to where we are, in talking about this. So I’d love to sort-of say, “Here’s a great place to start,” whether it was written by me, or written by some other scholar who could probably do it a lot better than I could. But ask these questions. And google is your friend, there! Google scholar is your friend, in terms of finding that scholarship on decolonisation. There is a lot of it out there. But one of the people I take huge inspiration from is the scholar Sarah Ahmed who was previously at Goldsmith’s college, before she resigned over issues of student dealing with sexual harassment and assault. But now has become an independent scholar who blogs very regularly. She’s just recently done a lot of work on complaint in the university. But her most recent book is Living a Feminist Life, based on her feministkilljoy blog, which I would strongly recommend – both the book and the blog. And there’s a particularly good one, on the site, I use about white men saying that it is so easy – going back to what I was saying about Taylor and others: white men cite other white men. And if we go along with that game we’re reproducing not just an event, we’re reproducing the whole structure of white patriarchy, of a colonial modernity within our scholarship. And, as I said, work against the grain of that as much as you can, in terms of the questions that you ask, and the people that you choose to read. That’s not to say it’s an easy task. It’s one . . . I don’t think that there’s a lot of time for any of us to do that.

CC: It’s a life-long task. And one that will probably never be possible to complete (40:00). But Malory, you’ve left us with some . . . a lot of in-depth material, but also a lot of questions that can, and should, be taken to basically everything that anyone who’s listening to this is working on! So, with that, this podcast has served a double purpose, at least – if not more! So, thanks very much.

MN: OK. Well thanks very much, too. I mean look out for my third edition of Religion: The Basics when it comes out. I will be dealing with a lot of these issues, briefly, in that. And that’s part of the problem why it’s taken so long. I was asked to get working on that about eight years ago and it’s still in process. But, yes, my book on Race and Religion – or whatever it may be called in the end – that should be appearing in the next few years, anyway.

CC: Fantastic. We look forward to it.

MN: Thanks very much.

 

 

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The Gods of Indian Country

Dr. Jennifer Graber’s new book, “The Gods of Indian Country,” grew out of lingering questions from her first book, a study of American Quakers and prisons. Graber learned that Quakers served as missionaries to Native American reservations in the West. She combined this interest in Quaker missions with her research into Native American captivity, so that the resulting narrative contrasts the motives of U.S. officials with Kiowa captives on an Oklahoma reservation. The main claim of Graber’s book is that there were two “gods” of Indian Country — the religious beliefs of the Kiowas (onto which Western explorers superimposed monotheistic terms like “Great Spirit”) versus the Christianity of Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Religion in Graber’s narrative emerges as a site of contestation in the creation of the American West.

Using Kiowa material culture and artwork, which Kiowas used to record their history in non-alphabetic ways, Graber shows how the Kiowas adjusted their religious beliefs through contact with the Comanches and other Great Plains Indian nations, as well as the Americans, during the nineteenth century. Kiowas embraced new religious practices, such as the Sun Dance and the two Ghost Dance movements, to gain spiritual power, “dwdw,” which could be used to repel American invaders. The Red River War of 1874–75 failed to reclaim Indian Country, but Graber cautions her readers not to read inevitable defeat into this narrative. Letters, drawings, and other objects mailed to the reservation reveal how, after the war, Kiowa men in prison and Kiowa children in boarding schools made sense of their dislocation and retained their culture. Kiowa religion to this day remains an effort to rectify the world.

Dr. Graber shows how colonists cloak violence beneath a veneer of gentility and conquered peoples use religion to preserve their sense of community. This book provides a powerful argument against U.S. “nation-building” and the use of state power to break up families — something that the Trump administration is currently doing to Hispanic migrant families along the southern border.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pickles, duct tape, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The Gods of Indian Country

Podcast with Jennifer Graber (17 September 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Graber_-_The_Gods_of_Indian_Country_1.1

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): So I understand it’s very hot in Texas, Dr Graber!

Jennifer Graber (JG): It is! It’s about 100 degrees here, today!

DG: Now it’s making me wish for a never-ending winter. I’m calling from, practically, Canada!

JG: OK. That’s right!

DG: So today we’re going to be talking about your new book, The God’s of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in studying Native American history – particularly since your previous project was looking at Quakers and prisons?

JG: So the connection actually is prisons. And when I was doing research for my first book, which is on Antebellum prisons, I came across several stories in which I’d read about Native people being incarcerated after they had participated in uprisings, or other sorts of military uprisings, with the Americans. And the more I read into these stories I became curious about following up on them, after my first book was finished. And as I began to read a little bit about some of these episodes I found that religious reformers and missionaries were often active in forms of ministry to incarcerated Native people. And so that actually sounded a lot like some of the stories from my first book. And so, actually, prison was really the connection. But then I also . . . my very first job at a liberal arts college, I was asked to teach a course on Native American Religions. My predecessor in the job had taught such a class and it was really popular – and when you’re a young untenured faculty member you kind-of say “yes” to a lot of things!

DG: Yes!

JG: So I agreed to teach a semester-long class on Native American religions, which meant I needed to do a lot of research to prepare. And what I found was that the more research I did to prepare for that class, it helped me to understand a little bit more about what was going on in these episodes of Native incarceration that I was already interested in. And that’s kind-of how those two things came together.

DG: I see. So, well, this is jumping more to the topical elements of your book. We’re talking about the experience of incarcerated persons – I was seeing on the news this morning about the incarceration of migrant children at the border, and this sort-of perverted school that they make the children attend, where they’re inculcating them with American values, even while they can’t leave these prison camps. And I was just curious, with this book about reservations, do you see it as having import for what we’re going through right now?

JG: I do and there’s a very kind-of particular element, because I think we talk about the connection between incarceration and education in a couple of different ways, currently. The way that you’re talking about, in terms of children who are either seeking asylum or who have immigration cases being adjudicated while they’re being incarcerated, they have experience of educational structures kind-of put in place: forms of incarceration for migrants. But then also we talk about the connections between education and incarceration when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. When it comes to youth in cities, especially folks who are African American or Latino, who’ll find themselves disciplined in their educational settings, and being moved into forms of disciplined . . . or actually through the legal structure in the United States, or through policing. And I think there’s a precedent in the 19th century and you can see it in Native history, but it’s actually reversed. One thing I noticed about the 19th century, and the way that these things are connected to Native people, is that it’s a prison-to-school pipeline, instead.

DG: Interesting.

JG: Insofar as some Native people who are incarcerated – in a particular instance in my book they’re incarcerated after the 1874 Red River War – they were sent to a military prison, in this case. And an officer in the army administrated this prison, and put in place several forms of discipline that he thought to be very effective. He changed people’s hairstyles, he changed people’s clothing, he made people go to church, he made people go to class. And then, after this period of incarceration was over, he found this experiment to be so successful and so compelling that he then bought a military barracks and opened the very first off-reservation boarding school. He modelled that boarding school on the military prison that he had administered in earlier years. So it’s actually a kind of reversal. It’s a prison-to-school pipeline instead. But you can see how those structures are connected.

DG: Absolutely. And one thing I’ve been thinking about in some of my own research, looking at Philadelphia: you had the ethnic Jewish neighbourhood near the docks, but not far from that was one of the major boarding schools for Native Americans. So one thing that’s always struck me was that you had these children being transported thousands of miles to a completely new urban environment. I can’t imagine what the dislocation would be like.

JG: Right, and actually there’s one thing we have evidence of – which I find very compelling and really heart-breaking – we have some examples of letters that Native students in off-reservation boarding schools wrote back to their families on reservations. And then letters that families sent to them, in school. And these are letters in which people are trying to update one another about, you know, who is sick and who is healthy; who has a job; who’s actually living and who might have died – because such periods of times happened between these families being able to be in actual physical contact with each other. And so, there’s a kind-of heart-breaking archive of materials that go back and forth between the reservation and the off-reservation school. And the loneliness that pervades those letters is really . . . it’s very palpable.

DG: Now the story you’re telling – as you mentioned – with Indian Country, is this idea . . . it’s at the intersection of a couple of crumbling empires, France and Spain, and also the New American Empire. So I am curious – these letters that were coming back: what language were they being written in?

JG: So, it’s interesting. I look particularly, in this book, at the Kiowa Indians and at this point of time they don’t have a written language for spoken Kiowa. That doesn’t develop until the 20th century. So when they write letters home some of them were written in English and would have been sent back to the reservation, where they could be read by someone with English-speaking skills – which were just starting to kind-of be more widely held across the population in the last two decades of the 19th century. Sometimes they also wrote them in this pictorial language that mimicked, and put on paper, the motions of Plains Indian sign language. So you could see these visual records, or non-alphabetic writing. And then, of course, for other Indian nations . . . . There were other Indian nations that already had written languages and so they could write back in those languages. Or they could write back in English. But there’s a real variety of ways that people communicated with each other. And then people would also send each other drawings, and sometimes artefacts like moccasins, or other pieces of clothing. So lots of things were circulating between that loop between reservation and off-reservation boarding school.

DG: So, with this book, you mentioned in other interviews that this is a real contribution to material culture – which is, I guess, what historians have been calling archaeology lately. One theory I’ve thought about, when reading your book, was Jules Prown who’s talked about the importance of empathy in writing history: you actually handle the objects, you gain the sensory information, you figure out how they were used. In what environments were you finding these objects? Did you have to go to the Kiowa reservation? Were these in archives across the country?

JG: So, many of these things are actually not in the hands of Kiowa people. There is a tribal museum and there are some artefacts from the 19th century in that museum, but actually very few. So most of the things that I was looking at – things like drawings; tepee covers; shields; calendars, which is this form of historical remembered keeping – they’re in museums. So I spend a lot of time at the National Anthropological Archives, which is part of the Smithsonian institution. They have enormous holding in what we would think of as Plains Indian material culture. So it was there where I interacted with a lot of these materials. But then, other museums around the country have just hundreds and hundreds of Plains Indian drawings. And you can go. And some of those places you’re actually allowed to handle those objects yourself, sometimes those are really restricted – you might only be able to look at them while you’re wearing gloves. Or you might not – they might only make facsimiles available if the items are really very delicate. But they’re all over the place – except in Indian Country.

DG: So what are your views on repatriation, then?

JG: I would . . . I’m a person who would love to see more repatriation of objects and the support of the Native communities repatriating them within their own spaces and on their own terms. There are folks at the Kiowa tribal museum who interact with the Smithsonian, and do work on kind-of some cultural preservation kinds of projects. But there are a lot of Kiowa materials that are very far away from Kiowa people. So, one thing I try to do in my own research is gather digital images of objects that are in other places. And I’m working with the tribal museum to make some of those accessible. And, right now, digital might be one of the forms where we can do that most easily. Repatriation has been a really thorny issue, ever since NAGPRA was passed in the ‘90s. And I think we still have a long way to go.

DG: So we’re talking about this idea of repatriation. This then calls to mind the related concept of, I guess, decentring our narratives about American history. So when I think back to my . . . well, I’m not that old! But when I think of just a few years ago, when I was in High School, there really was no Native American history being taught to us. Even though the narrative of American religion has expanded to include other faiths, Native American religions really aren’t a part of that. I was curious if you’ve thought at all about how we should be teaching Native American religions to children?

JG: Oh that’s great. And I have. So I think there’s a couple of levels on which I could respond to that question. When I teach at UTE, the University of Texas, I have lots and lots of students who also have had very little background in their . . . at least their high school years, with Native American history. Many of them do a unit in their Texas history class about Native nations that had either occupied or moved through what became Texas – but it’s very much a pre-colonial story. And then, once there are kind-of Texans here, Native people disappear from that story – which is part of Texas history, actually. So what I find is that students are really eager to learn more. And one thing I’ve done in my classes at UTE is just up the number of lectures and syllabus content percentage that cover Native materials. So, I begin my class on American Religious history at Cahokia, in the high middle ages, and we start with a major Native city along the Mississippian. Many of my student are really surprised that we start, you know, in the year 1100. But that’s where we start. And I actually, this past year, ended the class with the protest at Standing Rock. So I wanted to try to push deeper into Native past in North America, but also not allow Native people to disappear, once we get into the 20th and 21st century. But I can also think about this question . . . . Both my children, who just finished 4th and 7th grade, just finished Texas History in public school. And both of them had units that interacted with Native history in Texas. And that’s one where I think, you know, Texas has a particular and really difficult history around Native people. And I think some real honesty about Texans and their real effort to rid the state of Native people in the mid-19th century – we have to grapple with that when we teach this as a part of Texas history. It is Texas history. And I’d love to see a little bit more kind-of grappling with that story.

DG: Well it’s interesting, with you living in Texas. And I’m thinking that many of the major high school textbook companies are also based in Texas. And they’re advancing, well – shall we a say, a conservative reading of American history?

JG: Yes. That’s right. And Texas, of course, is a textbook market that then shapes the national market. There are other states that are interested in the same sort of narrative crafted for Texas. That narrative is also favoured in other places. So what happens in Texas textbooks then happens elsewhere, as well. So actually reshaping that story here, and thinking about that story, has been an important part of a lot of historians who work in universities here in Texas. There’s a kind-of network of us who, at times, go and talk at the Texas Board of Education meetings, at their public hearings, kind-of working on these questions about who is represented, how the past is represented. It’s an uphill battle here.

DG: I was thinking that in April I was in Oklahoma City, and I went to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

JG: Yes.

DG: And you can see there that this battle is being fought in the museum. Because you can tell that it very clearly started as the Cowboy Museum – and now they’re bringing in the Native American exhibits.

JG: Yes. And that’s a really amazing museum, insofar as you’re absolutely right; for a long, long time it was the Cowboy Museum – the National Cowboy Museum.

DG: A story they tell well.

JG: And they have really … the name change that adds Western Heritage, and then kind-of tries to broaden and be more inclusive about who’s within that Western heritage, kind-of mirrors much bigger  trends in public history that are really important. You know . . . and that museum actually had a ton of incredible Plains Indian material culture in their archive! It’s one of the places I went to do research. They have amazing holdings!

DG: That’s not on display.

JG: But it’s not on display – you’re absolutely right. That’s another place where I think they’re taking baby steps, or initial steps, to make a more inclusive story. But there’s still a long way to go.

DG: While I was at the museum they had an exhibition of painting by – I believe he was Muscogee Creek Seminole – his name was Jerome Tiger. He painted in the mid-20th century. And his paintings are distinctive because the figures are . . . it’s a flat background. There’s no sense of depth to the picture. And when I was reading your book and looking at the many photographs of – well, I guess they’re digital scans – of these drawings that Kiowa people made, it’s very similar design with this lack of depth, this flat image.

JG: Yes.

DG: I was curious, have you looked at Kiowa art since the reservation . . . well, I guess we’re still in the reservation period. Rather, have you looked at paintings made in the last 100 years? The art forms that were developing in the 19th century – do they continue?

JG: They do. Actually so . . . there was a set of artists – that have been called by some folks “The Kiowa Five” and, eventually, there was a realisation that there was also a female artist there, and she’s now part of a group called “The Kiowa Six” – artists who grew up and were young children at the end of the 19th century/ turn of the 20th century, and who kind-of inherited many of the artistic traditions. They would have seen people drawing; they would have seen people painting on tepees; they would have seen Kiowa calendars, where people did history; and they would have seen these kinds of artistic practices. They then were sent to school. And one of the places they were sent to school there was a teacher who really tried to help them develop artistic skills, without having them, necessarily, abandon the particular Plains Indian visual style that they had learned as young people. And so there was a kind of school of artists, really popular in the 1920s and 30s, called the Kiowa Five. And there are actually now, in the contemporary period, many Native artists who have a Plains Indian background who kind-of riff on Native art. And they take the kind-of flat presentation that you’re talking about and they bring that into . . . they combine that with contemporary materials. So this idea – that style, that developed on the plains in the 18th and 19th century, on tepees and later on paper – is still being riffed on by Native artists. And it’s pretty exciting.

DG: I remember in the book you don’t talk too much about the materiality of how the drawings were made, so I was curious if you might elaborate a little bit? They’re creating drawings, they’re sending them back from school. Previously they would have been making drawings on buffalo hide. Do you have any information about this transition of Kiowa art forms being done on natural materials, to on the materials that are provided by the American Empire?

JG: Yes. And so . . . it’s that critical moment with contact with the American that brings theses new drawing materials into play. There’s an anthropologist at the Smithsonian who has been trying to find if we have any examples of Kiowa drawing on paper, really, prior to the reservation period. And she has not been able to find any, even though we have ample examples of shields, tepees, buffalo hide – as you suggested. But it was really contact with the Americans, first through the establishment of the reservation, but then also for some Kiowa in the period of incarceration. The man who ran the military prison, where many Kiowas were sent after the Red River War, gave out paper and pencils and coloured pencils as a way for people to pass the time, and later noticed that the Native men were creating these drawings with one another. And then he encouraged them to sell drawing to tourists – which is one of the reasons that they show up in Eastern Seaboard museums so often. So really it’s that contact with Americans that makes paper and pencil available. And, in some ways, there’s a sort of . . . I mean, paper and pencils are just easier to use than buffalo hide! So, in some ways, it just becomes easier to draw, and to paint with these new materials. And the artists just really take up those new materials with gusto.

DG: So I’d like to transition a little bit from the theoretical material to talk about the narrative of the book, in particular.

JG: OK

DG: You begin The Gods of Indian Country with this evocative description of the 1873 Sun Dance on the Sweetwater Reservation, which is newly created in what’s modern Oklahoma. I was thinking of past books on Native American history, for instance, Anthony Wallace’s Death and Rebirth of the Senaca or Tracy Leavelle’s’ The Catholic Calumet – those also start in the middle of a ritual, the way you do. Were you consciously trying . . . . Is this a trope that you were working with? Or is that kind-of an accidental comparison?

JG: You know, that’s interesting that both of those books also begin with a ritual. Actually, my inspiration for this was the beginning of Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street! (Laughs).

DG: Oh, right! That would be the street possession.

JG: Which also began with a ritual and what I remember, when I was trying to figure out how to start the book . . . . Because it’s a book that technically begins in 1803, but I didn’t think actually starting in 1803 was the place to start, because there really wasn’t much contact between Americans and Kiowa, like there’s no contact in that period. So I was thinking about, “How do I set up all that’s at stake in this contact, at least potentially would be at stake, with this contact between Kiowas and Americans?” And this particular Sundance had a lot of witnesses – or not witnesses, necessarily . . . in some ways – witness documents left over, and a lot of anthropological material, ethnographic interviews, where people reflected back on it. So there was a lot of shall-we-say evidence about this particular one. And to me it had a lot of interpretive potential, because it was one where we have the first American – or, at least, the one that we know for sure there’s an American witnessing the ritual. And he wrote so much about it, about his experiences of it. So I started to think that it could be a really great place to start. But I also didn’t want to foreground the Quaker who witnessed it. I didn’t want to foreground his experience. I wanted to try to kind-of make the reader go into the Kiowa world, and not just the Quaker’s world as he experienced the Kiowa. And that made me think about Bob Orsi and how effectively in his book he brings the reader, with this kind-of dramatic story, into the world of the Catholics who are celebrating the Festa for Mount Carmel, in Harlem. And I know people have lots of things to say about the beginning of that book, but I found that book really effective in drawing readers in and bringing them into this question about intercultural encounter. And so, yes, he’s really the inspiration there.

JG: You know, I was not expecting Italian Catholics in Manhattan. But now that you mention it, it does work.

JG: But that’s the joy of Religious Studies, right? You can take reflections on a ritual somewhere and use those tools in a ritual in different part of the world.

DG: Yes, but comparison is tricky. For instance, when I mention the flat drawing without the sense of perspective that you see in European art, my mind originally went to, actually, the drawings that you see in Ancient Egyptian artefacts. And then I was thinking, “Well, is that a fair . . . you know – is that a fair a comparison to make, since they’re so far apart?”

JG: Well it’s interesting. Art historians have really done a lot of heavy-lifting when it comes to interpreting and understanding, Plain Indian visual art. And I think one of the things that they have really argued is to take this art very seriously as art, despite it’s having a different sense of perspective, and despite . . . . Because in the 19th century there were many people, many Americans, when they encountered this art they thought it was childlike and simplistic. And actually, early anthropologists were not interested in it because they wanted to see works on buffalo hide, not paper, right? They didn’t want Native people to be changing. They wanted to preserve this kind-of timeless and older idea that they thought Native people had been performing. They didn’t want to look at this paper stuff which they considered an innovation. So it’s been art historians who have really tried to say, “This is art and we need to take it seriously as art.” In the same way that we, you know – we don’t even question any more whether what ancient Egyptians were creating was art. It’s art, right?

DG: Right.

JG: But it took a longer time for folks to be able to talk that way about Plains Indian art.

DG: One thing I appreciate about your book is that you’re using these . . . . You’re not only using the drawings and paintings as validations of Native American art, you’re also using it to show that they’re recording their history as it’s happening. For instance, you have, after the Osage Indians attack, in 1823 I believe, you have these drawings showing the Kiowa memorialising their dead.

JG: Yes. And that is . . . . Oh sorry, I won’t interrupt!

DG: No it’s alright. I was just getting excited about this! As the book goes on you have just example after example into the reservation period, as their land is being taken away, they’re interpreting their history in a completely different language from the Americans.

JG: Right. And that’s one of the most kind-of pervasive ideas that is part of the whole complex that we talk about in terms of the “vanishing Indian”. The way that Americans were kind-of writing Native people out of the future. And one of the kind-of tropes that would be constantly kind-of brought up in the vanishing Indian rhetoric was, “These are people with no history. They have no sense of their own history.” This would be one of the many reasons that these folks would see that there would be an eventual disappearance of Native people. And so part of what I . . . and I think this is a bit perpetuated by historians who are kind-of unwilling to deal with non-alphabetic sources. There are sources outside of alphabetic and textual sources. And so what I really wanted to do was to push against, or at least show how hard Americans were working to vanish Indians, while at the same time Native People were absolutely creating . . . they were historicising themselves. And they had debates about, “Which events do you memorialise? What’s going to go into the calendar as the most significant event of the year?” And different calendars have different events memorialised. So not only are they keeping that history, they debate that history. Yes. So it was important to me to really frontload those sources and then also kind-of send the message to historians – who often say that it’s difficult to work on Native materials if you don’t have textual or written language in any period – like, “Yes, you can!” You just have to be creative about it.

DG: In designing the layout of book, did you select the position of the images, or did your editors do that?

JG: We kind-of worked together. I usually suggested a placement. And sometimes they took the suggestion and just went with it. And other times we negotiated where things might go. I feel really lucky. From the beginning I asked them for colour plates, like, a section of colour plates. And I was really shocked when they said, “Yes”. So unfortunately the plates can’t be interspersed in the text, just because that would make production very difficult. But I’m really glad they’re there .They mean you have to kind-of tunnel through the text a little bit, when one of those plates comes up. But I’m really glad that it’s present. And one of the things I found early on, with the editors and the outside reviewers, is that they were very open to the placement of especially Kiowa drawings, and Kiowa calendar examples, as ways to reinforce this message that they are documenting themselves, remembering their past, and interpreting their new situations.

DG: There’s an encyclopaedic component to the book, I suppose, in that you’re bringing these images to a wider audience. You also supply an extensive appendix of historical figures from the Kiowa community. I forget the word Wikipedia uses. I think its “disambiguating”. Because you say there are all these name variations. And you put them all in one place for the first time.

JG: Yes. And actually, I worked with an anthropologist who’s been active in Kiowa country for a very long time, and he was very generous. He has worked for a long, long time to collect not only all the possible Kiowa name variations that are possible – because they appear in lots of different ways in different kinds of sources . . . . So he was really vital in my effort to get names spelt correctly, and represented correctly. Because there’s just so many ways, and there’s a long history of Native names being mangled by American authors. So I just wanted to be as careful as I possibly could, and do the best work around naming, and making sure that I could give the best and most thorough account of naming that I could. Because naming is one of the places where I think there’s been shortcuts taken in the work of American history.

DG: What would you say the book’s thesis is?

JG: I’d say it has two. I have a thesis about the Americans who were involved in the process of colonising the Kiowa, and then a thesis about the Kiowa themselves. In terms of the Americans who were operating to colonise Kiowas, I was interested in the folks who saw themselves as a peaceful vanguard coming into Indian country. These were folks who decried what was happening with the military, and when there were the military attacks on Native people, they hated Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Bill. But they were absolutely kind-of foundational and crucial to American expansion. And I think that their effort to designate expansion as a potentially peaceful enterprise was very effective. And it really . . . they very effectively masked other kinds of colonial violence. They weren’t Andrew Jackson, they weren’t Sherman, they didn’t operate in those ways, but they were absolutely essential to the occupation and suppression of Kiowa people, and somehow, very successfully, made that a peaceful process. So that was what I wanted to study about that. Like, how did they effectively take something violent and name it peace, and convince everybody? Because I think they did. I think they convinced other people that this was peaceful. So that’s my main kind-of concern with those folks. I think the thesis in terms of the Kiowa response – I wanted to show that religion was one of the central ways and one of the central places that Kiowas could draw on traditions, but also create these new sorts of rituals to address changing situations. So I wanted to show that there were ways of riffing on the past, and bringing the past into the present. But also those kind-of incredible ritual effects of credibility and creativity that helped them as they tried to resist occupation.

DG: In terms of resistance – you don’t use the word “prophetic” to describe the sort of religious practices that are happening on the reservation: the Sun Dance, the Ghost Dance, eventually experiments with peyote, even interpretations of Christianity. What was your choice not to use the word “prophetic”?

JG: There are a couple of reasons for it. Partly because in the 19th century, and this happened with movements around the United States, that word could be used derisively by Americans. They would talk about maybe a tribal nation that had some sort of revitalisation movement in direct response to American occupation. And they would talk derisively about a prophet who was at the centre of it, right? And usually be meaning “prophet” in scare quotes, like, not a real prophet, but a prophet to these people with bad religion. So I wanted to get away from it because it had been used pejoratively. And then, I think, also there’s so much great work in Religious Studies about varieties of movements in colonial settings where religion is kind-of reimagined to address a colonial situation, that I wanted to draw on language from that work. I felt that those writings – whether they be about colonial era, occupations of parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, or in Australia – that work was really, to me, way more useful, and the language out of those projects was so much more compelling and rich that I thought, “You know what, I just don’t need this word prophet.” It would have been a little easier, right? Like I think when you say, Native American prophecy it communicates something to readers, right. They might think of Tecumseh’s brother and they might think of Handsome Lake. So there’s some effectiveness and usefulness to it but I was willing to kind-of give that up, because I wanted to see if we could do something else with some other kinds of language.

DG: So we’re just about out of time, but we’re almost up to the present, talking about the endurance of Kiowa religion. At the close of your book in the epilogue, you talk about your own journey to Kiowa country in Oklahoma, and witnessing these ceremonies. And, you know, you’re seeing things that outsiders typically don’t. And it’s very fraught to be white person to be present there. How do Kiowa people respond to you wanting to tell their story without being a full member of the community?

JG: Well, when I went to visit, one of the things I always tried to make clear was that I was not an anthropologist: I wasn’t doing interviews, I wasn’t going to quote, I wasn’t taking big observations, I wasn’t trying to be a kind-of classic participant observer. So, in some ways, I didn’t necessarily bear the burden I think that anthropologists often bear, when they go to work within Native communities. I have some friends who are anthropologists in Kiowa communities, and they are people who have these kind-of decades-long sets of relationships. So one thing I tried to make clear was that my story is studying historical sources, but that anyone working in Native American history today also talks about how there’s a responsibility to the present. And you know, Peter Nabokov in his books talks about this: there’s no Native history that doesn’t have a connection to today. So I think one of the things I felt like I needed to do was just to try my best to understand the present, without really asking anything. So when I would go there, I just would do things like show up at church and if folks wanted to talk to me – great! If not – great! And that kind-of helped me. I just started by showing up. I really wanted to be clear about, “I’m not asking for anything”. And I think I just kept showing up enough that I made some friends. And I think, along with that, I’ve always tried to signal that my hope is I will, if anything is desired of me, I will give it back. So you know, I think it’s a different . . . I think when historians are dealing with Native communities, even though you have this kind-of project that’s related on documents from the past and you don’t necessarily ever have to . . . .You know – I could have written this book and never gone to the reservation. But I also feel that by going there, I was able to write about the past with an eye toward the present. Especially because I can see those communal values that I write about in the past, those are still operative, and I witnessed those things. And that was really kind-of powerful, and I think it helped me write a better book.

DG: We have been speaking to Jennifer Graber at the University of Texas, Austin. Thank you very much for your time!

JG: Thanks so much. I had fun!


Citation Info: Graber, Jennifer and Daniel Gorman Jr. 2018. “’The Gods of Indian Country”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 September 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-gods-of-indian-country/

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Intersections of Religion and Feminism

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our editor in charge of sales and marketing, Sammy Bishop.

When asked to choose a podcast to flag up as my ‘editor’s pick’, one immediately sprang to mind: Chris Cotter‘s interview with Dawn Llewellyn on ‘Religion and Feminism‘. Starting on a personal note, this podcast was my initial step toward being involved with the RSP, as it was the first one that I provided a response to; and it was a joy to listen to their conversation.

Not only does the discussion provide a great introduction to how feminism, religion, and the academic study of both, might (or indeed, might not) interact; but Llewellyn also does an excellent job of flagging up how future work in these fields could become more productively interdisciplinary. The interview was recorded in October 2016 – so is very new in terms of academic timelines – but even since then, various forms of contemporary feminism have enjoyed a huge rise in prominence. The themes raised in this interview have more relevance than ever, and are worth revisiting in light of recent discussions on the intersections of feminism and religion.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

 

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Lancashire cheese, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting

Karl Jaspers created the term “Axial Age” in 1949 after considering that the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon, the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Jeremiah, the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the Daodejing, and the Analects of Confucius were just a few of the philosophical and theological texts penned in the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. For Jaspers, this collection of philosophical and theological works was a sign of an era of social and intellectual maturity, a maturation that Jasper felt left simpler formulations of such thinking in its wake. The notion of the “Axial Age” has held through to the 21st century, the most recent manifestation of the theory being seen in Robert N. Bellah’s 2012 monograph Religion and Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.

 

398px-1890sc_Pears_Soap_AdTo discuss the “Axial Age”, its consequences, credibility, and critiques, Breann Fallon sat down with long-time team-member of the Religious Studies Project, Dr Jack Tsonis. Dr Jack Tsonis has recently taken up a position at Western Sydney University, teaching the Masters of Research Program. They discuss the origin and historiography of the term “Axial Age” before diving into an analysis of the term as used in Religious Studies. Tsonis gives a fiery critique of the racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes upon which the term is founded, and the subsequent need for avoidance of the term “Axial Age” and all that it embodies. Later, they discuss the difficulties of the immediate post-PhD years, particularly the delicate research-teaching balance, resulting in some useful advice for anyone in their final PhD months or for those who have recently submitted.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cheese, office stationery and more.

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.