Posts

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.

 

 

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

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.

Protected: Decolonizing the Study of Religion (Classroom Edit)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Discourse! June 2020

In our June 2020 episode of Discourse, RSP contributor Ben Marcus speaks with Andre Willis, associate professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Carleigh Beriont, PhD candidate at Harvard University. They begin by discussing how the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans exemplify rituals of state violence and technologies of white supremacy in the United States. Amid mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism ongoing in the United States right now, the guests highlight the story of Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old member of the Catholic Worker Movement who was injured protesting, as well as President Trump’s much derided photo opportunity in response to those protests. The conversation then pivots to recent reports that invoke threats of the apocalypse, including the Trump administration decision to consider resuming explosive testing of nuclear weapons. Finally, still enduring a global and now months-long COVID-19 pandemic, the guests look at ongoing religious responses to prohibitions against some in-person religious services and the emerging court battles over worship under restrictions on social distancing.

Resources suggested by the guests include:

On the Protests in the United States

On Nuclear Testing

ON COVID-19 and Louisville

For more, consider consulting the following:

Finally, for those seeking additional critical perspectives from religious studies scholars we can strongly recommend this blog post at Feminist Studies in Religion by Megan Goodwin and Yohana Agra Junker, “This is Not an Antiracist Reading List, OR, the Treachery of Allyship.”

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.

The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

Protected: Patrons Special: RSP Discourse #2 (October 2018)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

“A Feeling of Belonging can only Develop if People Decide to Listen”

The title of this response comes from an essay by the German journalist and author Hakan Tezkan. Tezkan refers to people’s experiences of racism in everyday life, shared on Twitter under the hashtag #metwo. In the days before we wrote this response, gangs of right-wing extremists roamed the streets of Chemnitz, pretending to be “claiming back their country.” What they were actually doing was chasing and terrorizing people who did not look “German” in their eyes. These examples show the extent to which racism in general, and dealing with migrants and People of Color in particular, is a present topic in German society and media. The RSP interview with Carmen Becker taps directly into this discussion.

When refugees fled to Europe via the Balkan route in 2015, many came to Germany, where they were generally welcomed; the term “Willkommenskultur” (culture of welcome) was established at this time. People’s collective memory of these events was shaped in several ways. On one hand, people of all ranks carried out their work in the official state bureaus, with the assistance of refugees, integrating assistance, language teaching and orientation assistance, as well as in municipal integration centers and social circles.  On the other hand, as Carmen Becker states, the term “refugee crisis” became established in the media. The incidents on New Year’s Eve at Cologne main station in 2015 provided a particularly important tipping point in the popular perception of refugees. The media was not able to portray these incidents in a differentiated way and the refugees and foreigners as a collective were put in the dock. The right-wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and those who had a negative stance on foreigners had been given a trump card. The media in this period often seemed to fall for populist perspectives, instead of taking critical responsibilities.

Carmen Becker refers to Foucault’s term “dispositive” to describe the mechanisms at work here. Strategic interventions (“There is a crisis and we have to intervene”) and the establishing of a currently valid truth (answering questions such as “What is a refugee?,” “How do we talk about refugees?”) are part of that dispositive. For her own research, Becker has decided not to look at the meso or macro levels, but to focus instead on the local level, referring to YouTube shows for refugees (“Marhaba. Willkommen in Deutschland,” which translates to “Hello. Welcome to Germany”) that show stereotypical “German” behavior as a guide for (Arabic) refugees. Here she notes an interesting change of perspective. While it is widely discussed that “the refugees” are often seen as one indistinguishable mass, the picture of German society painted in those short video clips is not especially heterogeneous either. Becker’s approach—to look at the chains of equivalence constructed in these clips—highlights differences in values between German society and the refugees’ society of origin. For German society, secularization and individual freedom stand out as the most important traits. Upon closer inspection, however, only a European-centered sense of freedom is put forward, eliding the possibility of a different approach to freedom of choice in other societies. The European notion of individual freedom does not necessarily cover freedom of religion with regard to Islam. It seems, Becker says, that an unstated preconception underpins these debates, framing them in terms of “good” vs. “bad” religion. The secular bubble includes in its circle of tolerance the religiousness of European peers, but excludes Islam, which constitutes its own, separate sphere. She concludes that refugees are faced with deep insecurity concerning “correct” European behavior. The YouTube videos portray Germany as secular, democratic and liberal, and refugees as Arabic, Muslim, oppressive of women (e.g. by making the headscarf compulsory) and sexually repressive. The possibility of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf as a personal preference in accordance with her religious or cultural habits is not mentioned.

What could be a solution for these issues? In a recently published book on “Xenosophia and Religion” by Heinz Streib and Constantin Klein, we explore the concept of xenosophia as a model for creating a culture of welcome. Xenosophia, to quote the editors, is “the wisdom that might emerge from the encounter with the strange and the wisdom of adequately responding to the strange” (Streib & Klein 2018, ix). Flipping the focus from “How do prejudices evolve” to the more positive question of how xenosophia may enter dialog, the authors find different frames of reference in which people are confronted with “the strange” and different trajectories people take to deal with that challenge. The study started in 2015, when the “refugee crisis” was at its first climax. When a second wave of questionnaire data was retrieved in April 2016, we found the results to be quite shocking: the overall acceptance of refugees had decreased, while the approval of right-wing opinions had increased, congruent with the success of the right-wing AfD during elections. Still, there were people who helped, people who cared and people who did not give in to cheap rhetoric. Those people were found to be open for experience and dialog and they showed tolerance for ambiguities. This tolerance and respect for the other of course is not a one-way street. The last sentences of the book contain that very important message: “The creative and productive way of dealing with and responding to experiences of the strange/alien depends on a habitus of openness for dialog and thus for hermeneutical humility that always keeps in mind the proviso of an ‘it-could-be-seen-otherwise.’ This is no triviality. It is the sharpest contradiction to prejudice and xenophobia” (Streib, Klein et al. 2018, p. 383). We believe this approach may provide one way of overcoming the stereotypes that Becker has described in her study. It’s not an easy path, but it might lead to a better, xenosophic understanding of the other.

References

Streib, H. & Klein, C. (Eds.) (2018). Xenosophia and Religion: Biographical and Statistical Paths for a Culture of Welcome. Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

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.

 

Podcasts

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.

 

 

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

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.

Protected: Decolonizing the Study of Religion (Classroom Edit)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Discourse! June 2020

In our June 2020 episode of Discourse, RSP contributor Ben Marcus speaks with Andre Willis, associate professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Carleigh Beriont, PhD candidate at Harvard University. They begin by discussing how the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans exemplify rituals of state violence and technologies of white supremacy in the United States. Amid mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism ongoing in the United States right now, the guests highlight the story of Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old member of the Catholic Worker Movement who was injured protesting, as well as President Trump’s much derided photo opportunity in response to those protests. The conversation then pivots to recent reports that invoke threats of the apocalypse, including the Trump administration decision to consider resuming explosive testing of nuclear weapons. Finally, still enduring a global and now months-long COVID-19 pandemic, the guests look at ongoing religious responses to prohibitions against some in-person religious services and the emerging court battles over worship under restrictions on social distancing.

Resources suggested by the guests include:

On the Protests in the United States

On Nuclear Testing

ON COVID-19 and Louisville

For more, consider consulting the following:

Finally, for those seeking additional critical perspectives from religious studies scholars we can strongly recommend this blog post at Feminist Studies in Religion by Megan Goodwin and Yohana Agra Junker, “This is Not an Antiracist Reading List, OR, the Treachery of Allyship.”

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.

The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

Protected: Patrons Special: RSP Discourse #2 (October 2018)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

“A Feeling of Belonging can only Develop if People Decide to Listen”

The title of this response comes from an essay by the German journalist and author Hakan Tezkan. Tezkan refers to people’s experiences of racism in everyday life, shared on Twitter under the hashtag #metwo. In the days before we wrote this response, gangs of right-wing extremists roamed the streets of Chemnitz, pretending to be “claiming back their country.” What they were actually doing was chasing and terrorizing people who did not look “German” in their eyes. These examples show the extent to which racism in general, and dealing with migrants and People of Color in particular, is a present topic in German society and media. The RSP interview with Carmen Becker taps directly into this discussion.

When refugees fled to Europe via the Balkan route in 2015, many came to Germany, where they were generally welcomed; the term “Willkommenskultur” (culture of welcome) was established at this time. People’s collective memory of these events was shaped in several ways. On one hand, people of all ranks carried out their work in the official state bureaus, with the assistance of refugees, integrating assistance, language teaching and orientation assistance, as well as in municipal integration centers and social circles.  On the other hand, as Carmen Becker states, the term “refugee crisis” became established in the media. The incidents on New Year’s Eve at Cologne main station in 2015 provided a particularly important tipping point in the popular perception of refugees. The media was not able to portray these incidents in a differentiated way and the refugees and foreigners as a collective were put in the dock. The right-wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and those who had a negative stance on foreigners had been given a trump card. The media in this period often seemed to fall for populist perspectives, instead of taking critical responsibilities.

Carmen Becker refers to Foucault’s term “dispositive” to describe the mechanisms at work here. Strategic interventions (“There is a crisis and we have to intervene”) and the establishing of a currently valid truth (answering questions such as “What is a refugee?,” “How do we talk about refugees?”) are part of that dispositive. For her own research, Becker has decided not to look at the meso or macro levels, but to focus instead on the local level, referring to YouTube shows for refugees (“Marhaba. Willkommen in Deutschland,” which translates to “Hello. Welcome to Germany”) that show stereotypical “German” behavior as a guide for (Arabic) refugees. Here she notes an interesting change of perspective. While it is widely discussed that “the refugees” are often seen as one indistinguishable mass, the picture of German society painted in those short video clips is not especially heterogeneous either. Becker’s approach—to look at the chains of equivalence constructed in these clips—highlights differences in values between German society and the refugees’ society of origin. For German society, secularization and individual freedom stand out as the most important traits. Upon closer inspection, however, only a European-centered sense of freedom is put forward, eliding the possibility of a different approach to freedom of choice in other societies. The European notion of individual freedom does not necessarily cover freedom of religion with regard to Islam. It seems, Becker says, that an unstated preconception underpins these debates, framing them in terms of “good” vs. “bad” religion. The secular bubble includes in its circle of tolerance the religiousness of European peers, but excludes Islam, which constitutes its own, separate sphere. She concludes that refugees are faced with deep insecurity concerning “correct” European behavior. The YouTube videos portray Germany as secular, democratic and liberal, and refugees as Arabic, Muslim, oppressive of women (e.g. by making the headscarf compulsory) and sexually repressive. The possibility of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf as a personal preference in accordance with her religious or cultural habits is not mentioned.

What could be a solution for these issues? In a recently published book on “Xenosophia and Religion” by Heinz Streib and Constantin Klein, we explore the concept of xenosophia as a model for creating a culture of welcome. Xenosophia, to quote the editors, is “the wisdom that might emerge from the encounter with the strange and the wisdom of adequately responding to the strange” (Streib & Klein 2018, ix). Flipping the focus from “How do prejudices evolve” to the more positive question of how xenosophia may enter dialog, the authors find different frames of reference in which people are confronted with “the strange” and different trajectories people take to deal with that challenge. The study started in 2015, when the “refugee crisis” was at its first climax. When a second wave of questionnaire data was retrieved in April 2016, we found the results to be quite shocking: the overall acceptance of refugees had decreased, while the approval of right-wing opinions had increased, congruent with the success of the right-wing AfD during elections. Still, there were people who helped, people who cared and people who did not give in to cheap rhetoric. Those people were found to be open for experience and dialog and they showed tolerance for ambiguities. This tolerance and respect for the other of course is not a one-way street. The last sentences of the book contain that very important message: “The creative and productive way of dealing with and responding to experiences of the strange/alien depends on a habitus of openness for dialog and thus for hermeneutical humility that always keeps in mind the proviso of an ‘it-could-be-seen-otherwise.’ This is no triviality. It is the sharpest contradiction to prejudice and xenophobia” (Streib, Klein et al. 2018, p. 383). We believe this approach may provide one way of overcoming the stereotypes that Becker has described in her study. It’s not an easy path, but it might lead to a better, xenosophic understanding of the other.

References

Streib, H. & Klein, C. (Eds.) (2018). Xenosophia and Religion: Biographical and Statistical Paths for a Culture of Welcome. Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

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.