Some thoughts on the Decolonization of Religious Studies

postcolonialism, decoloniality, and the cultural study of religion


There can be no doubt that the academic study of religion emerged out of European colonialism.

There are various lines of descent for the discipline, and like much of the humanities and social sciences, they all lead back to colonialism, and in particular the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And so, during a time when there is a widespread movement for the decolonisation of knowledge, is there a need for a decolonisation of the study of religion? And if so, then what does it involve?

These are some initial thoughts on this major issue.


What is decolonisation?

Several issues first need to be made clear when talking of decolonisation.

Decolonisation is an old term, which references the process at the end of European colonialism around the mid-twentieth century — when countries that had been subjected to British, French, Dutch, and other colonial rule became independent. Thus, we can talk of the decolonisation of India, South Asia, and South East Asia, across much of Africa, the Caribbean, and so on. It was during this time that some of the important writers on decolonisation emerged, such as Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi.

But the processes of decolonisation did not end with the withdrawal of empires and the creation of new nation states — often with newly constructed borders. Such immediate decolonisation often had a harsh cost, such as the extreme violence deriving from British policies and mismanagement in India that spilled out in the first few months of independence based on Partition. And the formal end of direct imperial rule did not necessarily mean the end of informal colonialism, both by former European powers and by the US.

One of the most obvious locations for the recent decolonisation movement has been South Africa, which is itself still emerging from the ongoing structural and ideological hangover of colonialism and its legacy in the apartheid-based state. It has been within South Africa that a symbolic politics of decolonisation has focused on the memorialisation of empire and plunder, through the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, directed at a one of the most obvious individual examples of colonial exploitation. That is, the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town, which was removed in 2015 after demonstrations.

The targetting of monuments has clear connections with the movement in the US for the removal of statues built as public displays of the Confederacy, the secessionists who fought and lost the US Civil War to preserve the enslavement system. The removal of statues (largely erected long after the end of the Civil War) in places such as New Orleans, Baltimore, and Charlottesville are not considered to be explicitly decolonising. However, the backlash against this movement — particularly as expressed in the protests and the violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va in August 2017 — are indicative of the highly racialised political processes involved.

This does, however, push us to try to highlight exactly what sorts of processes are involved in what comes within the rubric of decolonisation. In particular, perhaps, we need to recognise that there are two distinct approaches outlined by the term.


Political Decolonisation

One is pragmatic, political, and is about redressing profound inequalities of history. In this sense, decolonisation is about land issues, it is a challenge to the settler colonialism that created much of north America and Australia. It is about recognising the many forms of Indigeneity, not only on the cultural level, but also a more profound sense. In very real terms, decolonisation is not a metaphor.

Such decolonisation is a political programme that has the potential to challenge and largely transform many of the political, social, and legal assumptions of contemporary western society. At its most basic level it is a recognition that the injustices are not only historic — and that there is continuing violence caused by the legacies of colonialism, that are most obviously manifest in the Dakota Pipeline, the marginalisation of and discrimination against Indigenous people, in the need for protest such as Black Lives Matter, in mass incarceration, and much more.

Whilst some scholars of religion may not necessarily wish to become activists and to try to achieve such social justice, it is still important at a disciplinary (i.e., structural) level to recognise this gaping wound that festers within today’s world. As a discipline that seeks to promote scholarship on a global level, those who study and teach in this area need to be aware that this is a challenge, and that silence about it serves particular interests and politics. In short, decolonisation is not simply a matter of words, even though words matter a great deal — in what scholars say, and what students are taught.


Decolonisation of Knowledge

My focus here, though, is on another aspect of decolonisation, which can be broadly categorised as the decolonisation of culture and knowledge.

This is, the decolonisation that academics are most likely to feel most comfortable with — since it is about the pursuit of an approach that recognises and analyses colonial histories and legacies, and understands that such a history must be challenged.

And so, when students ask the question ‘why is my curriculum so white?’, it is time to consider what responses we have within the study of religion.

When in January 2017 there was a request by the Student Union at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to decolonise the philosophy curriculum, the primary issues were that both the content of the syllabus was predominantly white, and that there was no recognition within that curriculum that much of European philosophy is itself a product of colonialism.

It does not take much effort to discover the racialised assumptions of Kant and other enlightenment thinkers about non-Europeans, particularly Africans, nor to link that to the brutal European systems of industrialised slavery of that era. Nor does it take much effort to ‘discover’ that there are powerful traditions of philosophical study within a number of non-European contexts, including China, India, Africa, and Arab and Muslims contexts. Indeed, what we now think of as (western) philosophy (and here the prefix ‘western’ is usually silent) is born out of Arab Muslim philosophy as much as — if not more so — from Greeks. The convenient exclusion of this legacy is not in any way an accident or omission, it is primarily about the process by which the boundaries of Europe (and rational thought) are drawn.

In response to this, perhaps the discipline of religious studies can feel more comfortable. After all, scholars of Chinese or Indian philosophy are more likely to find homes (careers) in RS departments than in Philosophy ones. On this, since the emergence of Religious Studies out of Divinity and Theology, the discipline has been premised on an approach that is global and so is far less Europe-centred than philosophy.

I would argue, however, that this is a product of the politics of knowledge and disciplinary foundation in the early twentieth century. As Gurminder Bhambra has argued with respect to the creation of anthropology as a discipline in contrast to sociology, what is occurring is the ‘writing out’ of postcolonial (non-western) modernities by a Europe-centred modernity (you can read my discussion of this here). Thus modern philosophy, sociology, and (to a large extent) theology are focused on the modern and the European, whilst disciplines such as anthropology and religious studies focus on the traditional, the pre-modern, and the non-European.

That is, although the study of religion serves an important function in exploring and transmitting ancient sources and philosophies from Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, at the same time the discipline does so within a framework of colonially structured modernity.

In short, if we teach a course on Asian religions, what is it exactly that we are expected to teach? In most cases, it is likely to be the historical and the textual — the teachings of the Buddha, the Vedas, the rich canon of the classical Chinese philosophical schools deriving from figures such as Kongzi (Confucius) and Laozi (Lao-tzu). If the colonial or the contemporary are included, it is often as an add-on — often presented as an anthropological exploration of the perplexing disparity between the past and the present.

My suggestion is that the topic would best be taught from the present backwards, looking at the postcolonial present and how that has been created by the forces of the past. Of these, the legacies of colonialism are the initial framework of how postcolonial realities have come to form, and how these forms have reformed past traditions from long pre-colonial histories. That is, it is not only the scholar and the student who read and understand the classics of China, India, and elsewhere through a lens largely formed through British colonial explorers and writers.


Decolonising theory and subjects

In addition to this, there is also the fundamental issue of how scholars of religion think (and learn) about the tools of scholarship that they use — that is, what is often called ‘theory and methodology’. Very often this relies on a set of assumptions and ideas that have not moved very far from the colonial beginnings of the discipline.

Thus, one of the most influential text books in the discipline is the overview of theories of religion by Daniel Pals — originally published in 1996 as seven theories, but which has developed to its current edition as nine. Of the ten theorists covered, all of them are men (the most recent addition is Clifford Geertz) and they are all racialised as white. Indeed, seven of these theorists wrote within the colonial era (that is before 1945).

In many respects, the text books that are used for undergraduate courses serve very much to define the discipline, and its important canon of sources. The ubiquitousness of this book tells us much more about the discipline than about its author.

There is likewise an emerging debate (which has been around since the same time that Pals published his theory book in the mid 1990s) about how to classify and comprehend the global diversity of what we call religions. This is the challenge to the twentieth century concept of ‘world religions’ — a typology that classifies differences which is held to be largely self evident for many scholars, teachers, and students of religion. It is a paradigm with a very definite history, as outlined with meticulous care by Tomoko Masuzawa (The Invention of World Religions), and again this history points us back to the colonial era.

The question of course is how do we teach the study of religion ‘after world religions’ (as a recent book edited by Cotter and Robertson explores)?

But the challenge goes even further than this. The question is also how do we decolonise the idea of religion, along with the many structures of thought that come out (and help to sustain) this category.

One possibility is to take seriously Patrick Wolfe’s argument that ‘race is colonialism speaking’. In which case, there is a need to engage with how the ideas of race and racism are connected, as I explore in another discussion.


If you would like to contribute to this discussion of the decolonisation of the study of religion, I am editing a collection of papers on the topic for the journal Culture and Religion. Follow this link for further details:


Some useful academic papers related to decolonisation

Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Decoloniality.” Global Social Theory Blog. March. http://globalsocialtheory.org/topics/decoloniality/.

— — — . 2014. “Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues.” Postcolonial Studies 17 (2). Taylor & Francis: 115–21. doi:10.1080/13688790.2014.966414.

Rizvi, Uzma. 2017. “Decolonization Is Political Action, Not an Act of Historical Circumstance.” Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology. https://savageminds.org/2017/06/30/decolonization-is-political-action-not-an-act-of-historical-circumstance/.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1). University of Toronto. http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2016. Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso Books.

Radcliffe, Sarah A. 2017. “Decolonising Geographical Knowledges.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42 (3): 329–33. doi:10.1111/tran.12195.

Morna Joy, ‘Revisiting Postcolonialism and Religion’, Australian Religion Studies Review, Vol 25/2 (2012)

Legg, Stephen. 2017. “Decolonialism.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 42(3): 345–48. doi:10.1111/tran.12203.

Meera Sabaratnam. 2017. “Decolonising the Curriculum: What’s All the Fuss about? | Study at SOAS Blog.” Accessed October 10. https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/decolonising-curriculum-whats-the-fuss/.

Mignolo, Walter. 2007a. “Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of de-Coloniality.” Cultural Studies 21 (2): 449–514. doi:10.1080/09502380601162647.

— — — . 2007b. “Introduction: Coloniality of Power and de-Colonial Thinking.” Cultural Studies 21 (2): 155–67. doi:10.1080/09502380601162498.

Noxolo, Patricia. 2017. “Decolonial Theory in a Time of the Re-Colonisation of UK Research.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42 (3): 342–44. doi:10.1111/tran.12202.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2007. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural Studies 21 (2): 168–78. doi:10.1080/09502380601164353.

Rabaka, Reiland. 2009. “Frantz Fanon: Revolutionizing the Wretched of the Earth, Radicalizing the Discourse on Decolonization,” in Africana Critical Theory. Lexington Books.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York : Zed Books.


Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.


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