Decolonizing the Study of Religion (draft paper)

(pre-submission copy, temporarily available for comment/feedback)


This paper is one that I have been thinking and writing about for some time, and have made previous attempts to explore on this site. I now have a full draft of my main ideas, but it still feels quite ‘undercooked’ and in need of some useful feedback before I submit it to a journal for peer review. The paper began life as a blog post, and then a second post, and has grown and grown.

And so I have decided to try something new and different with this paper at this particular stage. That is, I am posting it here TEMPORARILY, to seek and encourage pre-submission feedback.

This full paper will be available on Religion Bites for just a few weeks — and I invite anyone who is interested to take a look at this, read it thoroughly (if you have the time and interest), and let me know what you think. I appreciate how busy we all are, and it is very easy to click through, like and/or share, and so on — but in posting this now, I am more interested in what people make of the long argument and ideas. When I find a paper that I find interesting and provocative, I hope to be able to use it for teaching and/or research in some way.

Hopefully this paper will eventually be placed somewhere permanently, but for now it is just available on this temporary basis. You are of course free to take a copy of this to read before I remove it— think of it as like a draft version of a paper circulated at a conference. And as a word of warning, the paper is very long (18,000 words). I have given a lot of thought to whether it should be a single paper, or split in two. I prefer it as a single piece, as a ‘long read’. But, of course, I would like to hear your feedback!

Malory Nye, 22 August 2018


DRAFT

Introduction

The ways in which scholars talk about religion emerged out of European colonialism. There are various lines of descent for the study of religion, and like much of the humanities and social sciences, they all lead back to colonialism, and in particular the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.^[1]

Most scholars working on religion would recognise that this history raises a number of concerns and difficult questions which should be acknowledged.^[2] These relate to not only how we got from colonialism to the present, but also an even bigger issue. That is, to what extent can we say that the study of religion is so deeply the product of colonialism that its structures, presumptions and methods are irredeemably flawed? Is the study of religion a rotten fruit of the poisoned tree of colonialism?

The response to this may take various forms, with perhaps a hard and a soft approach to decolonization.^[3] If the study of religion was effectively decolonised, then possibly there would be very little left standing of the current discipline — this would be the ‘hard’ alternative. Alternatively, there may be a ‘softer’ decolonizing approach, perhaps, that ‘weeds out’ some of the most blatant roots of colonialism but keeps the shell of the current terminology and disciplinary structure intact. If this process is started, if such a (soft) decolonization is necessary, then how should the discipline develop? And what would this process of decolonization require?

The study of religion remains steeped in the ongoing legacy of colonialism and assumptions of white supremacy. Indeed, my own structural location within this overlaps with that history, as a white male scholar I have emerged from many of the discourses and political practices of whiteness that need to be critically acknowledged in this process of decolonization. As I try to convey to the predominantly white students who I have been teaching these materials, understanding whiteness from this perspective is akin to trying to teach a goldfish about water. It is there: around everything, but rarely noticed. Living within such whiteness is having the privilege of not having to experience the low key and/or the life-threatening forces of structural racism that are premised on the exclusion of people of colour from the centres of power and academic life, or at least to prevent those who are racialized as not white from being allowed in too far. Thus decolonization is in itself a threat to such political structures, it is a challenge to very dominant forms of hegemony — within European and north American societies and within particular universities. And I write this from the perspective that the challenges are for all involved in the process, not only for those racialized as people of colour. I wish to participate in these processes of change from my position of being ‘within’ (as well as outside of) those structures of power. For me, there is no neutral ground within the study of religion, and I write because I have a small platform as a middle-aged white male scholar. Thus I see my scholarship and teaching as largely about encouraging others (particularly those who are racialized similarly to me) to think about issues of race and gender, rather than the usual processes of obfuscation of these core issues.

My understanding is that on a very broad level, decolonization is about change. ^[4] It is about responding to changes that are taking place well beyond the classroom — and also about changes that should be taking place. Decolonization is about changing how people think, talk, and act through a radical engagement with a plurality of voices and perspectives that have been historically marginalised and silenced. Thus decolonization is not the same as diversifying. The aim for diversity is to accommodate (‘find room’) for ‘alternatives’ and differences within an existing scheme which largely remains unchanged. Decolonization is not about ‘finding room’ at the table, it is about changing the room.

Decolonization is about remembering and recognizing the histories of European colonialism and racism that have structured the contemporary world — and here in particular the academy. Decolonization is about challenging the structural levels of racialization that frame not only who and how we teach, but many of the issues that scholars take for granted.

And so, decolonization is not something particular to the study of religion — it is a political and academic movement, with resonances across much of academia. There have been calls for and explorations of decolonization in a number of academic fields. As a starting point, one can find discussion of decolonization in various fields, as follows. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but it gives some indication of the extent of this issue (and perhaps highlights how surprising it is that there has been such limited discussion within the study of religion. Thus, for sociology (Connell 2018), anthropology (Radebe 2016; Todd 2018), geography (Craib 2017; Radcliffe 2017; Jazeel 2017; Legg 2017; Noxolo 2017), history (AHR 2018), linguistics (Shaikjee and Stroud 2017), mediaeval studies (Whitaker 2015), museum studies (Dees 2015; Dees 2016), computing studies (Ali 2016), and science (Prescod-Weinstein 2015). And, as I will discuss in detail below, there are a number of works that call for higher education to be subject to decolonization (for example, Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu 2018).

In discussing the relevance of decolonization to the study of religion, I am referring to a field of study that is both broad and also quite narrow. In one respect, the study of religion is a narrow discipline within the humanities which is often also referred to as ‘religious studies’. It is bounded and maintained institutionally, within universities in departments, divisions, centres, and through university chairs and other faculty (including many adjuncts and other precarious staff). On a wider level, it is organised by national and regional, and international associations — such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), and a number of national groups affiliated with the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR). Each of these associations have regular conferences focused on the academic interests of their respective individual members, and thus reflect and materially practise the field of the study of religion. And of course there are the academic journals for this discipline, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and Religion.

The disciplinary boundaries between this particular area of the study of religion, as institutionalised and practised in such organisations and conferences, and other disciplines can be quite ambiguous. Thus there are long-standing discussions about how the study of religion is distinct from areas of sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, etc., that all have some focus or interest in studying religion. There is also deep interaction between the study of religion and theology — very often the two can be found together in a single department (TRS), and some argue that the two fields are continuous (although this also tends to be strongly refuted by many scholars of religion). Moreover, there are many scholars and areas of study that have (what is considered to be) religion as their subject matter, far beyond any disciplinary boundaries of the study of religion (for example, security studies, legal studies, and international relations).

I mention this because although some of my argument here is quite particular to the institutionally formed discipline of the study of religion, much of what I have to say is relevant much further afield. Indeed, as so often happens with such areas of study, the subject matter of ‘religion’ is often assumed to be quite simple and straightforward (and often misunderstood) for those working outside the discipline. There is a considerable body of scholarship from within the discipline that is significantly problematizing many aspects of popular and learned discourses on ‘religion’, and this has still largely been left unexplored beyond the discipline.

Much of what is conceived as the formation of the discipline of the study of religion is rooted in some way or other directly in colonialism (King 1999; Masuzawa 2005). Whether this is the text-focused oriental scholarship associated with philology, the thematic (and speculative) approaches of Edward Tylor, the functionalism of sociology, the ethnographic and particularist approaches of anthropology, or the contemporary phenomenology that was popularised by Ninian Smart in the 1960s and 70s. We do not have to dig very deep (if at all) to find the colonial roots of each of these.

It may be possible to argue that the study of religion has moved on from such colonial origins — that the discipline in the twenty-first century is no longer what it was, or where it came from. But the point is that there has been only a limited effort to explore these roots — and the assumptions and methodologies that came from them. Most introductions to the study of religion fail to mention or discuss the implications of this history. And indeed, the ‘classics’ of the field remain as classics, perhaps dislocated from their colonial contexts, but largely unquestioned about how that colonialism shaped their thinking. In doing so there is a failure to address how this past continues to shape the questions and assumptions of the field today.

And so, in a world that saw formal decolonization of empires and independent nations happening over fifty years ago, and in which the study of religion is no longer overtly a branch of colonial rule, there remain many questions about what that legacy means and how the discipline can become more critically aware of its past and more rigorously able to define itself beyond the structures of power and exploitation which gave rise to it.

To explore this, in this paper I will first discuss various ways in which decolonization is understood — in the separate but related approaches of political decolonization and decolonization of knowledge. I will from there apply some of these debates within the study of religion, to perhaps nudge the field towards a more honest exploration of what decolonization could and should entail.


What is decolonization?

Decolonization 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 (White 2014; Davis 2013; Duara 2004; Smith and Jeppesen 2017). Thus, we can talk of the decolonization of India, South Asia, and South East Asia, across much of Africa, the Caribbean, and so on. Such immediate decolonization often had a harsh cost, such as the extreme violence deriving from British policies and mismanagement in colonial India that spilled out in 1947 in the first few months of independence based on Partition (Khan 2007).

It was during this time that some of the important writers on decolonization emerged, such as Frantz Fanon (2004; 2008; Hwami 2016; Rabaka 2009) and Albert Memmi (2003). Thus Fanon wrote about decolonization within the specific context of the Algerian war of independence, together with a wider reflection on the impact of decolonization across Africa and also within his native Caribbean.

Both Fanon and Memmi focused on the very particular set of relationships between the coloniser and the colonised — although in doing so, both also pointed to a number of variations within both categories. Thus for Fanon, although the process of political decolonization and independence may remove the colonizer from the direct context, he also pointed towards a process of internal colonization of the ruling classes of the colonized. That is, colonization does not necessarily end with political independence.

It is very common to think about the decades of ‘end of empire’ in the mid-twentieth century as though the decolonization that was fought for and achieved across the world was a homogenous process. Of course it was not, although much of this process involved the end of direct rule by European nations (Britain, France, and the Netherlands in particular) across much of Asia and Africa. The decolonization from French rule occurred quite differently from British, and the various parts of former British imperial rule created quite different entities in South Asia and Africa.

As I will discuss later, this is just one part of a wider set of issues — since the question of colonialism, and thus decolonization, is rooted within a set of histories right across the globe, impacting different regions in various (and often overlapping) ways. Thus central and southern America have a quite different formulation of the question of decolonization (from both Spanish/Portuguese rule^[5] and also from Anglo/north American^[6]). The southern and western Pacific — particularly Oceania, Australasia, and the Philippines — are again distinct, particularly as the indigenous nations of Australia and New Zealand^[7] have not achieved the formal political independence that was associated with India and Africa. ^[8]

And there is also the very substantial question of to what extent the USA and Canada have even begun any process of recognising their colonialism (in particular settler colonialism), let alone any active process of decolonization. So how do we talk about decolonization in the USA and Canada (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014), or Australia and New Zealand (Wolfe 2016)? In these countries, the acts of colonialism did not end: settler colonialism became the basis for the state, and the colonised remain under a seemingly naturalised (i.e., obscured) form of colonial rule.

Thus, Aníbal Quijano (2007) has argued that colonization should be seen as a continuing process in the twenty first century:

In the same way, in spite of the fact that political colonialism has been eliminated, the relationship between the European — also called ‘Western’ — culture, and the others, continues to be one of colonial domination. It is not only a matter of the subordination of the other cultures to the European, in an external relation; we have also to do with a colonization of the other cultures, albeit in differing intensities and depths. This relationship consists, in the first place, of a colonization of the imagination of the dominated; that is, it acts in the interior of that imagination, in a sense, it is a part of it. (Quijano 2007, 169)

And so, he goes on to say:

Coloniality, then, is still the most general form of domination in the world today, once colonialism as an explicit political order was destroyed. It doesn’t exhaust, obviously, the conditions nor the modes of exploitation and domination between peoples. But it hasn’t ceased to be, for 500 years, their main framework. (Quijano 2007, 170)

The processes of decolonization did not end with the formal dismantling of empires and the creation of new nation states — often with newly constructed borders. 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. This changed from the explicit political structures of empires and colonial rule to a more intangible exertion of power. And both before and after the processes of decolonization and independence, such power was exerted through the ‘colonization of the imagination’ and knowledge. ^[9]

And so, perhaps, we can talk about two different forms of (or approaches to) decolonization. That is, decolonization is both about a political agenda that challenges power structures and global inequalities and it is also about a decolonization of knowledge.

Much of what I am addressing here in this paper is the latter — an attempt to explore the processes of decolonization of knowledge and education. But to explore such a decolonization of knowledge also requires an engagement in some form with the much larger and even more difficult political challenges of decolonization.


Political Decolonization

One part of decolonization is pragmatic, political, and is about redressing profound inequalities of history. In this sense, decolonization is about land issues. It was previously about challenging the European empires of the twentieth century, and 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, as Tuck and Yang point out, decolonization is not a metaphor:

Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. The easy adoption of decolonizing discourse by educational advocacy and scholarship, evidenced by the increasing number of calls to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or, “decolonize student thinking”, turns decolonization into a metaphor. (Tuck and Yang 2012)

Such decolonization is a political programme (Rizvi 2017) 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. This imbalance of power, and the injustices and violence that come from this, are most obviously manifest in the Dakota Pipeline, the marginalisation of and discrimination against Indigenous people, the historic residential schools, the white Australia policy, in the need for protest such as Black Lives Matter, in mass incarceration, and much more.

One of the most obvious locations for the recent decolonization movement has been South Africa (Mgqwashu 2016; Mbembe 2016), 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 decolonization has focused on education and the memorialisation of empire and plunder, through the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign (Chaudhuri 2016; Prinsloo 2016), directed at 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. ^[10]

The targeting of monuments has clear connections with the movement in the US for the removal of statues built as public displays of the Confederacy (the nineteenth century 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 decolonizing. However, the backlash against this movement — particularly as expressed in the protests and the violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 — are indicative of the highly racialised political processes involved.

Thus the study of colonialism, and thus decolonization, is not only historic. Although settler colonial societies have histories that need to be explored and understood (Veracini 2014; Wolfe 2006; Smith 2012), this colonialism is still a prominent part of the contemporary world (Chowdhry 2018). Indeed, settler colonialism is a gaping wound that festers within today’s world, as is in particular the assumed racialised whiteness that this political and cultural system relies on. In practice, white settler colonialism is an integral element of the world in which disciplines such as the study of religion operate (Andrews 2016; Dyer 1997; Garner 2007; Hage 1998) — and the consequences of this are to be found throughout the discipline, very often hiding in plain sight.

That is, the study of religion not only talks about traditions, people, and issues within a global context — including within formerly colonised (and now decolonised) nations and also within settler colonial contexts (both past and present). The study of religion is in itself a product of that historical colonialism and it is also very much implicated within settler colonial societies. Many of the universities in Britain where the study of religion is taught have historical legacies of material enrichment from slave trading and colonial plunder. ^[11] In north America this is further complicated by both their (usually unacknowledged) location on land traditionally held by Indigenous nations and also — particularly in older universities — with their own history as corporate slave holders. ^[12]


Decolonizing knowledge and education

Thus, one starting point for decolonization needs to be recognition that location is never neutral with regard to this history of colonialism. It is always a challenge, and the silences about this that are built into the discipline (and universities) do in fact serve particular interests and politics. The fact that these interests coincide with those of the (usually white male) scholar should be a reason for reflection and action, but more usually this instead manifests in obfuscation and amnesia.

Thus, in writing this paper from the particular perspective of a white male scholar within British higher education, the political and colonial history of Britain does in itself create a context of decolonization that is distinct. In Britain there is not an immediate issue of either Indigenisation (Tuhiwai Smith 1999) or Africanisation (Mbembe 2016). Britain was the metropolitan centre of a global empire, which largely kept its politically subject colonial populations at a geographic distance. Thus, in contrast to the US, British locations for enslavement (in particular the Caribbean) were outside of the immediate British ‘home’ boundaries of the islands of Britain. Although there was very considerable movement of people within and between British colonial territories (through indenture and through encouraged migrations from India to Africa, South East Asia, and the Pacific), only a small (but significant) part of this was to the ‘mother country’.

It was around the time of the overt decolonization of the mid-twentieth century (that is the end of formal empire, and the emergence of independent nations) that the populations of the empire became established in sizeable numbers within Britain itself. The most obvious and most celebrated example of this was the arrival in London in 1948 of the Empire Windrush, which was the first significant migration of (mostly) men from the Caribbean to work and live within Britain (Hall 2018; Olusoga 2017).

The Windrush is considered a representation of the time from 1948 to 1962 when all colonial ‘subjects’ had an equality of citizenship within the empire (Ansari 2013) — and thus the ‘Windrush generation’ from the Caribbean, and a similar generation from India and Pakistan, arrived in the country as British citizens. Of course, their passports enabled them to find work and to settle, but they did not mitigate the racialized exclusion, dehumanization, and violence that were directed against them within Britain as a result of the white supremacism of British identity.

And so, decolonization of British higher education operates within this particular context — in universities that were built literally on stolen resources and labour, and which have been profoundly rooted in discourses of racialised white supremacism (Bhopal 2018). Indeed, the elite long-established universities of Britain were themselves a central part of the knowledge economy of empire, that placed them at the peak of civilization. And although there has been the end of empire, decolonization, and the emergence of a diverse, multicultural British population, much of the paternalist ideology still remains — despite efforts to perform diversity and inclusion (Ahmed and Swan 2006; Bhopal 2017b; Arday and Mirza 2017).

Across these various locations and contexts, decolonization of education is about challenging the systems, structures, and assumptions that have been baked into the academic worldview by colonialism based on white supremacism.

In short, decolonization is not simply a matter of words — the politics of decolonization are (often hidden) at the heart of what scholars are doing, who they are writing about, and also where they are located. This is a major challenge for all parts of the university system — well beyond the study of religion — and this challenge is exacerbated by the many other issues currently faced by the system. ^[13]

Alongside this, though, words do matter a great deal: in what scholars say, and what students are taught (and also in the silences, in what is not said and not included in the syllabus). Hence, the process of decolonizing the university (and particular disciplines) does require some challenge to the content of curricular.


Decolonizing the curriculum: why is my curriculum so white?

The politics of decolonization is the backdrop not only of the wider decolonization movement, it is also at the heart of all academic activity. Thus, it is not separate from the decolonization of knowledge — instead it is part of the wider picture. The social justice of political decolonization needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency — with relation to Indigenous people across the world, the issues of settler colonialism, and the continuing forms of segregation and discrimination due to racialisation. And as part of that process there is also an urgent need to change the way that these issues are talked about, understand, and of course taught. These are issues that impact on both the coloniser and the colonised.

Such a decolonization of knowledge works in various ways. At the most obvious (and most discussed) level it is an issue of curriculum, what and who is taught in the classroom. This widens out not only to who is included and excluded in curricula, but also within textbooks and research, and also within staff appointments. But further to this, it is also about the structures of universities, the institutional and structural issues that impact on both staff and students, and thus directly on the stakeholders of the discipline.

The question, ‘why is my curriculum so white?’ is now commonly being asked at the student level across most universities and departments. It has erupted into a number of public debates, in particular in London and Cambridge.

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

It does not take much effort to discover the racialized assumptions of Kant and other enlightenment thinkers about non-Europeans, particularly Africans (Hesse 2007; Vial 2016; Curran 2013; Eze 1997; Zambrana 2017), nor to link that to the brutal European systems of industrialised enslavement 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. ^[14]

Similarly, in autumn 2017 a group of students at the University of Cambridge lobbied for the addition of a more diverse range of readings on the English literature curriculum at the University of Cambridge (Gopal 2017). What was most remarkable about this was not the request being made, but the extreme — and highly misleading — reporting by the British right-wing press of the discussions going on in Cambridge about the curriculum (in particular by the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail). Thus a splash first page headline on the Telegraph claimed that one particular student (clearly identified as black) was ‘forcing’ the university to ‘drop white authors’ (Khomami and Watt 2017).

The student involved was Lola Olufemi, the women’s officer of the Cambridge University Student Union, who was in fact one of a large number of students involved in the discussions on how to expand the readings for a particular course. In an interview with the Guardian, in response to the Telegraph’s allegations, Olufemi said:

Decolonising is about critiquing the current curriculum in order to make it better, it is about expanding our notions of “good” literature so that it doesn’t always elevate one voice, one experience, one way of being in the world. (Khomami and Watt 2017)

Olufemi also highlighted the very obviously racist attack on her by the newspapers to undermine the debate that was going on about such a process of decolonization at the University of Cambridge:

I think it is very telling that they chose to place a photograph of me, a student, a highly visible young, black woman student, on the front of their newspaper, as if to incite this kind of abuse, and incite hatred, and make me into a figure that people could attack. (Khomami and Watt 2017)

The questions being asked at both SOAS and Cambridge — and elsewhere — are ones that go beyond the content of particular syllabuses. They are questions that should not only be asked by students. Such ‘decolonization’ should be a basic starting point for any syllabus design, and also for any writing project. ^[15]

On discussing the process at Cambridge, Priyamvada Gopal puts it as follows:

A decolonised curriculum would bring questions of class, caste, race, gender, ability and sexuality into dialogue with each other, instead of pretending that there is some kind of generic identity we all share. (Gopal 2017)

This is not about putting a token writer of colour on a syllabus (or in a bibliography) for the sake of meeting a diversity quota. It is a recognition that there are voices that can and should be heard — both by scholars in their research and students in their programmes. The white male voice — and indeed the white female voice — should not be privileged; it is one out of many.

Sara Ahmed (2014) has put this in a very direct way:

White men cite other white men: it is what they have always done; it is what they will do; what they teach each other to do when they teach each other. They cite; how bright he is; what a big theory he has. He’s the next such-and-such male philosopher: don’t you think; see him think. The relation is often paternal: the father brings up the son who will eventually take his place. Patriarchy: it’s quite a system. It works.
You come against a system when you point out a system. When there is a system those who benefit from the system do not want to recognise that system. (Ahmed 2014)

And so for Ahmed there is a response to this, a challenge:

In the book I am writing Living a Feminist Life (2017) I thus have a strict and explicit citation policy. I will not and do not cite white men. And you know what: it has been really easy! You should try it! We can rebuild our houses with feminist tools; with de-colonial precision we can bring the house of whiteness down. (Ahmed 2014)

This is the challenge: perhaps to write a paper, or a book, or a syllabus that has no white men (and, of course, yes I do understand that means the exclusion of my own work too). Such exclusions very often happen the other way around, and that is so rarely challenged or even noticed — the exclusion of people of colour, particularly women of colour, is often invisible and unnoticed in academia.

The decolonizing process of expanding the curriculum makes a difference in other ways. The hidden (and often unacknowledged) politics of citation (Delgado 1984) and curriculum is clearly a means to protect and promote a white normativity, but it also potentially excludes the reader. Kehinde Andrews describes an experience (Rutherford 2017) that he shares with many other contemporary scholars of colour in Britain, ‘I’ve never been taught, ever, at any level — at school or university — by anyone that wasn’t white’. When this does still happen (as it does so often, still), the learning process should not be about white teachers using white authors in the teaching of students.

And this relates to the further issue of not only what we encourage others to read, but also the questions that scholars ask — to themselves and also to students. In other words, if it is so difficult to make use of a person of colour in the curriculum, then should we be rethinking the questions we are asking? Are we missing out something (as well as some people) which has a significant bearing on the research and teaching being done?

Readings on a syllabus and citations in academic papers are conversation partners — the scholar engages with new ideas and questions through their reading of other people’s work. If the sources for our writing and teaching all share the common identity of whiteness (even if they have diverse opinions), then the academic conversation is likely also to be monochrome.

We do not have to agree with every person and perspective on a syllabus. A challenging perspective is often helpful for teaching and for students to engage with to form their own sense of critique. But we also need to make sure that adding such voices are not introduced to be set up as ‘others’ — voices which are portrayed as beyond and perhaps opposing the (white) mainstream.

So much of this comes down to challenging dominant assumptions and in particular the challenge of the dominance of white normativity — both in our syllabuses and in our thinking. Instead it is important to consider further who is encouraged to be part of the discussion

And this includes the students in the classroom. As Sara Ahmed noted, the person of colour (student or teacher) very often feels like a ‘space invader’, a body which is ‘out of place’. One important aim of decolonization is to ensure that all students have a social, cultural and material place in the learning process and that this is not problematized, but is instead facilitated and supported.

This brings us back to the issue of questions in research and teaching. That is, who forms the questions? Or to put this another way, who are deemed to be fit and appropriate for asking the questions that are chosen to be answered.

And thus, it is an issue of what is studied.

In practice, I see this as a significant part of what I think is important within the study of religion. The discipline is not only looking at ‘religion as an object’ — the specifics of particular religious traditions. In fact, if religion is seen in this way, I argue that the study of religion is thus not about studying religion (Nye 2017a; 2018).

Instead, a very significant part of the study is the conditions and history that led the scholar and the student to view the specifics of (what they see as) religion in this way. It is about studying theory and approaches that contextualise such assumptions in a global context and a history of colonialism. Again, this is not a theory coming from white men, it is a range of approaches that Raewyn Connell (2007) calls ‘Southern Theory’. ^[16]


Decolonizing at the institutional level

Returning to the discussions at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in 2017, following the high profile public coverage of these issues of curriculum and pedagogic change, in November that year the Academic Board of the School agreed a policy titled Decolonising SOAS Vision. ^[17]

This policy commits the institution to address the need for decolonization by:

Ÿ> Supporting further recognition and debate about the wide, complex and varied impacts of colonialism, imperialism and racism in shaping our university,
Ÿ > Embedding within our policies and practices a deeper understanding that these impacts produce and reproduce injustices and inequalities within education,
Ÿ > A stronger commitment to actively make redress for such impacts through ongoing collective dialogue within the university and through our public obligations,
Ÿ > The provision of institution-level support to embed this understanding in SOAS’s contribution as a public university in the service of the wider world.
Source: Decolonising SOAS Vision, https://www.soas.ac.uk/decolonising-soas/

Although this is a vague articulation, it does stand out at present as a unique attempt in Britain to address historical and contemporary issues deriving from ‘colonialism, imperialism, and racism’ with relation to the formation and current structures of universities. In this respect, a good institutional starting point for the issues of decolonization would be the implementation of such a policy by all British universities.

However, it is worth considering the existence of the Athena SWAN equality charter scheme, which was formed and continues to develop as a means of supporting, promoting, and advancing women within universities across the sector. Although Athena SWAN now openly supports intersectionality, its remit is primarily focused on gender (Pearce 2017b). The Equality Challenge Unit also administers a scheme titled the Race Equality Charter, which at present does not have the same high profile as Athena SWAN. ^[18] This leaves the question — which will no doubt be addressed at some future date — of whether the two schemes should be merged to act as a single intersectional means of monitoring and advancing equalities across the sector.

So on one level perhaps, the advancement of decolonization could be promoted by being folded into such a sector-wide movement with the aim of addressing the historical and contemporary injustices and inequalities of race and colonialism in British higher education. If this was to happen, then it would need to be bottom-up and be based on an expectation of the implementation of radical intersectional changes. As Athena SWAN has shown, however, a well-meaning initiative can easily become a managerial burden which serves in effect to compound the issues it is meant to be addressing. As a recent 2017 report based on a seminar (at Warwick University) reflecting on Athena SWAN pointed out:

Despite Athena SWAN’s benefit, the main topic of conversation during the event was the burden that equality accreditation schemes can place on departments and assessment teams, potentially leading to ‘charter mark fatigue’. Ironically, this burden is often felt most severely by the very academics that equality charters are meant to help. Many attendees described their experience of exhaustion in undertaking Athena SWAN work, as well as equality work more widely. (Pearce 2017a)

It is easy to see how this happens. Academic environments (particularly in Britain) are heavily managerialised, often relying on crude structures of ‘measurement’ for implementation of performative neo-liberal policies such as ‘research excellence’, ‘teaching excellence’, and ‘knowledge exchange’. The aims of both gender and race equality can (and often are) used and abused ruthlessly within such a managerial approach. This happens within a framework that purports to show transparency and progress, whilst in practice works to reproduce a system that is the opposite of the intended outcome — as Sara Ahmed (2012) has shown.

Of course, much the same could happen with any programme for decolonization of universities. That is not to say it should not be attempted. As things stand at present, there are very significant issues of racialised discrimination and exclusion within British universities — a problem which is largely unacknowledged.

Kalwant Bhopal (2016; 2017a; 2017b; 2018) has argued that race has a fundamental (and often largely ignored) presence across the university sector — including within humanities, social sciences, and thus the study of religion. Across the sector there is systematic disadvantage for people of colour, and in particular women of colour. This ranges from undergraduate recruitment — for example, the extreme lack of black British students at leading universities such as Oxford (Adams and Bengtsson 2017) — to professorial appointments (Hall 2017) and senior management/leadership (Adams 2018).

Kalwant Bhopal argues:

Black and minority ethnic academics working in universities remain marginalised (Bhopal, Brown, and Jackson 2016) and regularly describe experiencing subtle, covert, and nuanced racism. At senior levels, they are less likely than their white colleagues to be professors (Equality Challenge Unit 2015) or occupy decision-making roles. The white space of the academy perpetuates and reinforces white middle class privilege; consequently our higher education continues to be dominated by a white elite. (Bhopal 2017b)

This is not particular to higher education, it is largely consistent with the broader structural environment of both Britain and north America — where structural racism is very largely built into social institutions, values, and organisations such as universities. In short, racialised disadvantage (as well as gendered disadvantage) is hardwired into contemporary universities at every level.

As Heidi Safia Mirza comments:

Higher education in Britain still remains a “hideously white” place, rarely open to critical gaze. It is not a place in which you expect to find many black bodies. Being a black body “out of place” in white institutions has emotional and psychological costs (Ahmed 2012, 153) to the bearer of that difference. (Mirza 2015)

This is the institutional context in which all religious studies scholars work in the UK — and in a related manner in much of north America. My general experience is that departments of religious studies are perhaps more likely to employ non-white scholars. But that does not mitigate the impact on institutional structures, particularly given the increasingly top-down management of departments by university administrations. In addition, alongside this there are a number of particular ways in which the study of religion constructs and perpetuates such racialization.

Therefore, ‘decolonization’ should not merely become a new addition to the administrative burden of scholars and teachers. It is not simply about outlining new boxes to check and achieve.

As, Achillle Mbembe has argued, within the particular context of South Africa:

To decolonize the university is… to reform it with the aim of creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism — a task that involves the radical refounding of our ways of thinking and a transcendence of our disciplinary divisions. (Mbembe 2016)

Decolonizing the study of religion?

As mentioned above, decolonization is not simply about adding one or two alternative readings to a syllabus. Decolonization (or de-whitening/diversifying) of the curriculum is a starting point, and is also the inevitable result of a much wider programme of change, which I detail below. So, how can the study of religion (and of course a number of related academic fields of study) move further from its origins as a tool of European colonialism, to being a space in which contemporary power structures of inequality (including race, gender, sexualities, class, and ability) are challenged and disrupted?

Some of the ways in which the discipline can begin to explore this are as follows: the historical development of the study of religion, such as its formation as a discipline; the historical processes by which key assumptions and ideas (and terminology) were formed; the discipline’s canon of theory and methodologies; and the way in which the discipline is written. I discuss each of these below.

The historical development of the study of religion

Western universities are the products of a long history of colonialism, and as I noted above, the ways in which that history has led to the construction of the contemporary university system in Britain and north America have been largely obfuscated within both popular and academic discussions. In recent decades there has been some good scholarship exploring the history of the discipline, going back to Sharpe’s (1985) meticulous coverage up to the 1970s (although failing to bring out both the colonial and gendered issues of the history he was trying to tell). More nuanced (and less comprehensive histories), placing the study of religion within the colonial era have been written by Tomoko Masuzawa (2005), David Chidester (1996, 2014), Richard King (1999), Philip Almond (1988), Daniel Dubuisson (2007), Sven Bretfeld (2012), Jason Ananda Josephson (2011), and Brian Pennington (2005).

Much of this more recent scholarship has been exploring and developing the work of Edward Said (2003), in particular his classical critique of the imperial discourses of orientalism. Thus, scholars working in the study of religion have had to confront questions about whether the nineteenth-century focus on the religious texts and particular histories of Hindus, Buddhists, and others within the colonial context did in fact help to create (or construct) these contexts as singular religions. As Chidester (2014) and Pennington (2005) have argued, this should not be seen as a one-way street — with white Victorian scholars (and colonial agents) dictating to colonial ‘natives’ the existence of new religions. Very often, the agency of those living under colonial rule (and under the gaze of western scholars) was equally important — in particular with intellectual and political leaders becoming involved in reinterpretations and reconstructions of traditions within the fast changing colonial world of modernity.

Alongside such historical reappraisal within the study of religion, there has also been some very good research emerging on how distinct disciplines and areas of study — particularly within the humanities and social sciences — came into being during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is, exploration of questions about how and why specific disciplinary areas became mapped out and normalised during this time. In the twenty-first century, it is now largely taken for granted that universities will have particular departmental and disciplinary locations for research and teaching — such as history, English, sociology, anthropology, and (perhaps to a more contested extent) the study of religion. These divisions became manifest and institutionalised in the nineteenth century.

Thus, the study of religion — like much of the humanities — is a disciplinary area with roots in the high period of European colonialism. The disciplinary formation of religious studies is a product of empire (Nye 2017c), and so the questions it asks, its key concepts, and its location within universities reflects this origin.

Of course, the world has changed considerably in the last century, and the end of formal empires in the mid-twentieth century led to a reformulation of academic disciplines such as religious studies. This occurred alongside the continuing and new forms of informal colonialism in the contemporary era, discussed above (see, Quijano 2007). However, there has been only limited reflection within the discipline on how such colonial history initially shaped — and continues to shape — the main functions and outputs of the scholarship that it nurtures.

And so, as Sharpe (1985) outlined in his history of the discipline, in the early decades of the twentieth century those who studied religion (in western universities) largely focused on issues of what they assumed to be social evolution, and thus questions of how so-called ‘primitive religion’ (of non-western cultures) were distinct from their own (‘civilised’ or ‘advanced’) practices of religion. These questions have largely disappeared from the study of religion (although not entirely), but the apparatus that delivered such racialised science became the basis for the emergence of chairs and departments of religious studies. Following on from discussions that are taking place beyond the confines of the study of religion, I argue that it is important to explore the politics of knowledge and disciplinary foundation in the early twentieth century.

The sociologist Gurminder Bhambra has argued (2009, 2013) that the emergence of the disciplines of anthropology and sociology both relied on the ways in which British and American colonialism used a frame of ‘modernity’ to structure academic knowledge and methodology. She argues:

The history of modernity as commonly told… rests, as Homi Bhabha argues, on ‘the writing out of the colonial and post-colonial moment’ (1994, p.250; see also Chakrabarty 2000). The rest of the world is assumed to be external to the world-historical processes selected for consideration and, concretely, colonial connections significant to the processes under discussion are erased, or rendered silent.
This is not an error of individual scholarship, I suggest, but something that is made possible by the very disciplinary structure of knowledge production that separates the modern (sociology) from the traditional and colonial (anthropology) thereby leaving no space for consideration of what could be termed the ‘postcolonial modern’. (Bhambra 2013, p.300).

To paraphrase this, sociology was developed as a means to produce knowledge of modernity for colonial powers, whilst anthropology was formed to separate out the ‘other’, the colonised, and the issues that do not fit easily into the paradigm of modernity. Of course, this is not an absolute distinction between the two disciplines, but it is a very useful account of the formation of the two separate forms of social science.

That is, the discipline of anthropology — which emerged at the same time as the study of religion — came about through the ‘writing out’ of postcolonial (non-western) modernities by a Europe-centred modernity (see also, Nye 2017b). This was not particular to anthropology — much of the humanities emerged through this process, that is through the definition of how the values of modernity related to the subject matter of the discipline. 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 (and is not so ‘obviously’ white as some humanities disciplines such as philosophy, classics, and medieval history^[19]), at the same time the discipline does so within a framework of colonially structured modernity.

As an example of how this works in practice, I suggest a question: 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 and Upanishads, the rich canon of the classical Chinese philosophical schools deriving from figures such as Kongzi (Confucius) and Laozi (Lao-tzu), and/or perhaps the sources for Zen and Shinto in Japan. If the colonial or the contemporary are included, they are often as an add-on — that is, they are presented as an anthropological exploration of the perplexing disparity between the past and the present. What this indicates is that the subjects are taught in a way to exclude modernity, or at the very least to exoticise and problematise modernity when it gets in the way of our understanding of (what is expected to be) the ‘religion’.

My suggestion is that the subject matter of such courses would best be taught based on an approach that does not remove (what we assume to be) modernity, but instead to use such modernity as the entry into our engagement with the material. That is, to teach from the present backwards — through 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 by the modernity of the postcolonial world. A very good example of this can be found in Arvind Mandair’s (2009, 2013) discussions of Sikh traditions. ^[20]

In short, one starting point for decolonizing the study of religion is to recognise and explore the discipline’s historical contingency. The discipline did not emerge out of nowhere, it was made by a particular social and historical context, and its current structures — and many of its key assumptions and reasons for being — still rely on that context. One part of exploring and understanding this is to question and contextualise some of the key terms and ideas that are ‘taken for granted’ within the discipline.

Key assumptions: religion and religions

There are many terms that have been debated and contested within the history of the study of religion. Thus terms such as ‘spirituality’, ‘magic’, ‘ritual’, ‘animism’, ‘belief’, and ‘god’ are all recognised as having specific cultural and historical legacies — both prior to the emergence of the discipline, and also within its operation as a discourse of empire (and subsequently). Indeed, any term used within the study of religion needs to be put into such ‘scare quotes’, to indicate that these can never be ‘neutral’ ideas and discourses that exist beyond the level of a particular society, culture, or political context. Thus, the study of religion is — like much else in the humanities and social sciences — a study of translation and interpretation, and in particular of how all knowledge and discourse is located within the particular, not the universal. Although English is the dominant language of the discipline of the study of religion, the English-language terminology that its scholars use to engage with each other across the world does not necessarily homogenise or flatten out the historical and political legacies of those terms. ^[21]

This discussion has of course extended as far as the key term of the study of religion, that is, the term ‘religion’. The critiques made of the term by W.C. Smith (1991), J.Z. Smith (1982), and Talal Asad (1993) have become a central part of contemporary theoretical debates within the discipline, largely focusing on the work of Timothy Fitzgerald (2000a, 2000b) and Russell McCutcheon (1997, Arnal and McCutcheon 2012). In short, this approach recognises that ‘religion’ is not only a particular English language term, it is one with a particular history — having emerged within colonial histories of white European Protestant Christian traditions.

Thus, to study ‘religion’ is not to study a ‘thing’ in itself, which exists across humanity as a universal, it is instead a study of how particular ideas (and discourses) of ‘religion’ are practised and operationalized in various contexts (Taira 2010, 2016). Of course, this becomes very challenging in contexts beyond the English language, where the discourses on ‘religion’ may be quite different from what is understood by the English language term. At present, this is hotly contested between scholars working in ‘theory and method’, particularly over whether the ‘deconstruction’ of the term ‘religion’ requires (or allows) scholars to retain the term as a tool of analysis (what is called, ‘taking religion seriously’). ^[22] In particular, the idea that there is such a thing as religion, with a common-sense meaning that can be applied in most (if not all) contexts across the world, is in itself the result of European colonial rule (Nongbri 2013).

The same can also be said for the other central term within the study of religion — that is, ‘religions’ — as a plural rather than singular. If all people have religion, then it is possible to divide up different ways in which that religion is found into different religions. And in doing so, these diverse religions cluster into a number of large groups — what have come to be known as ‘world religions’. This classification system at the heart of the study of religion has again been critiqued in various ways, for example by Fitzgerald (1990) and Owen (2011), and most recently in Cotter and Robertson (2016). As a typology it does the work of classifying differences which are 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 (2005), 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 the recent book edited by Cotter and Robertson (2016) 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 of (and help to sustain) this category. One possibility is to take seriously Patrick Wolfe’s (2016) argument that ‘race is colonialism speaking’. In which case, there is a need to engage with how the ideas of religion, race and racism are connected, as I have explored in another discussion (Nye 2018; see also Lloyd 2013; Vial 2016; Lum and Harvey 2018; and Simmons 2018).

Alongside this there is the discussion of how this concept of religion/religions relies on what is usually considered to be its antithesis, that is, the secular. This religion-secular relationship has a particular history (Asad 2003; Fitzgerald 2007; Abeysekara 2010; Mahmood 2015) which also emerged through the processes of colonialism. Thus, as Mignolo (2007) suggests, coloniality is linked with the processes of rationalisation and modernity, and in many respects the idea of religion being not only separate from but also opposed to these elements works to construct secularity as a key element of coloniality. Within such structures of thought, the concept of religion requires the concept of secularity (and secularism) to emphasise the irrationality and backwardness of the other (the colonised), who thus become in need of ‘civilizing’. And the corollary also occurs, that is the concept to modern rational secularity requires a concept of religion and religions as others, to colonise, civilise, and defeat. Needless to say, this process has primarily been a process of racialization, relying on concepts such as the ‘mystic’ Hindu, the contemplative Buddhist, the violent jihadi Muslim, and the noble but ultimately doomed (and landless) Indigenous people.

Reproducing the canon

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 (Pals 1996), but which has developed to its current edition as nine (Pals 2014). Of the ten theorists covered, all of them are men (the most recent theorist 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 ubiquitous-ness of this book tells us much more about the discipline than about its author. A book such as this tries to respect the established canon of theory, albeit on an evolving basis of new (usually male) thinkers coming on line and eventually being included. What I am suggesting is that it is time (indeed it is long past time) to re-evaluate and revise whatever canon may be accepted at the disciplinary level.

In some respects, this takes us back to the discussion of revising the curriculum, of adding diverse authors to the long list of white men. Contrary to what was indicated above, though, this could be done by removing some of the ‘founding fathers’ from the list. It might sound like heresy, perhaps, but what benefit is there to the discipline to assume that the work of Emile Durkheim on religion is foundational theory? Durkheim’s theory is based on his reading of the accounts of missionaries and colonial travellers, in the context of white English settlement of central Australia in the nineteenth century. The twenty-first century reader of this (hopefully) will be aware of the flaws with such an approach which is premised on discussion of ‘primitive’ societies that provide an insight into human evolution, as the most elementary of forms of social and religious organisation. However, from a twenty-first century perspective, this is not simply anachronistic, it is racist and white supremacist — based on common assumptions of European imperialism during Durkheim’s time. There is plenty of scope to think through Durkheim’s ideas within the context of the French society that he was familiar with, but that does not make his work any less racist and imperialist. The fact that contemporary students are taught to think of such theory and methodology as acceptable says a great deal about the discipline.

Thus, to quote Pals in detail, he writes on how Durkheim relied on:

the work of Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, two field anthropologists who had been able to observe closely certain primitive aborigine tribes in the remote hinterlands of Australia. Their work — along with that of the German fieldworker Carl von Strehlow and others who had made similar observations — furnished a detailed portrait of social life in these extremely simple communitiesOne can hardly find anything more basic than the very categories of human thought and experience; among the aborigines, these are provided by totemism. (Pals 2006, 97, emphasis added)
Durkheim contends that if his analysis is correct, there is a great deal to be learned from the primitive peoples of Australia. In the totemism of their tribes and clans, one finds on clear display all of the truly “elementary forms” of the religious life… Though harder to detect in the great and dominant religions of the world, they are as unmistakably present in these complex traditions as they are in the simplest totemism. East or West, ancient or modern, beliefs and rituals always express a society’s needs… (Pals 2006, 106, emphasis added)

And so the problem here is not only with Durkheim, whose work was racist and colonialist in 1912 when it was first written, and remains so. In the quote above it is Pals who is writing, and although he is paraphrasing much of Durkheim, he does so without providing any analysis of the very obvious issues within the work. In many respects, therefore, Pals is exploring Durkheim’s theory whilst also endorsing the racializing methodology. Thus, the problem here is with scholars, such as Pals, who find it appropriate to write about and teach this scientific racism. In writing in this way, Pals is presenting the canon of scholarship of religion as being unproblematically based in this colonial racialization of difference.

My response to this is to ask the question of what exactly should a decolonised canon for the study of religion look like? What is important for future generations to learn about and take forward? It is a problem that is exercising my mind as I work on a new edition of my own introduction to the field (Nye 2008), and of course it is something that every person responsible for teaching ‘theory and method’ on a religion programme should give serious thought to. If it means ‘dropping’ Durkheim (and Pals) then I think this is a step in the right direction. And this is not because of the race or gender of these two individuals, but because they are very poor examples of the type of theory and method that should be taught in the study of religion. If they are to be used, ^[23] then they should be taught as historical sources, as examples of the ways in which the academic study of religion has been an institutionalisation of racist theory.

What I suggest instead, is that there are many other issues, theories, and approaches that should be at the heart of what is taught within the study of religion. This for me focuses on what can be called an intersectional approach which puts at the centre of any research project (and taught course) questions of race, gender, sexualities, and colonial history. ^[24] I also consider that any discussion of religion must be a discussion of gender^[25] and race[26], which do not exist separate from the category of religion but are in fact part of the ‘colonial matrix of power’ (cf., Mignolo 2007) that operates within the institutionalisation of higher education.

Engaging with each of these issues — and many more — and doing so from more than simply a white male standpoint is for me a very significant part of facing the challenges of decolonization with the discipline of religious studies. These may well not be the only issues of importance, but they are very important.

Method and discipline

I have a further range of issues in the decolonization of the study of religion, which perhaps reflect and take forward a number of the points that I have mentioned above. That is, how does the process of diversifying and decolonizing happen, and how does this not somehow get clawed back into the white normativity that it is challenging? I get very frustrated with the field of religious studies, in particular the slowness with which it engages (in general) with developments occurring elsewhere in the study of culture (see Joy 2013). I am responding to that frustration partly by writing this paper. In doing so, what I am outlining here is a contribution to the change I would like to see happening.

I also have a foot in another camp, that is the field of social/cultural anthropology — which is where I was trained (as both an undergraduate and postgraduate). Sometimes I would like to get away from some of the frustrations of religious studies and lose myself in the depths of anthropology — whilst at others I find the interdisciplinarity of the study of religion a welcome contrast to some of the confining structures of the anthropological discipline.

In the past few months, in the run up to my formulation of this discussion, certain areas of anthropology faced the trauma of revelations about the online journal HAU, which until summer 2018 had a good reputation for the publication of innovative new research in the field. As well as the particular details of the management of the journal, the scandal has been focused on revelations about the fault lines in the discipline of anthropology that go far beyond one particular journal or editor.

In a discussion of this, Zoe Todd (2016, 2018) suggests the need for a ‘Decolonial Turn 2.0’ to occur in the discipline of anthropology. That is, although recognizing there has been a process of reflection about the colonial roots of the field, this has largely been about white men reflecting on what their academic forebears did whilst still avoiding any real structural (or even theoretical) changes within the curriculum and canon.

Thus, she repeats a comment she once heard, that:

‘Anthropology is a room full of white people sitting around talking about people of colour.’ (Todd 2018)

As Todd indicates, this is very much supported by the research and discussion by Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson (2011) on anthropology as ‘white public space’, that struggles — both institutionally and on the personal level — to make space for scholars of colour.

I think much the same can be said about the study of religion — although it is worth reflecting on how in studies of religion the focus (or seeming object) of study is very often seen as not so much people, but rather on ‘beliefs’, texts, and generic categories of ‘religion’. ^[27] That is, the discipline purports to focus on people’s cultural products rather than the people themselves. But nonetheless, it is white men that tend to dominate. So, we could perhaps adapt Todd’s comment to the particularities of how religious studies does its work:

‘The study of religion is a room full of white people sitting around talking about things that people of colour do.’

The lack of space for Indigineity that Todd describes in anthropology is similarly constructed — in its own particular ways — within the study of religion. Todd’s recommendation, for anthropology, is as follows:

It is clear to me that anthropology of the 21st century must be reciprocal, open (Pandian 2018), and engage in ‘epistemic diversity’ (Mbembe 2015). It must open itself up to engagement beyond the narrow canon it jealously guards, Smaug-like, from universities built on white supremacy (and quite literally, through slavery) and enriched by wealth and knowledge pilfered through Imperialism. Anthropology of the 21st century can and must be something altogether different if it wishes to survive. (Todd 2018)

She concludes with the comment:

we are tasked with making anthropology what it needs to be. Or, maybe, abandoning it all together. And starting something else anew. (Todd 2018)

As I mentioned, I have a foot in both anthropology and the study of religion — and I feel that her comments apply similarly to the latter also. What makes the study of religion distinct from anthropology, perhaps, is that in the study of religion there never has been any previous effort to decolonise. The study of religion is still looking for decolonization 1.0 — which should be along the lines of Todd’s recommendations for anthropology’s 2.0 version.

Indeed, it is worth noting here the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) on decolonizing methodologies, and the emergence of the field of indigenous methodologies (Kovach 2010; Chilisa 2011). She presents a compelling critique of the ambitions (and often arrogance) of European researchers on issues such as culture and religion:

It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that it is possible to know of us, on the basis of their brief encounters with some of us. It appals us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations.
This book identifies research as a significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of the Other… [I]t is surely difficult to discuss research methodology and indigenous peoples together, in the same breath, without having an analysis of imperialism, without understanding the complex ways in which the pursuit of knowledge is deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices. (Tuhiwai Smith 1999)

For Tuhiwai Smith, the understanding of Indigenous is complex and very much about plurality, not solely referring to her own context as Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand. Although the term also has particular points of reference with politically marginalised cultures and nations in north America and Australia, it also indicates more broadly the context of what Fanon and Memmi has designated as the colonised. Indeed, what Tuhiwai Smith is drawing attention to are some of the not so obvious implications of research conducted in and about non-western cultures — that is, the core of the study of religion. Thus research needs to be conducted on a level of equity, with those being researched as equal partners who have control of the planning, design, and delivery of the outcomes of the research.

Some further areas for consideration

As I come towards the end of an already very long paper, I am keenly aware that my suggestions for making a start on the decolonization of the study of religion are in many respects just scratching the surface of a very large process. There are other issues that I think are equally important to consider, but which all I can do at this stage is to note and then recommend them for a later day. Thus for example:

As I have stressed throughout this paper, the study of religion does not exist in isolation. Every aspect of what is done within the discipline is impacted (and impacts) on much wider social and structural issues. Thus, the study of religion has been very much part of the western social and political shifts to neo-liberalism and new forms of neo-colonialism in the past few decades. This is reflected in issues such as the rise of particular forms of Islamic Studies in Britain and north America, particularly in the years since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. One part of the response to this by academics within this field has been a certain defensiveness about teaching Islam, stressing that there is a distinction that can be made between good (peaceful) and bad (terrorist) Islam, or even between proper (or true) Islam (i.e., the former) and distortions of that truth. Although this is done with the best of intentions, to combat the strength of organised, racialized Islamophobic attacks on Muslims, it is still very much implicated within a colonial division. The ‘good’ Muslims/Islam (as judged by the white western thinker) are on the side of the colonizer, whilst everyone else falls beyond the dividing line. And of course, it is the white western commentator (in academia and the media) who has ultimate control over where that dividing line might fall.

The study of religion within colonialism also needs to face the many challenges of where and how the various traditions of Christianity have been both part of this process (in the form of specifically Christian thinkers within the field) and also as objects of study (of Christian within the colonial and postcolonial world). How much are contemporary Christian traditions are themselves the products of colonialism and coloniality, and how much does this become hidden by narratives that tend to stress the fundamentals of modern Christianity in terms of the Protestant reformation? And most importantly perhaps for many in the discipline, what would a decolonization of the interactions between theology and the study of religion involve?

I also feel strongly that such a process of decolonization needs to have relevance well beyond the confines of the discipline. Not only should it impact on debates and research on (what is thought of as) religion in other areas of humanities and social sciences, it should also be part of the public debate on (the concept of) religion. Decolonization should involve engagement in and with popular culture, even though very often the public understanding of (and debates on) issues and expectations are not nuanced. One challenge is that decolonization within the study of religion may not be well understood within a wider world that is moving towards new forms of colonisation rather than decolonization. Here the gatekeepers of the media play a very important role, as do the consumers along with the medium itself (whether it be print, TV, or digital media). The medium for engagement so often dictates or imposes terms, and thus often excludes (or mocks) voices that aim to explain and further decolonization. Instead, attempts at public understanding of ‘religion’ often work to both reify the colonial concept of religion whilst placing the objects of such understanding (‘other religions’) within a distinctly colonizing gaze (as exotic, primitive, and other).


Conclusion

One of the most important points I would like to emphasise is that decolonization it is not a ‘solid state’ or a one-off event. Decolonization is an ongoing process. As we have seen, the end of formal empires did not end the processes of decolonization (nor did it end colonization). And likewise, decolonization does not simply happen with the inclusion of a new reading on a syllabus, or the holding of a seminar (or staff training event). Decolonization is a process that aims to create large-scale transformation of all levels of the academy — including the classroom, the discipline, and the institution.

Thus decolonization is not the same as ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversification’ — it is not about a paternalistic offering of inclusion to outsiders. Decolonization is about challenging and changing the sense of white entitlement (and white supremacism) that sets up the structures of power that carefully ‘allow’ (and control) the inclusion of certain forms of diversity (DiAngelo 2011). As I mentioned in the introduction, the metaphor of the ‘seat at the table’ (or the space on the syllabus) for such diversity is part of such white paternalism — decolonization is a challenge to these assumptions of power and the structures that are formed to maintain them.

Decolonization is not about identifying and employing ‘measurables’ or metrics. It is not about tick boxes, that are checked with a ‘yep we’ve done that, now we get our medal to put on the website’. There is no managerial ‘reward’ for decolonization, other than the visceral engagement in a process of working to achieve the good scholarship, social justice, and positive global change that the university system is (apparently) in place to affect.

My aim in this paper has been to try to contextualise the concept of decolonization and to point towards some of the ways that it already impacts on the discipline of the study of religion, and of course to highlight some of directions in which this is already beginning to point. Needless to say, if decolonization of the study of religion is desirable, then it is important to reflect on how this may translate into teaching and research.

One question that is worth asking concerns what students may be expecting when they sign up for a religion course. From this, the teacher is not necessarily required to meet such expectation, but instead her/his challenge is to find ways (in the classroom and through her/his writing) to take students from that starting point to a (more?) decolonised perspective. Contrary to some of the major themes within the discipline at present, I do not think this necessitates a perspective of ‘taking religion seriously’, or of emphasising ‘lived religions’ — or even materiality

Instead, my starting point is to step back and ask some key methodological questions — in particular, it is essential to understand how race, gender, colonialism, and whiteness are at the basis of all aspects of the study of religion. This is not purely in terms of ‘theory’ for its own sake, or because these are particular issues that are important to me. These issues are defining elements of western European and north American cultural discourse, and so it is impossible to understand how the study of religion works within these contexts without looking at these issues. In particular, the discourse and ideology of whiteness is a key part of any cultural research, particularly as it is one of the most invisible elements of the academy.

Thus, there are a number of central elements for a decolonizing approach. Decolonizing is not about a reluctant addition of an extra reading; it requires a wholesale change (perhaps even the ‘hard’ decolonization of pulling apart the discipline, as Todd suggests). And also, who we cite is extremely important, as is who is on the curriculum, and who we read and interact with in our research.

And having started with this, we need to continue to ask questions about race, gender, whiteness, and colonial history. Why do we think what we do and how has it emerged from where we have come from? This involves recognising the concept of whiteness and how it has framed the normative assumptions of the discipline — in particular, the racialized other as subject. Alongside this, there is the challenge of finding ways to ground theory, knowledge, and research practice in ‘the south’, the other, in ‘Indigenous methodologies’.

Some of this can be done in practical terms, although what is needed is a much larger and radical change to the system — to deal with institutional racism of universities, and historic injustices of the contemporary world (the colonial matrix of power).

And so, to conclude this long discussion of decolonization, what I want to stress that this is not only a theoretical exercise or debate. Decolonization is about taking action both within and outside the academy. In particular, for those who are racialized as white (that is, the dominating majority of academics in Britain and north America), where should the process of decolonization start?

The most obvious place — as noted above — is with the authors that we engage with in our research and teaching. If the question ‘why is my curriculum so white’ provokes a response (either of indignation or guilt), then the point is to address this. And as noted above, this is not about finding a particular author of colour to fit into an otherwise unchanged syllabus. It is about asking the questions of how that syllabus needs to be decolonized, decentred, and challenged as a whole. How does the syllabus reflect the gendered and racialized structures of power that are central to the university?

And this is an important point to recognise, that being a teacher and researcher within a university is a position that carries its own forms of privilege (including white privilege and power). This works in various ways, and much of that privilege is clustered at the top of the system, in tenure or permanent, promoted positions. But there is also the privilege held even by those who are suffering from the precariousness of short term, partial, and underfunded contracts — even though their position may not seem to have much privilege. Teaching and research is about mobilising the platform and its privileges as best we can. People who identify as white have a responsibility to make this happen. Decolonization is not solely for those who are identified as people of colour. In a population that is majority white, there is a necessity for both scholars of colour and white scholars to implement an agenda for change; that is, decolonization.

And of course, there needs to be extreme caution to ensure that this agenda does not disappear into the dominant ideologies of whiteness (of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and neoliberalism, etc.). Decolonization is not another former of diversity, to be measured, quantified, and achieved. Decolonization is about changing scholarship and the system, not the other way around.


NOTES

[1] See, for example, Masuzawa (2005); Dubuisson (2007); Sharpe (1985); Balagangadhara (2010); Chidester (1996, 2014); King (1999). <back>

[2] I appreciate that there are some scholars for whom this colonial history does not matter, since it does not stand in the way of (what they consider as) the truths of the discipline. For example, the work of Nigel Biggar comes to mind here: he is a moral theologian at the University of Oxford, who in late 2017 established a research project at the Macdonald Centre titled ‘ethics and empire’ (Adams 2017; McDougall et al. 2017; Sultana 2018; El-Enany 2018; the website for Biggar’s project is at http://www.mcdonaldcentre.org.uk/ethics-and-empire). Alongside such obvious celebrations of colonialism, however, there is also a very resolute part of the field of religious studies that has shown a marked indifference to its intellectual and political roots. <back>

[3] My terminology here is influenced by recent (2016–18) debates in Britain about approaches to the decision to ‘exit’ the European Union. That is, the discussion of the two camps in terms of either a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit.

[4] The following are good starting points for exploring the various understandings and meanings of decolonisation: Bhambra (2017, 2014); Mirza (2015); Gopal (2017); Sabaratnam (2017); Todd (2018); Chowdhry (2018); Prescod-Weinstein (2017); Mgqwashu (2016); Tuck and Yang (2012); Mignolo and Walsh (2018); Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu (2018).

[5] On decolonialism in Latin and Southern America, see for example Quijano (2007); (Mignolo 2007a, 2007b); Mignolo and Walsh (2018); Lugones (2008, 2010; and López (2005).

[6] For Caribbean discussions of decolonization, see for example Césaire (1972); Curtius (2013); Wynter (2003); McKittrick (2014),

[7] On decolonization and indigeneity in Australia and New Zealand, see (Moreton-Robinson 2004, 2015, 2018), Tuhiwai Smith (1999); Connell (2007); and Wolfe (2016).

[8] Prominent figures in the exposition of decolonization in African include Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2013, 2015) and Achille Mbembe (2016) with respect to South Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986) with respect to Kenya, and Ayi Kwei Armah in Ghana (Amuta 1981).

[9] Maldonado-Torres discusses this as the ‘coloniality of being’ (Maldonado‐Torres 2004, 2007).

[10] Such decolonization is also occurring with regard to land use and ownership, with the development of high profile calls for the redistribution of land away from white South Africans (see, for example, Wallen 2018).

[11] See, Draper (2018) and Jones (2018), and in particular a project that is currently ongoing (in 2018) at the University of Glasgow (Garavelli 2017).

[12] See, for example, Carp (2018) and Harris, Campbell, and Brophy (2019), and on Harvard (Beckert and Stevens 2011), and Georgetown (Swarns 2016). A list of various US universities preliminary attempts to address their histories of enslavement can be found on the MIT website (https://libraries.mit.edu/mit-and-slavery/universities-and-slavery/).

[13] These problems include the ever increasing casualization/adjunctification of teaching staff together with significant and ongoing lack of investment in senior and tenure track scholars; inequalities in pay on the basis of gender and race; bloated administrations with very high salaries for top management; the increasing dominance of neo-liberalism in all aspects of university life including the introduction of arbitrary metrics of measurement, such as research and teaching excellence frameworks and research impact goals; and also structural issues shared with many other work cultures including institutional racism and the lack of willingness to address predatory male harassment.

[14] A case can be made (and often is) that those working within the discipline of religious studies can feel more comfortable in this respect. After all, scholars of Chinese or Indian philosophy are more likely to find homes (careers) in RS departments than in Philosophy ones. This is largely hard-wired into the discipline, since its emergence out of Divinity and Theology was premised on an approach that is global and so is far less Europe-centred than philosophy (and normative Christian Theology). However, this inclusion of studies of non-western culture and religion does not necessarily entail decolonization, as I discuss below.

[15] It is worth quoting here Anibal Quijano’s discussion of coloniality and modernity, where he outlines his understanding of decolonization in the following way:

First of all, epistemological decolonization, as decoloniality, is needed to clear the way for new intercultural communication, for an interchange of experiences and meanings, as the basis of another rationality which may legitimately pretend to some universality. Nothing is less rational, finally, than the pretension that the specific cosmic vision of a particular ethnie should be taken as universal rationality, even if such an ethnie is called Western Europe because this is actually pretend to impose a provincialism as universalism. (Quijano 2007, 177)

[16] In a complex elaboration of similar issues, Ramon Grosfoguel sets out the issues as follows:

my main points here are three: (1) that a decolonial epistemic perspective requires a broader canon of thought than simply the Western canon (including the Left Western canon); (2) that a truly universal decolonial perspective cannot be based on an abstract universal (one particular that raises itself as universal global design), but would have to be the result of the critical dialogue between diverse critical epistemic/ethical/political projects towards a pluriversal as opposed to a universal world; (3) that decolonization of knowledge would require to take seriously the epistemic perspective/cosmologies/insights of critical thinkers from the Global South thinking from and with subalternized racial/ethnic/sexual spaces and bodies. Postmodernism and postructuralism as epistemological projects are caught within the Western canon reproducing within its domains of thought and practice a coloniality of power/knowledge. (Grosfoguel 2007, 212)

[17] This document can be found on the SOAS website, at https://www.soas.ac.uk/decolonising-soas/.

[18] Details of the Race Equality Charter and the Equality Challenge Unit can be found at https://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/race-equality-charter/. See also Bhopal (2016a).

[19] To a large extent, it is safe to say that philosophy, classics, and medieval studies are all presumed to be about predominantly white subjects — that is white European philosophers and white European pre-modern history. In the case of philosophy, there are challenging disciplinary questions to be asked about how much western philosophy is itself derived from beyond (Christian) Europe, in particular from the rich traditions of the Arab Muslim world. In classics, there is an emerging debate about both the ‘European-ness’ of the Greek world, and in particular the embedded-ness of ancient Greek culture within the wider influences of what is now west Asia and north Africa. Medieval studies is often framed in terms of the homogenous whiteness of the peoples of Europe before the invasion of America and the development of global European empires, whereas much of Europe during this time was significantly engaged with people from beyond Europe. In all three cases, there are very strong public perceptions that the subject matter of philosophy, classics, and medieval history are representative of core issues of whiteness — for example civilization and enlightenment, and the role of white imaginations of the Middle Ages in contemporary popular fantasy is in itself significant. These are all in contrast with the religions and cultures of those beyond Europe, who are seen as primitive, exotic, and ‘world religions’. For discussions of these issues in Medieval studies, see Kim (2015, 2016); Hsy and Orlemanski (2017); Heng (2011a); TPM (2017); Cohen (2013); Heng (2011b), and in Classics see Kennedy (2018a, 2018b); Sundaram and McMaster (2018); Zuckerberg (2016); Hanink (2017).

[20] Folded into this argument is the issue of modernity (and the western colonial gaze) being premised on a temporal exclusion of the non-west. That is, those outside of Europe, largely racialized, are seen as not only separate geographically, but are also put into the past — as ‘primitive’, or ‘backward’, or ‘medieval’. In the study of religion, this can be reified in particular ways, with the term ‘tradition’ doing much of this work — as though a traditional religion, untouched by modernity, is worthy of respect, in contrast to the messiness of contemporary experiences. On issues of race, time, and otherness see Fabian (1983) and Hesse (2007).

[21] Of course, English is not the only language of scholarship in this respect, and it is in itself a language of colonial power (both in the past and in the present). This in itself is an issue for decolonization, as recognised for example by Ngugii wa Thiong’o (1986).

[22] See, Schilbrack (2013) and Pritchard (2010) in particular, along with the various contributors to a debate in the journal Implicit Religion coming out of a podcast discussion by Teemu Taira (2017b), with responses by Hedges (2017), McCutcheon (2017), Newton (2017), Nye (2017a), and Taira (2017a).

[23] I think there is some merit in certain elements of the theory that Durkheim puts together from his reading of Spencer and Gillen’s accounts of their impressions of the Arrernte people in late nineteenth-century central Australia. Durkheim is not talking about the Arrernte people in particular, he is using the colonial travellers’ account of them to think through how he understands the relationship between what he calls religion and society. But Durkheim’s use of the Arrernte material illustrates some of the key racialised assumptions built into western academic concepts of both religion and society.

[24] My first organised attempt to do this can be found in an online version of a syllabus for a course that I taught in 2017 at the University of Glasgow, under the title ‘Intersections in the Cultural Study of Religion’ (https://medium.com/religion-bites/intersections-in-the-cultural-study-of-religion-755ea64de22).

[25] On gender, see for example, Hawthorne (2013) and Joy (2012).

[26] On race, see for example, Maldonado-Torres (2014); Lloyd (2014); Nye (2018, 2017d).

[27] Back in 1993, I eavesdropped in a lift in SOAS on a conversation between two white undergraduate students who were obviously from different departments — that is from anthropology and religion. One was complaining about the constant discussion she found in anthropology, talking about ‘my people’, ‘those people’, and so on. She turned to her friend and asked if there was a similar thing going on in religious studies. The memorable response was: ‘no, in religious studies we don’t have people, we just have texts’.


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Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer precariously teaching 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 currently working on a new edition of the Religion the Basics book, together with a new book on Race and Religion, which will be published by Bloomsbury Academic.

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