Does Religious Studies have a problem with race?

Malory Nye
Religion Bites
Published in
13 min readJan 28, 2018


I have been reading Eric Sharpe’s classic work on the history of Comparative Religion, which was first written in 1972. It is a meticulously researched book, which is well respected in the field. It covers a wealth of history of the individuals and processes that emerged into what is now generally known as ‘Religious Studies’.

This book has prompted two stark insights. First, the dominance of what Sharpe refers to as ‘evolutionary theory’ for much of the first century of studies of religion (largely from 1869 to the 1930s). Such theory was premised on the widespread assumptions of scientific racism, largely revolving around the question of what made white European ‘races’ and religion (Christianity) distinct from others.

And second, of the hundreds of scholars that Sharpe mentions, only two of these are women (Jane Harrison and Mary Douglas), and indeed nearly all of them are white men.

Of course, this is a historical text (written forty five years ago) looking back at the century before. One cannot expect Sharpe to have been critically aware in the way that most scholars are today. And perhaps it is no surprise that the foundational figures of the discipline reflected the white patriarchal society in which they lived.

By coincidence, I have been reading Sharpe alongside watching the AMC TV series Mad Men, which brutally depicts the sexism and racism of affluent white US society in the 1960s, through the lens of a New York advertising agency. One of the most memorable lines from seven seasons of this drama is made by a senior account manager who has just been surprised by one of the women in the office (at that point employed as a secretary) showing her strength as a possible advertising creative. He describes this as:

It was like watching a dog play the piano.

Meanwhile, every African American that is shown (and there are very few) is part of the category of ‘the Negro’, placed into a highly structured part of 1960s American society — operating lifts, caring for children, and serving drinks with an amiable smile.

This leads me to reflect on whether any reading of Sharpe (or any of the figures who helped to establish the modern institutions of religious studies) should be viewed through a similar Mad Men lens. That is, to presume that the 1960s were a ‘different world’ and that ‘things have changed’ since then.

Such a perspective does rather hit the awkwardness and shock of the current ‘era of Trump’, together with the crusaders for ‘free speech’ such as Milo Yiannopolis, Jordan Petersen, Toby Young, and Nigel Biggar. For each of these, the idea of returning to a better age (such as the ‘make <insert your country here> great again’ slogan) implies a resurrection of the patriarchy, racism, and colonialism most people had been assuming to be a thing of the past.

I am not wishing to imply that the late Eric Sharpe was a Don Draper of religious studies.

Instead, I can only draw the conclusion that Sharpe’s seminal book was very much of its time. A time in which the scholar of religion was by default both a man and (most likely) white. And a time in which race-derived (evolutionary) theory was problematic because it was fanciful, rather than because it was premised on an offensive dehumanisation of people who were subject to the brutal violence of European colonial power. And from this, I can only hope that (Trump and Petersen notwithstanding) attitudes and behaviour related to gender and race are different in 2018 to how they were fifty years ago.

And to a large degree this is true. The discipline of religious studies is not so noticeably white and male, and to a degree what is written about and taught in the discipline is similarly so.


Can we confidently say that the study of religion no longer has a problem with race?

The context of structural and systematic racism

There are various ways in which we can address this, from the structural to the discursive, and right down to the personal. And I am sure there are plenty of people who would like to be able to give themselves a pat on the back for how ‘far’ we come in our studies.

And, of course, what I am exploring is not intended to pinpoint any particular scholars or school of scholarship. The imputation of racism can be a source of great sensitivity, to the extent that allegations of racism can often be seen as more egregious than actually practising racial discrimination or racial hatred.

As these issues of racism are very largely about social and systematic discrimination and abuse, the main point of what I am exploring is to highlight how any discussion of the context of teaching and research can and should acknowledge these structural racialising forces. From there it is for individual scholars to give some consideration — if they see fit — to how this might relate to their own local contexts.

There are indeed many scholars in religious studies who are highlighting and addressing the issues that I am discussing here. The broad brush strokes that I am using to present a picture of the discipline are intended to highlight the most dominant issues. And these remain, despite the best efforts of my colleagues’ excellent work on race and the study of religion.

And so, to start on a broad level, the answer is yes: there does still exist a very significant problem of systematic racism and white privilege. This is because in the societies in which the discipline predominates (particularly in north America and Europe) racism is a very significant structural problem.

As Kehinde Andrews points out, race is at the heart of all aspects of culture and society in Britain, including health care, housing, policing, employment, and education. When such systematic racism is to a large degree left unexamined at the political and popular level, it would be wishful thinking to assume that it is absent from the academic study of religion.

So how in particular does the discipline have a problem with race and racism?

Kalwant Bhopal 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) to professorial appointments and senior management/leadership.

Kalwant Bhopal argues:

Black and minority ethnic academics working in universities remain marginalised and regularly describe experiencing subtle, covert, and nuanced racism. At senior levels, they are less likely than their white colleagues to be professors 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.

This is the institutional context in which all religious studies scholars work in the UK. My general experience is that departments of religious studies are perhaps more likely to employ non-white scholars, for reasons I will discuss below. But that does not mitigate the impact on institutional structures, particularly given the increasingly top-down management of departments by university administrations.

Racialised issues within the discipline of religious studies

Alongside these wider, systemic structures of racism there is also a more discursive question to explore. That is, although the rationale for the study of religion is very often assumed to be about ‘increasing understanding’ and ‘promoting multiculturalism’, is the field itself built on racialized assumptions that are in themselves part of the wider social structures of racism and racial discrimination?

In many respects this is the flip side of the question that I am exploring alongside this. That is, to what extent is there a need for a decolonisation of the study of religion?

My short answer to this question here is that broadly there is both a need for decolonisation and also a need to recognise that there are implicit and uncontested assumptions of race and racialisation in the field. Both of these are theoretical and also very real life issues, that impact on the people who teach the subject, the students who learn, and the many different stakeholders of the education process.

At the heart of this is the conceptualisation of the ‘subject’ of the field — that it is concerned with religion, religions, and thus the study of such religion/s.

The subject area has developed a long way from the scientific racism of a century ago, which assumed the legitimacy of theories of racial classification based on an idea of evolution (as found, for example, in the works of Edward Tylor and James Frazer). Following the end of formal empires in the mid-twentieth century, the purpose of the discipline is no long to serve the needs of colonial rule.

However, there are a number of ways in which the contemporary concept of religion (and religions) has historically emerged intact from this age of colonialism, with little recognition of the ways in which its use is in itself a form of racialization. This is an argument presented recently by Theodore Vial, and which I have also been exploring. As Vial argues:

Religion is a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly mentioned.

For some this may be a controversial idea. However, for most scholars of religion the shock of such a statement is that the racialisation is largely invisible, inasmuch as the study of religion trades on issues of difference and yet largely ignores the colonial and post-colonial politics of race. Just because such racialisation has been ignored does not mean that it is not a powerful (and invisible) part of the discourses of the study of religion.

The starting point here is to begin to ask questions of how the subject matter of the discipline is racialised — that is, how do questions of race impact on us in our analysis?

Beyond this is the perhaps more awkward question of how the lack of discussion of race has in itself privileged whiteness within the field — not only in terms of personnel but also in terms of the core assumptions of what ‘we’ are doing? Who are we and who are we doing it for?

One small example of this is a basic starting point for the discipline. That is, it is often argued that the study of religion is useful because it is about getting a better understanding of other cultures and religion. Putting aside the question of what such ‘understanding’ may be doing, the issue here is what cultures/religion are ‘other’ and who is to gain from this understanding.

In nearly every instance, the ‘others’ are non-white, non-Christian others, and the ‘we’ is a generic white audience. It is rarely presumed, for example, that the study of religion is for Muslim students in Indonesia to ‘understand’ others, such as white Christians in America.

These questions, therefore, require us to examine the conceptualisation of how the discipline is taught (what should be in the curriculum, what are the aims of the teaching?), and also who should teach it. It is noticeable that over the past 25 years there has been a welcome increasing tendency to recruit beyond the traditional pool of white (usually male) scholars in the field.

But the appointment of, for example, Arab or Indian Muslim scholars to teach Islam, or South or South East Asian scholars to teach Buddhism have in themselves occured without sufficient recognition of the racialised issues involved. Such appointments have not necessarily fixed the underlying issues of exclusion and racism, but instead have unfortunately given specific targets for these forces. And such appointments have not yet opened up the opportunities for discussion of the issue of the ‘authenticity’ of the subject matter of the study of religion.

Whiteness and public expectations of the religion/religious scholar

It is also worth thinking about the wider context of the study of religion — that is, how the subject is perceived in popular culture. It is common knowledge amongst those who teach and study religion that there is considerable distance between what scholars of religion try to do and what the public thinks they are doing. Thus public perceptions of the field often assume that the study of religion is related primarily to (white) Christianity, it is about religious practice and identity, and that the most likely purpose for study of religion is professional practice (that is, as a priest or minister).

And so, the scholarly argument that the study of religion is about understanding and pursuing a multicultural society is largely ignored in public debates. This gap, between the public and scholarly understanding of the field is perhaps not the ‘fault’ of the discipline. However, to a degree it has not been aided by a successful public engagement to ‘capture’ the public discourse . And even when there is such public engagement it tends to present the study of religion within a largely white Christocentric and often theological/faith based framework.

But this is not about assigning fault, it is rather about recognising the local and global structural issues around the discipline. To use Toni Morrison’s very effective ‘goldfish bowl’ metaphor, if religious studies is the goldfish, then popular conceptions of the discipline (which lead to political support for certain programmes and approaches) are the factors that have created this bowl for the religious studies fish to swim around in.

Public engagement is obviously complex, to be successful it requires the mediation of the message. Thus media such as television, radio, and newspapers want a particular form of message/approach (i.e., the white Christocentric and theological), and will either exclude or sensationalise (and exoticise/racialise) approaches that do not fit.

Within such a context, the question then become about what message religion scholars would like to promote, if it is not the default white-theological message. For a large part, the religious studies alternative for public discourse tends to be of religious literacy and engagement (tolerance and multiculturalism), which emphasises a racialised understanding of religion.

In short, at present there is little enthusiasm in public discourse (or from within the discipline) for engaging public debate in terms of an understanding of ‘critical religion’ and/or ’critical race’. We have yet to see a public exploration of the ‘religions of the world’ that seeks to show the role of colonialism, slavery, European theories of racialisation and racism, and the impact of decolonisation within how what-we-call religion is highly relevant to the contemporary world.

In conclusion…

As I have stressed above, my argument here is not that scholars of religion are particularly racist. (However, it is not unreasonable to say that there are likely to be some people within the field — as in all other areas of life — who are openly or discretely intolerant and racist in their views, but they are a minority.) And, of course there are many who are of good intention who find themselves working within a context which is perceived as benign liberal tolerance. And yet, this is part of a wider social sytem that is structurally racist in many ways.

There are many questions to be asked about how particular structures of whiteness and privilege that are not specific to religious studies have an impact within the field. This includes within the context of universities, the funding, regulation, and monitoring of higher education, popular society, and all the wider aspects of the structurally racist societies in which all British and north American scholars live and work.

And also, there is a need to begin to recognise that religious studies is not an island far away from the very real and devastating issues of race and racialisation. And that the discipline’s perception of itself as challenging such inequalities may not necessarily be correct — and indeed it may be a matter of wishful thinking. After all, how many introductions to the study of religion (either courses or text books) address (or even mention) the question of race, racialisation, and the field’s colonial basis?

At present there is a significant lack of acknowledgement of issues of race: (i) as a discourse that impacts on individuals working in the field, the stakeholders of religious studies research and teaching, and people about whom religious studies scholars write; and (ii) as a broader discourse that has been central to the development of the discursive assumptions of the field, and which has largely been hidden in plain sight within the ways in which religion scholars engage with their research materials.

That is, the study of religion needs to foreground issues of race and gender, both in terms of the history of the discipline (who wrote what, etc.) and how that history has led to the formation of the contemporary assumptions of the field.

And so there is a need to look towards how structures can be put in place to both recognise these issues and also to develop the discipline in ways that contribute both to the academic and the popular understanding of what the study of religion has been, what it is now, and what it should be.

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

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

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

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



Malory Nye
Religion Bites

writer, prof: culture, religion, race, decolonisation & history. Religion Bites & History’s Ink podcasts. Univ of Glasgow.