On deconstructing the deconstruction of the deconstruction of the category of religion

‘oh (category of) religion, we’re never going to give you up … ’ **

Malory Nye
Sep 24, 2016 · 6 min read

There is quite a stooshie going on over the use of the term ‘religion’.

In one corner there are some seemingly ‘fashionable’ scholars who are arguing that the term is historically contingent, has meanings that have developed over time, and that when it is used the term religion is both political and politicised.

On the other hand, there are others who want to plainly speak and point out that a lot of people use the term religion — about themselves and others — and so it is not wise for scholars to avoid using the term too.

Here’s where I stand: I’m with the first group. I do get what the second group are saying, but I think they are overstating the issue. I agree that we cannot avoid talking about and using the term religion. But, the point is that we need to be very, very careful how we use this term, to ensure that we are not ‘native informants’ in academic gowns.

In other words, a person may consider themselves to be religious, and they can work with and engage with others who also think of themselves as religious. But at the same time they can still engage fully in the process of historically contextualising the ideas, associations, classifications, and power relations that are at play when the term is used in public, popular, and very often academic discourses.

And none of this is particularly helped by using the term ‘deconstruction’.

There is certainly a lot of talk about religion going on, across the world but particularly in the English-speaking world. Thus, to take one small example, in the US there is much discussion of ‘religious freedom’, particularly among certain protestant Christian groups. There is no doubt it is an ethnographic term with very concrete points of reference, culturally, socially, and personally. To most liberal scholars, however, such religious freedom appears to have very little to do with ‘freedom’ (a term which, of course, also needs to be very carefully historicised), even if it does appear to have something to do with what they think of as religion.

To put this very simply (or simplistically) there are many ways in which the term ‘religion’ is put to use. None of these uses are intrinsically ‘real’, they are instead all uses of language to describe and try to understand social and cultural contexts.

Thus the use of the term ‘religion’ in academic discourses is usually very different to the uses of the term ‘religion’ in popular discourses. As Teemu Taira shows, these can collide in public debates. The questions then become about what is going on, who benefits, and what power issues are involved? For the academic at least, they are not about what is ‘really’ religious (or not).

When an academic engages in a discourse (writes, teaches, and/or speaks in a podcast) about a group of people, s/he does not have to refer to ‘such-and-such religion’. All that needs to be said is that this is what they do, and this is what they consider what they call their religion to be about (and this is what they consider to be their religious identity). Doing that is complicated enough, we don’t have to do their work for them by using academic authority to name all of this ‘their religion’.

We are talking about talking about what many people call religion.

And what is called ‘deconstruction’ is part of this. The process is not reductionism — since it is only talking about what is there. And what is there is what people say and what they do.


Indeed, the term deconstruction is itself a term that is used very loosely — the word obviously has particular post-structuralistic resonances and histories. I don’t think it is being used in a ‘strictly Derridean’ sense. Instead, it is being used in this context to refer to an analytical process of pulling the term ‘religion’ apart to analyse its history rather than its hidden meaning.

At worst, perhaps, if there are some who argue that there is a hidden meaning — or a sui generis essence of religion — then such deconstruction is attempting to provide the counter argument, that the emperor has no clothes.

I agree with McCutcheon, we are talking about historicisation here (not deconstruction). As Hedges says, we can all (or most of us) agree with this.

So perhaps people on both sides need to stop using the term ‘deconstruction’ quite so freely. Clearly, its use is reflecting and deflecting particular political agendas.


If we remove the term construction, then the term ‘reconstruction’ should also be removed. I find the term problematic on two counts.

Firstly, if you have gone to the considerable theoretical effort of ‘deconstructing’ — i.e., historicising, in the sense of a Foucauldian-inspired archaeology of knowledge — the term ‘religion’, then why on earth would you want to put it back together (reconstruct it) and use it again?

That is, ‘deconstruction’/historicisation does not require reconstruction. Instead, it requires more political and discursive analysis, and more, and then more again.

This is what Teemu Tairu was attempting to theorise and demonstrate, albeit in the challenging context of a short podcast put together in a quiet corner of an intense academic conference. If there is any construction (not re-construction) it will be done with more (theoretically) appropriate materials.

There is an abandoned old hotel across the street from me, it has been nearly derelict for years. And then, in July this year, a major fire destroyed most of the upper floors. When it is finally developed, it will be demolished and then rebuilt — this seems to be the preferred option to it being renovated and reconstructed. Indeed, the option of reconstructing what’s left of the derelict building could well result in an unnecessary pastiche of the original.

My other problem with the term reconstruction is itself historical. It is a simple *please do not use this term* if you have any sense of American political history.

‘Reconstruction’ most often refers to the time after the US Civil War, when the great societal transformation of the southern US from a slave-based economy and society should have happened. Instead, reconstruction quickly became about the disenfranchisement and disempowering of the African American populations, into the structural systems of segregation and disadvantage that became known as Jim Crow.

The legacy of the failures of such ‘reconstruction’ are still around in the present day, with of course the urgent need to address the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the legacy of a Vice-Presidential candidate who even denies the existence of institutional racism.

This is not an extreme point of reference for the term reconstruction. I raise it because words do have points of reference — often very powerfully. And the whole point of historicising the term religion is to bring attention to such powerful references. As we have seen in the work of David Chidester in particular, the term religion when historicised (not deconstructed) does have particularly colonialist, race-based connotations.

Or to put this another way, if we are all agreed that the process of examining the history of the term ‘religion’ is alright (indeed necessary), then the next step in the process of historicising the use of the term is not to go on and de-historicise the term and its uses again.

Rather, we have to find ways of talking about the term so that we can still communicate with others outside of the academy, without reinforcing their own particularly native and political uses of the term.

Academics talk about discourses of religion.

We may shorten that to a lazy statement, that we talk ‘about religion’. But we don’t.

We talk about how others talk about (and practice) their discourses of religion.

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

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

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

Photo credit: Greg Neate, Glasgow demolition on Flickr

My apologies to any who took umbrage for the ‘rick-roll’ link in the subtitle of this post.

Religion Bites

religious studies made quick & easy

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