On how the category of religion is a part of settler colonial power

religion and belief as an obfuscation of material things (such as land)


It has become a commonplace to say that the modern understanding of ‘religion’ is a liberal Protestant Christian concept, which has been globalised through European colonialism. Thus, expectations of religions beyond Europe (and beyond Christianity) tend to focus on issues such as ‘beliefs’, which are of course central to the emergence of Protestant traditions out of the Christian reformations of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries.

There are many ways in which this argument is put into practice. For example, Tim Fitzgerald’s influential book on The Politics of Religious Studies (2000) outlines the central role of Protestant academic thought in the emergence of the modern discipline of the study of religions (i.e., studying religions other than Protestant Christianity). Alongside this, Talal Asad (1993) has argued that such Protestant influences have formed the expectation of a singular concept of religion, which requires the consistency of a definition — together with an analog of the non-religious, which is called the secular.

With the emergence of the concept of ‘material religion’, this argument has been incorporated to argue that the concept of religion (in both academic and popular discourses) is usually employed to reference the non-material (such as beliefs ), rather than the material. Thus, Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman explain the lack of attention to the material (as in material religion) as in itself part of this Protestant expectation that religion ‘really is’ about beliefs.

I agree with much of this argument, and also that there are very particular historical influences from Protestant discourses on the formation of modern concepts such as religion.

Thus, both religion and the secular are categories that came to have their contemporary meanings due to liberal Protestant power. However, we can say the same for other key contemporary concepts that are also largely taken for granted — such as ‘economics’, ‘culture’, ‘society’, ‘history’, and ‘politics’. These are all terms that in themselves have histories, meanings, and applications that emerged from the dominance of (what we now think of as) religion in western Europe and north America.

However, this does not stop at the level of the specifically ‘religious’ — that is, with the influences of the Protestant thinkers, theologians, missionaries, and church organisations. Alongside these ‘religious’ influences, contemporary categories have emerged through European colonial histories— and in particular settler colonialism.

That is, to understand contemporary concepts such as religion and the secular (alongside others, such as economics and society), we also need to explore how they came into being and were shaped by colonialism — in particular British and US colonialism. And, of course, such colonialism was largely bound up with — and mutually forming — the specifically ‘religious’ traditions and thoughts.

And so, the argument that the concept of ‘religion’ is based on the Protestant theological idea of ‘belief’ is useful, but it misses an important point.

This is in part because (what we call) religion is also embodied and material — that is, that English-speaking scholars can often highlight much of the category of religion within material contexts (and not only in thoughts, texts, worldviews, and ‘beliefs’).

But more importantly, this analysis fails to take account of how what we call ‘material’ is itself highly political. That is, it is necessary to think of and explore the interplay between how the non-material (such as ‘belief’ and ‘religion’) and the material (such as bodies, things, and places) is largely bound up with the exertion of power, of control, and very often of abuse. At the heart of this is the issue that the relationship between concepts of the non-material and the material is political. And so, the history of the development of such concepts is in itself the product of European colonial and settler colonial history.

In short, English-language scholars have not only talked about religions beyond Europe as being belief systems because of their Protestant theological expectations.

The assumption that religions are non-material, abstract belief systems has also been a means of asserting power over material resources — such as the bodies, things, and territories of those they controlled and exploited through colonialism.


As an example of this, we can consider how scholars have talked about and classified the traditions of the Indigenous people of the area that is now known as Australia. (Of course, this particular name emerged following British colonial settlement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Settlers, soldiers, and missionaries — as well as scholars — have struggled to find a way to talk about the ‘religions’ of the many different Indigenous nations and peoples of this large land mass.

For a long time, the term ‘religion’ was not even used, as this term in itself implied a level of racialised civilisational ‘development’ (or ‘evolution’) for Indigenous people that British colonial settlers were not prepared to admit. Thus, the terminology was instead often of ‘primitive’, ‘superstition’, and ‘magic’.

The language of scholarship has moved on to a large degree, and in the past century most scholars generally apply the term ‘religion’ to the beliefs and practices of Indigenous people in Australia.

In doing so, the language of talking about such religion began to rely on the terminology of the ‘Dreamtime’. This then was reinterpreted from the mid-twentieth century onwards as the ‘Dreaming’, which focused on the songs (and songlines) and stories that are learned, told, performed and lived in many different ways by the many different Indigenous cultural groups.

An initial point of recognition for this is the inadequacy of effective translation — that the English language does not have a terminology for the rich Indigenous religious/Dreaming concepts. Although this may be correct, what is missed out is that it is English-language speakers who are not prepared to translate Indigenous concepts in ways that place them in English beyond the specific category of ‘religion’.

If we take those terms such as ‘Dreaming’ and ‘songs’, they make apparent reference to particularly non-material concepts. Thus they refer to a world ‘beyond’ the specifically human and the embodied and material worlds in which Indigenous people live. They play into an assumption that the religious worlds of Indigenous people are primarily spiritual and non-material.

As this has been happening, the actual material worlds of Indigenous people have been brutally invaded by British settler colonialism, to the extent that within just over a century most Indigenous nations of Australia were marginalised, decimated, and largely dispossessed. In contemporary Australia, Indigenous people are an economically deprived minority, subjected to high levels of discrimination, racism, underemployment, and incarceration by the white Australian majority. At the same time, Indigenous ‘religious’ concepts such as ‘the Dreaming’ are the focus of high levels of fascination by white Australians, as a ‘spiritual’ core of the Australian land.

And it is this connection between the land and the ‘religion’ that is my main point in this context.

There is, perhaps, a recognition that ‘the Dreaming’ is not only about disembodiment. It is also recognised by scholars (if not in popular debates) as a discourse about relationships between people (both living and dead), with other beings (both animal and ‘mythical’), and also with every aspect of the material world, including the land within which people live.

In short, the Dreaming is a material concept. It is material to the extent that it could also be translated into English in terms of entitlement to land (albeit more in terms of a collective custodianship rather than land ownership).

That is, the Dreaming is about what English speakers talk about as the politics of land ownership, it is about what in English is called the law. The Dreaming has very material points of reference, which are obscured by the choice to talk about the Dreaming in terms of ‘songs’ and ‘stories’.

Or to put this another way, the assumption made by colonial settlers was that white European (mainly British) Protestants had the material power of firearms and legal documents and courts to claim ownership of the land of Australia in which they settled. All of this they framed in terms that relied predominantly on the idea of the secular, the non-religious.

In contrast, the Indigenous people have eventually been granted a recognition of their ‘religion’, as something about beliefs and worldviews that can be held to be equivalent but different from Christian religion.

But in doing so, the language of such religion has effectively removed the politics of the material basis in which such religion is engaged — that is, the land which is at the heart of the various embodiments of the Indigenous concepts of the Dreaming. Such legal concepts have been obfuscated by their framing as ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’.

In short, the common discourse is that British colonial settlers (and their descendants — contemporary Australians) have laws which are backed up by courts, police, and armies. And Indigenous nations are considered to have religion and spirituality, which are assumed to be largely non-material.

The term religion here is thus a description and caregorisation of powerlessness and dispossession of land. By calling the Dreaming a religious concept it excludes it from being understood as a form of civil law.

The discourse of religion thus defines the political, the material, and the politics of the material out of the context of those subject to colonial settler power.

This is not only the case in Australia — it is also, more widely, at the heart of the project of religious studies. The term ‘religion’ does the work of not only diverting attention from the material — it is also a means of occluding the forces of power and control.


Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer teaching at the University of Glasgow (until the end of June 2018). He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

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

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

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



Main picture credit: Snake Dreaming (2001), by Walangari Karntawarra, available from https://www.walangari.com.au/aboriginal-art-prints