‘Religion’ in the lens: on the process of learning and unlearning in the study of religion

The study of religion, like most of the contemporary study of humanity, is about the student unlearning much of what they bring to their studies.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the study of religion is not about religion — that is, ‘religion’ is not a ‘thing’ to be studied.

And likewise, the concept of different, discrete ‘religions’ — broadly what are called ‘world religions’ — is also problematic. In contemporary studies of religion, there is a significant movement to develop ways of talking about (what we think of as) religions without relying on the ‘world religions paradigm’.

The framing of differences as ‘world religions’ has a particular history, which is largely rooted in late nineteenth-century European colonialism. And in the contemporary world, the term creates a sense of knowledge, and of a timeless ahistorical reality, that is at odds with the complexities of the traditions and cultures that become condensed within it.

And so, for me, the starting point in the study of religion is always about asking the right set of questions, to explore not only what is ‘out there’ (in ‘the world’), but also how students (and the wider public) have been taught to think.

It is, therefore, not helpful to start with seemingly simple questions, such as ‘what is religion’, ‘what are religion’s functions?’, or ‘how should we define religion’? I would recommend we put these question aside, or at least (at some later stage) ask why we are asking them.

Instead, the starting point needs to be about unpacking much of the baggage that students bring with them unwittingly into the classroom.

One very important part of this is to not start with ‘religion’ as the object of study.

Instead, any particular context of (what we think of religion) needs to be understood with reference to how our ideas of race and gender construct both that context and how we understand it. We also need to explore how our expectations of religion (as being a ‘thing’) lead us to overlook these key issues of race and gender

Race and gender are the central issues, first and foremost. Everything is gendered, everything is thought of and practised through the lens of a cultural binary division between men and women. And everything is racialised — likewise through a lens of assumed biology-based divisions between humans. And these two things overlap and intersect, all the time. The idea of religion very often — perhaps always — operates within these intersections.

Both race and gender are presented as being simple and straightforward, very often based on the mechanics of biology. Whereas, of course, race, gender, and religion are all socially constructed concepts which are very powerful lived realities, and are each much more complicated and challenging than we assume.

And these are so often rooted in particular racial and gendered forms of whiteness, the unspoken ways in which (people who think of themselves as) white people racialise and engender others (who they consider as ‘non-white’).

And as we progress in the study of religion and culture, so much else needs to be relearned and rethought too. That is what we are doing here, in the study of religion.

The purpose of the discipline is not to learn ‘what religion is’, or indeed to learn what Hindus believe or Buddhists do, and so on. Instead, the point of the discipline is to explore how such questions as these are in themselves part of the problem.

We are learning about humanity, and in particular how the corner of humanity that is the English-speaking world creates its own sense of knowledge, and how that has exerted so much power across the globe. And in doing so, how knowledge of others is framed which such structures of white knowledge.

The study of religion needs to acknowledge this historical location, that it has emerged out of the histories of European colonialism. The very concept of ‘religion’ that is taken for granted is part of this history, it did not emerge from nowhere as a human universal. There are particular histories to the assumption that religion is a thing done by those who think of themselves as Christians, and that it is special to particular Christian groups, and that perhaps it is a thing that everyone else does too.

These histories are all complex and difficult narratives to unpack.

The importance of this history (or historicisation) is in particular about how we came to think and talk about things in the ways we have (for example, by using terms such as ‘religion’, which we think help us understand the world that we see)

That history is difficult to engage with, it is bloody, violent, and oppresive. It involves European colonialism, plunder, and in particular the systematic, industrial violence of chattel enslavement of millions of people from western Africa. It involves deliberate and systematic attempts at genocide, to eliminate indigenous people from north America and Australia. It involves policies of starvation and displacement, of using trauma and death as the means for social and economic engineering across a global empire.

It involves the creation of a world that is racialised from top to bottom, that embodies much of that violence in structures that no longer blatantly manifest enslavement and colonialism. And it entails a recognition that this ‘postcolonial’ world retains gross inequalities due to the structures of capitialism and the world systems as we know them (and which we often assume to be ‘just how things are’).

And so, I must reiterate that what we are doing here is not simply looking at ‘things’. We are not looking at specifics of particular religions (world religions or other forms of religion at local level).

We can and should look at context, at people in a particular time and place such as in India, Malaysia, Ghana, and/or Peru (for example). And we can try to understand how in those particular contexts they talk about and practice their worlds — with references to our categories of religion, or their own categories which we (and they) might translate as ‘religion’

We can look at all this, but we must also look at something else.

That is, our studies require us to look at the lenses through which we are looking.

We don’t just ‘see’ things. Whether as students and scholars, everything comes to us through a particular process and history — that is, through a particular lens.

It may be through certain texts that we have understood as ‘sacred texts’ or scriptures, like Christians have in the Bible, which have been identified and translated at some point as being the ‘sacred texts’ of a particular ‘religion’. Or through the accounts of others, often through the narratives of colonial travellers, employees, or missionaries. It comes to us through the earnest study of scholars in prestigious universities, through their efforts to systematise, account for, explain and interpret what they have learnt from others through this chain of transmission from other cultures and religions, through the medium of colonial encounters based on violence and plunder.

And it may come to us in more ‘immediate form’, visually or orally, through video documentaries showing people of other cultures, or through written accounts that bring alive on the page the differences, the realities, the lived experiences of people in different part of the world.

But in all these cases, we experience what we are told is the ‘religion’ through the lens — in some cases, quite literally the camera lens, but also the recording, the editor, the producer, the writer, and the presenter or professor.

We are studying the many different lenses that bring all this to us. We need to study these as much as studying the ‘thing’ at the end, that we are trying to look at.

We are not only looking down a microscope (or through a telescope) to see something. We are asking what that viewing apparatus is, and how we use it to try to understand what we did not understand before.

And we assume that in the end the reality might not be simple and straightforward to ‘know’, since what we are studying are humans (just like us and also different) — people in groups who may also come to be changed by looking through their own particular lenses.

So, in the study of religion…

… always think about the lens you are looking through.
… It is never neutral.

Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who is currently teaching at the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling. 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.

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