Review of Modern Religion, Modern Race by Theodore Vial

Reviewed by Malory Nye

[Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016]

A shorter version of this review was published on the Reading Religion website on 12 October 2018.


In Modern Religion, Modern Race, Theodore Vial argues that race is central to the study of religion. That is, contemporary scholars talking about religion are also conveying and constructing race.

I would indeed push this a little further, to say that all discourse in contemporary English-language speaking cultures is racialized. To quote Annalise Keating (the fictional Philadelphia-based professor, played by Viola Davis), race and ‘racism is built into the DNA of America’.^1

Social and cultural constructions of imagined biological differences are all-pervasive realities for all north Americans and western Europeans. Until recently, there has been comparatively little discussion of how such racialization (including the racialization of whiteness) has been central to the questions and the research of the discipline of religious studies.

In his first paragraph, Vial starts with an excellent statement on this:

‘Race and religion are conjoined twins. They are offspring of the modern world. Because they share a mutual genealogy, the category of religion is always a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly under discussion.’ (p1)

Every aspect of American and British cultural life is racialized in this way: whether it is food, sport, politics, or academia, our discourses are racialized ‘even when race is not explicitly under discussion’. As Vial later indicates, race is ‘one of the major blind spots in the study of religion’ (p57).

This provokes many challenges, in particular to understand (i) how such discourses work (and carry power) within the contemporary world, and (ii) how histories have produced the meanings of categories — such as race and religion — that are taken for granted today. Vial’s work focuses on the latter.

This is a book about how some key figures (white European men) set out the framework of a theoretical and philosophical agenda for talking academically about both race and religion. These men are some of the leading figures in what is conventionally called ‘the (Franco-British) Enlightenment’ — Kant, Herder, Schleiermacher, and Müller. As Vial indicates, contemporary theorists of religion continue to draw on ideas from each of these men, often without troubling to unpack the various racialized discourses within their writing on religion. However, this is

‘not a trickle-down theory, in which Kant defines race one day in his office and one or five or twenty years later everyone on the streets of Königsberg is using it the same way by some process of osmosis.’ (p14)

This notwithstanding, for Vial the writings of these men are worth exploring because they have been so influential.

He starts with Kant, looking in particular at how and why Kant talked about race. Kant is shown to have pursued both a scientific/linnaean approach to classifying natural divisions between humans whilst also implicating race within the teleology of humanity. Within Kant (the concept of) race is a key element of human progression — it is necessary for his philosophies of science, history, and human freedom, and thus for modernity.

The remaining chapters play between Schleiermacher, Müller, and Herder. For Vial, Schleiermacher’s contribution to the study of religion should not be reduced to an Eliadean interpretation of religion as deep feeling (the ‘sensibility and taste for the infinite’). Instead, Schleiermacher’s theory of religion is ‘necessarily social’, it is profoundly tied to language and culture, and hence to the concept of race. Vial demonstrates this by looking at Schleiermacher’s discussion of two groups — (‘aboriginal’) ‘New Hollanders/Australians’ and Jews. On the former, Schleiermacher developed an account by the English colonialist, Philipp Gidley King to describe them as follows:

‘Their possessions were […] miserable […]; they led in every aspect a wretched life… With their simple standing still on the lowest level of enjoyment and activity it was probable that they would never pose a hindrance to the taking possession of the treasures of the land…’ (pp207–8)

Vial’s argument is that this indicates Schleiermacher’s linking of progress, race, and religion; the Indigenous ‘Australians’ are ranked as being so low on the ladder of progress that there is no room for religion. In this sense, the presence or absence of religion is racialized: those who are racialized as simple and miserable have a religion that matches this social status (although Vial does not note that the above quote is also an argument deployed for settler-colonial land theft). The link with race is the highly uncomfortable assumption underlying Schleiermacher’s theories of religion, the ‘blind spot’ that we should not ignore.

And so, Vial suggests that even if we ‘find Schleiermacher’s modern construction of religion appealing’, most will still probably be ‘uncomfortable with his conclusions about Australian and Jewish religions’.

‘But we still use Schleiermacher’s category “religion” when we think about and participate in religious activities. So the question is, if Schleiermacher’s comments on other religions cannot but strike us as racist, and if we continue to assume his model of religion, is our own thinking about religion racialized, even if we are more circumscribed in the language we use?’ (p224)

As suggested by the earlier quote, Vial’s answer to this rhetorical question is affirmative. And I think he is correct, that his juggling of the work of Schleiermacher and others does bring out this largely ignored and sidelined play on issues of race whilst talking of religion (and indeed vice versa).

However, I cannot help asking the question here of why is this blind spot only now being highlighted? When the core thinking of the liberal humanities relies on this meticulous avoidance of race and racialization, why has it taken so long for a critique of this to be articulated? So much ink has been put on paper to discuss these figures, how could this elephant in the room be so ignored?

Indeed, the only answer I can think in response to this is that there has been a blatant refusal to face up to these questions and a sidelining of people (particularly people of colour) within the academy who could see quite clearly that the enlightenment emperor had no clothes — or at least, the clothes were those of a blatant white supremacy.

I am very aware that any review is as much about the book the reviewer would like to have seen written, rather than the one that the author has spent years researching, organising, and writing. I agree with much of what Vial argues, and the critique that he makes (although I confess that there are many scholars in a far better position than myself to make a judgement on this close analysis of Schleiermacher, Kant, etc). But there were also issues that I seriously missed from this book that left me feeling frustrated in the choice of focus.

The sections on Vial’s own theoretical understanding of the broad concepts of race and racialization were good, but they skipped over much of the (very extensive) contemporary literature on this very important issue. W.E.B. Du Bois is present, as is Kwame Anthony Appiah, and there is a brief mention of Paul Gilroy. But these are really skimming the surface of a very deep range of scholarship that I think would have given Vial a much richer set of theoretical tools to address the issues of racialization. Figures such as Stuart Hall (1986; Alexander 2009; Solomos 2014) in Britain, and Omi and Winant (1994) in north America come to mind here in particular, but again they are just the starting point. And most importantly, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989; 1991) call for an intersectional approach, that considers both race and gender, is now twenty years old — alongside the work of bell hooks (1987; 2000) and Patricia Hill Collins (Hill Collins and Bilge 2016), and many more.

And these raise what is for me an even greater blind spot for the study of religion (and indeed for the academy). That is the seemingly invisible issue of whiteness, which is at the heart of the racial and religious teleology of the enlightenment that Vial is unpacking. Again there is some serious theory that could help us explore these issues of the constructions of race and religion, through the lens of questioning and seeking to unpack the role of whiteness within how the discipline and the academy have come to talk about religion (such as work by Barnor Hesse 2007, and Kehinde Andrews 2016).

For me, talking of race requires us to talk about how those people who consider themselves as white racialize themselves and subsequently racialize others as others. However, although he does not address whiteness head on, Vial does give us a very clear indication of where some of those bodies are buried (hint: they are in plain sight).

In short, this is a very good book that makes a very important contribution to the debate on how the study of religion needs to explore its past, and in particular the often ignored overlap between categories of race and religion. For those interested in seeing how white male enlightenment thinkers created such a mess, this is a book that needs to be read and taught widely.


Notes

1. This is from the ABC production, How to Get Away With Murder, season 4 episode 13. For a discussion of the show and the portrayal of race and gender through the character of Annalise Keating, see Williams and Gonlin (2017) and Le (2018)


Works cited:

Alexander, Claire. 2009. “Stuart Hall and ‘Race.’” Cultural Studies 23 (4): 457–82. doi:10.1080/09502380902950914. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09502380902950914

Andrews, Kehinde. 2016. “The Psychosis of Whiteness.” Journal of Black Studies 47 (5). Sage: 435–53. doi:10.1177/0021934716638802. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0021934716638802

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989 (1): 139–67. doi:10.1525/sp.2007.54.1.23. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8/

— — — . 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 6: 1241. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039

Hall, Stuart. 1986. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10 (2). Sage: 5–27. doi:10.1177/019685998601000202. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/019685998601000202

Hesse, Barnor. 2007. “Racialized Modernity: An Analytics of White Mythologies.” Ethnic & Racial Studies 30 (4): 643–63. doi:10.1080/01419870701356064. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870701356064

Hill Collins, Patricia, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge : Polity Press,.

hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press.

— — — . 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed. Pluto.

Le, Melany. 2018. “Manipulating Diversity: A Rhetorical Analysis of Annalise Keating’s Intersectional Portrayal of Race and Sexuality on the Primetime Television Show How to Get Away with Murder.” Senior Independent Study Theses. The College of Wooster. http://openworks.wooster.edu/independentstudy/8095.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. London: Routledge.

Solomos, John. 2014. “Stuart Hall: Articulations of Race, Class and Identity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (10): 1667–75. doi:10.1080/01419870.2014.931997. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870.2014.931997

Williams, Apryl, and Vanessa Gonlin. 2017. “I Got All My Sisters with Me (on Black Twitter): Second Screening of How to Get Away with Murder as a Discourse on Black Womanhood.” Information, Communication & Society 20 (7): 984–1004. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2017.1303077. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1303077


Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who currently teaches on part-time courses 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.