The analysis of race in the study of religion

When a young Sikh man called Deep Rai was attacked and shot outside his home near Seattle in Washington on Saturday 4 March 2017, the obvious conclusion to draw was this was a mistake. Like a number of similar attacks, including a gunman shooting and killing six people at a Sikh Gurdwara near Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August 2012, the attackers had directed their Islamophobic hate crimes at people who were not in fact their intended victims.

How can we understand such a significant mistake?

It has been a deadly irony that the violence was directed against Sikhs on the presumption that they are somehow Muslim.

Some would say it is just plain ignorance. (However, I do not believe any apologies have been made for the mistake of attacking Sikhs rather than Muslims.)

But there is something else going on.

The basis for these attacks on Sikhs (as presumed Muslims) is not only a seemingly ever growing sense of threat to (exclusivist white nationalist) ‘American values’ from Islam and Muslims.

This basis is also an identification of the Sikh victims of such attacks in terms of external markers such as skin colour and clothing. To the attackers, the victims are ‘dark skinned’ ‘ragheads’, identified as being from a different country (even if they were in fact born in the US).

That is, in such acts of terrorism (in this case white nationalist terrorism) the intention has been to target victims not only for their religious identities (as presumed Muslims). It has also been very largely racial — based on presumptions of race that appear more accurate than the presumptions of religion.

Most Sikhs (and indeed the victims of these particular crimes in Washington and Wisconsin) share much in common culturally (and ‘racially’) with many American Muslims.

They come from India, in particular from the area of Panjab in the north west of India. They share a common language, and much of what we could call culture. And they have the ethnic markers of clothing and skin colour that are used for designations of race-based differences.

In short, the attacks — and indeed the wider issues of Islamophobia — are constructed on overlapping understandings of both religious and racial differences.

In this case, as in much else, the racial and the religious overlap is very significant. The violent outpourings of Islamophobia are not about either race or religion (Indian or Muslim). They are about both together.

An Indian in this case is by definition a Muslim (even if they are not). The victim’s (perceived) religion is defined by their (perceived) race.

And so…

Theorising race and religion

My theoretical starting point here is this question:

When we speak of religion are we in fact talking about race?

Or to put this a little more carefully:

What I am trying to explore is the extent to which discourses on religion and religions (religious practices, religious differences, classifications, etc.) are a means of expressing discourses on race and racial differences.

Does the idea of ‘religion’ only make sense if we consider it as a particular instance of a racial formation?

I work from the assumption that categories of race and gender are fundamental to the analysis of culture and society, inasmuch as both categories (together with other categories, such as sexualities, ability, religion) are part of the constructions of reality in which people live.

So, to be clear, when I talk of both ‘race’ and ‘religion’, I am taking both of these as cultural terms — we can call them imagined, or constructed, or ideological. They are not intended to refer to any entities that are ‘sui generis’, that have a reality beyond the ways in which the terms are put to use.

The way I try to put this is to point out that ‘religion’ is not a thing in itself — ‘this is my religion’, ‘that is their religion’, etc.

‘It’ is not an it. If ‘it’ is anything, religion is something that is done.

Race, gender, and religion are all practised ideologies that are embodied discourses (in Foucaultian terms) or interpellations (according to Althusser). They operate within fields of power (both top down and base up) and are the basis of the embodied realities within which people live.

Using Althusser’s terminology, both are seemingly obvious realities that are so obvious that their existence is taken for granted. We ‘know’ what religion and race are when we see them. This is what Althusser refers to as the ‘obviousness of obviousness’, and in different terms the anthropologist Clifford Geertz glossed as making

powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in [people] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely real (Geertz 1973)

That is, both ‘race’ and ‘religion’ are cultural discourses. The terms talk about social and cultural realities that exist, and in being such ‘cultural realities’ they are used in many ways to construct social and political relations and practices.

But neither race nor religion have any basis in any reality beyond the cultural (that is, within specific contexts of language, history, and place), particularly not in the sense that each of these terms themselves imply.

In the same way that we assume the reality of money (as a thing that exists within itself, even though we ‘know’ that in reality there are no Gringotts-type vaults underneath banks in which our money is kept in corporal form), we have also come to know that there is no actual basis for the idea of race beyond the markers and ideas of difference that have been chosen to determine such racial categories.

Race is not a biological state, it is a form of personal, social, and political classification that structures how people think and act.

It is one of the most primary categories for organising and governing differences. Together with gender it is a key way to think about, organise, and govern people and resources.

It is an imaginary that has a stark and very harsh reality.

Thus, race and racial classifications are actual experiences, such as racial discrimination, racism, and race-based violence such as genocides, slavery, lynchings, police shootings, and mass incarceration. These all exist in a very real sense.

In a similar manner, the term religion is also a way of talking (and thinking and practising) about human activities, rooted in culture and language. It is a theoretical debate about whether and what exists within and beyond such culture and language, beyond the human, but the cultural study of religion explores what humans do with this term religion.

And as part of this analysis we also need to recognise that the English language terms (and discourses) of both race and religion have particular histories that have developed certain meanings to how to think about, organise, and exert power between social and political groups.

My central question here is not so much whether these terms are connected, but to what extent — and if we can at all distinguish religion from race?

Largely because of these initial suppositions, both of these terms are very meaningful to a large number of people — albeit in somewhat different ways. Both create and contain very significant emotional investments — people tend to consciously engage with both categories with great passion.

Religion is loved or loathed, the source of hope and peace or the source of division, war, and death. Race is everywhere and nowhere (inasmuch as colour blindness or post-racialism is a possibility). And race’s corollary of racism is a state of mind (or accusation) that very few people wish to claim, but which is experienced in brutal ways.

However, there are some seemingly obvious starting points for looking for the differences between what we think of as race and religion.

On a superficial level, most popular definitions of race and religion define them as opposites — religion is on the outside (about skin colour) whilst religion is internal (a matter of belief or faith). Race is biological and inherited, and religion is fundamentally (pun intended) a matter of choice. A more sophisticated version of this might be that race points to nativism and the primordial, whilst religion points to transcendence and otherworldliness.

However, the problem with these abstract opposites is that they are all certain historical expectations of terms that have long histories of political and cultural construction. Going back to my approach of analysing both religion and race as particular ideologies of power, difference, and society (of ‘being human’), the terms share much more in common in the ideologies that set them apart.

And so I argue that there are many ways religion is a term that we have learnt to use as a surrogate for race.

A starting point for connecting religion as a racial formation is the common ‘ancestry’ or genealogy of both concepts. Although ideas of difference based on what we now call race and religion have been around for a long time, the two English language terms have emerged out of fairly recent history. And in both cases, they are the product of the European political expansion that began in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century — eastwards into Asia, south into Africa, and to the west across the new (to Europe) continent that they called America.

In both cases, the terms race and religion formed meanings around issues of difference that were part of the process of defining certain groups as other: as subjects for pacification, subjugation, civilisation, and exploitation.

The Portuguese, the Spanish, and then later the French, Dutch, and English (and then British) all tried to understand through their political expansion — colonisation, settlement, and exploitation — how they were similar to and different from the people who they encountered, and became subjects of their empires.

Ideas of race and religion were both used in this process.


As race theorists such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and Omi and Winant have explored, European colonial history was the significant part of the development of the discourse of racial difference. At the heart of this was an idea of cultural whiteness, policed by the idea of biological/genetic purity, and against which were placed all classifications of others. This included not only ‘Negroes’, (Asian) Indians, ‘Natives’, and so on, but also ‘mixed raced’ or ‘mulattoes’.

That is, the concept of race was not plucked out of nowhere to simply describe the world. Rather, we should instead see the term as an ongoing, historical, and highly political means by which social worlds have been created.

This is expressed very clearly in the approach of Omi and Winant, who talk of race formation, which is:

the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings. [Omi and Winant, 1994, 61]

Indeed, race is a determinedly slippery term which can only be understood by its context.

It has been used to refer to the perceived differences between the English (of England) and the Irish (and other Celts), between northern and southern Europeans, between Europeans and people of other parts of the world (‘Orientals’, etc.), and most notably in north America between people of (mainly) European descent who see themselves as having pale skin complexion in opposition to people of (mainly) African descent with (what are seen as) darker skin complexion.

Such a difference between white (European — originally British) Americans and black (African ) Americans ( originally labelled ‘Negro’) came about through a particular historical process, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. This process was largely rooted in the violence of the chattel-enslavement economy, of colonial British America and then in the independent United States.

In short, white Americans learnt to think of themselves as white, and as socially and biologically different from those who were enslaved. Due to the power they exerted (and continue to exert) this group then imposed such an ideology on those who came within their power (through both repressive and ideological state apparatuses).

Although we may feel that we have come a long way socially and theoretically from the eighteenth and nineteenth century political concepts of race and racial differences, we still live very much with the legacies of the world in which they emerged, and the world which these discourses were employed to create.

Despite being a very mixed up and ambiguous concept, the term race is itself very powerful. Its power is emphasised in particular by the ways in which its use is often hedged with restrictions, silences, and taboos. It is the unspoken, the ‘elephant in the room’, and the ultimate insult. No matter how one behaves, the label ‘racist’ is nearly always rejected (‘I am not a racist’, ‘I don’t have a single racist bone in my body’).

Alongside this, however, the discourses of race — and the implementation of social divisions and values based on the complexities of these discourse — are a primary element of English-speaking culture and social organisation. In Britain, north America, and Australia in particular (the legacy ‘white’ nations of British colonialism), discourses of ‘race’ are fundamental in constructions of politics, social difference, and culture. This involves not only constructions of difference based on the idea of race, but also constructions of the national self, based on ideas of whiteness.

In Omi and Winant’s reappraisal of race formation theory in 2012 (30 years after they introduced their take on this approach) they concluded as follow:

Racial formation theory should help us think about race and racism as continuing encounters between despotic and democratic practices, in which individuals and groups, confronted by state power and entrenched privilege but not entirely limited by those obstacles, make choices and locate themselves over and over in the constant racial “reconstruction” of everyday life. (Omi and Winant, 2012, 327)

That is, ideas of race are a process — an ongoing process (as we see so obviously in 2017) — which have been created in particular historical circumstances.

The primacy of race, in this respect, exists alongside a similar primacy of discourses and constructions of gender. Indeed, the two intersect — constructions of whiteness and racial otherness are rooted in related constructions of masculinity, with femaleness as its own other. Since Kimberle Crenshaw brought forward the term in 1989, this has been broadly labelled intersectionality — race, gender, and religion do not exist only in themselves and should not be considered in isolation from each other. It is at the intersections between these categories that lives occur, discrimination and violence happens, and power and agency are experienced.

That is, race and racial differences are perceived in gendered terms (white men, black women, etc.). And similarly gendered differences are themselves located in racial discourses — very often focusing on white (and cis-male heterosexual) normativity. The person is gendered according to white discourses of being a man or woman, and from this are constructed opposites of, for example, black maleness (‘threatening’) or Asian femaleness (‘submissive’ and/or eroticised).

And of course, the issues of power often reside in those who are able to control the definitions of such ideologies — what Althusser refers to as the state apparatuses (the harsh violence and threat of violence of the repressive state ideology and the soft but very tangible power of the ideological state apparatus).


I have for a long time argued (e.g., in Nye 2000) that the field of religious studies is considerably lagging behind developments in other related disciplines such as cultural studies.

In this respect, the field of religious studies was slow to pick up the transformative ideas from cultural studies that emerged in the 1980s — postcolonialism, race, gender — to an extent that these have only slowly been embedded in theory and methodology in the last decade or so.

Although thankfully it is now (largely) expected that an analysis of religion takes account of (or indeed should be centred on) a gender-based analysis, the same cannot be said about the category of race. I can place myself as an anecdotal example of this. Even though I have been researching and writing about religion, race, culture, and diversity since the late 1980s, when I came to write my introduction to religion in 2002 I did not think to include a chapter specifically on race (although I did have a chapter on gender). It was a publisher’s reviewer’s comment that pointed out (in 2012) that such a chapter was missing, and which has in turn led me to rethink the whole structure and much of the basis of that particular book (which in the short term has not been a good thing).

So, as Rudy Busto has argued,

scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore the concept of race [on Religious Studies Project podcast]

There is some excellent work in the field on race and religion — mostly about race and north American religion (such as Edward Blum and Paul Harvey on ‘The Colour of Christ’ (2012) and Paul Reeve (2015) on Mormons). This particular context is not surprising, since the USA in particular is highly structured around racialized formations, and so it should be very hard to ignore race-based issues in any study of American religion (although much scholarship does manage to do just that — ignore race). But issues of race and religion are not only relevant (indeed essential) to this context, they are also very applicable for contemporary Europe, and in fact elsewhere.

Alongside this there is an ever growing examination and analysis of the concept of religion, as a category subject to formation — in a similar way to the race formation theory of Omi and Winant.

This focuses in particular on the Canadian writer (based at the University of Alabama), Russ McCutcheon, who has written a number of influential ‘marmite’ works that look to explore the political labour that is done with the category of religion — in McCutcheon’s case, particularly within the academy among scholars of religion.

Drawing on Jonathan Z Smith’s approach, McCutcheon has set out an agenda that explores religion as a part of cultural discourse, as a form of classification that has political consequences. To go back to my earlier point, the term religion for McCutcheon does not refer to a ‘thing’ in itself, but should be understood as a way of talking about and classifying the world. Its particular power is that it is hidden within a concept that puts itself ‘outside’ the world, as something that goes beyond the human.

Related to this is the quite recent work that has been done in religious studies on the genealogy of the discourse of ‘religion’ within a similar context to the genealogy of ‘race’. The work of writers such as Tomoko Masuzawa, Tim Fitzgerald, David Chidester, and most recently Brent Nongbri stand out here in particular.

Fitzgerald is perhaps most well-known for his early work, when he argued in the 1990s that the term religion should be removed from our vocabulary. However, it is Masuzawa and Nongbri in particular who are drawing attention to the very recent emergence of the discourses of religion that contemporary scholars still take for granted.

In particular, as Masuzawa’s Invention of World Religions (2005) details, the classification of differences of religions (particularly as ‘world religions’) is largely the product of nineteenth century scientific scholarship, which in itself was part of the structures of colonial power. The connections between how religion was (and was not) used to structure the politics of difference has been detailed within the work of David Chidester, writing in particular on South Africa and the wider imperial locations of the nineteenth century.

In sum, to quote Nongbri, who argues that

the idea of religion is not as natural or universal as it is often assumed to be. Religion has a history. It was born out of a mix of Christian disputes about truth, European colonial exploits, and the formation of nation-states. Yet the study of religion as an academic discipline has proceeded largely on the assumption that religion is simply a fact of human life and always has been. (2013, ch 8)

Thus Chidester argues

Imperial comparative religion merged knowledge and power, not in any simple social physics of cause and effect, as if the study of religion could cause imperial expansion, but in the ways in which knowledge about religion and religions circulated through the networks of empire. As we have seen, that knowledge could be used to support empire, but it also accompanied empire in its circulations through colonized peripheries, such as South Africa, in ways that simultaneously enabled and destabilized the production of knowledge about religion and religions in imperial comparative religion. Alternative knowledge, shaped by local factors, was also produced. In trying to understand the history of the study of religion, all of these forces and factors must be taken into consideration in discerning the ways in which knowledge about religion and religions was produced, authenticated, and circulated. (2014, 212)

It is very important to recognise here that the concept of religion did not develop during this time in isolation to the racialized projects of empire. Both Chidester and Nongbri put race at the centre of their analyses of the development of the idea of religion.

This, indeed, is a large part of the place where the contemporary scholarship of religion finds itself. The bedrock concept of religion is emerging as something

  1. that has no particular basic frame of reference (it is a culture derived term, which does not refer in itself to any sui generis entity, no matter how much we may believe it does)
  2. that is used within western scholarly circles (and far beyond) to refer in particular to cultural/religious forms that are in line with western Protestant liberal Christian assumptions — that religion refers to ‘beliefs’, that it is mainly interior, that its core can be understood in reference to sacred texts, and that it can be understood largely through reasoning (and to a certain extent by observation). All of these assumptions refer to the academic concept of religion, not necessarily to what people do when we use this term to say they are being religious.
  3. and that the idea of religion — both as an entity in itself, and as something that can be formed into various forms (religions, such as Christianity, Islam, etc.) across the globe but which is a universal aspect of human life — is not only derived from certain particular Christian discourses. Religion (i.e., the idea of religion) is also the product of European colonialism. It has been developed as a means for Europeans (and others within the various colonial spheres) to think about and implement the governance of difference.

Thus, what we think of as religion is itself a way of thinking (or an ideology) that very much formed around the political need to categorise differences during the colonial era.

This was not a neutral project. It was part of the racial project of imperialism.

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).

Malory Nye has created some further resources which can be found here:

Main picture credit: ‘Noah damning Ham’, by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov (1817–1875)

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