Trying to understand religion? It’s a matter of finding the right gloves to wear…

So, here is a question that is rarely asked in Religion 101 classes:

What type of gloves should you be wearing?

Please bear with me on this.

After giving it some thought, these are the options that seemed most obvious to me:


  1. White cotton gloves to allow us to ‘handle with care’

Those who have listened to my Religion Bites podcast may remember that I mentioned, in a very early episode (#5), the ‘special gloves’ that we often assume are needed to take part in the study of religion.

Whether these are white cotton or kid leather, the gloves that we apparently need to wear are perhaps like those when handling an ancient manuscript or artifact.

The assumption seems to be that the thing we are studying — religion — needs to be protected from any rough (or even mundane) handling

It is hard not to be engaged in the study of religion without having a sense that the scholar needs to show respect to the subject we are studying. The implication is that there is something special about religion, that requires reverence and fair treatment (of the religion). This might not necessarily apply to the people involved.

Simply do not insult or harm the religion being studied. Show some respect.

Or otherwise, wear some different gloves.


2. Latex forensic gloves

Photo: by IAEA Photobank on Flickr

These are the blue gloves (made of latex or nitril) that CSI investigators wear, when meticulously going over a crime scene.

The main purpose of such gloves is to protect the crime scene — that is to prevent the investigator contaminating the evidence that is to be gathered.

Underlying this is the basic CSI approach of not taking anything for granted and to ‘go with the evidence’, wherever that may take us. It is an approach that is steeped in scientific discourse, that the world is out there to be gathered up, measured, and analysed.

In the study of religion, though, the evidence is a lot more intangible. Evidence is found as much in what people say (their discourses) and what they do (their practices), as well as in material traces or physicality. The material is still important, but only through the filter of discourse — how people talk about and use the material.

And often the evidence (or the data) is not what is commonly seen as ‘religion’, but how we talk about and use the idea of religion. When do we (and others) invoke the ‘r’ word, and how and why?

Most scholars of religion probably see themselves as crime scene investigators in some way or other. However, they might baulk at the idea that they are dealing with a ‘crime scene’ (as this conflicts with the first approach of showing due respect).

Some others may literally consider the consequences of religion as criminal. One thinks here in particular of Richard Dawkins and other ‘new atheists’ (although technically he is not a scholar of religion).

But I would argue that all scholars of religion need be prepared to do systematic, forensic analysis of the issues they study. So be prepared to put on the blue gloves.


3. Boxing gloves

Picture: Muhammad Ali v Sonny Liston, 1965 by Neil Leifer

The world is a rough and nasty place. Wars are fought, states and political powers control and kill. Ruling classes govern through ideology as well as through the use of force.

The study of religion is about people, living within such states and societies. So it is about studying power, conflicts, war, etc.

For me, we need to take off the white protective gloves and at least acknowledge the violence and conflict of human life — and with it the violence that so often is found around what we call religions.

Certain religious groups/teachings may condone violence, others may condemn it. In many contexts religions may do both at the same time. And what are considered the ‘same religion’ may have interpretations that contradict each other.

Such is the nature of human culture and society.

And so it goes.

Also within the academy we have different sorts of fights: fights between atheists and theists; fights between different philosophies, theologies, and/or methodologies; fights over the ‘value’ of religion.

There has been one long fight over decades to establish the study of religion as a viable and respected area of study.

On a more personal level we might even be familiar with the fight that often takes place with our own family and friends to show that (our own pursuit of) the study of religion may in fact be worthwhile. That it is not merely a means to become a ‘religious person’.

Sociologists of religion who have followed from Karl Marx’s intellectual tradition talk of the struggle and conflicts of history, particularly the class struggle caused by economic alienation.

As the photo shows, others have testified to different conflicts in history. Muhammad Ali saw himself fighting in his own ways for Black people (in particular for African Americans), and within that struggle was his own experience of becoming a Muslim.


4. Long evening gloves

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Gollightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961 (by Bud Fraker) and Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975

The study of religion is also glamorous, fun, exciting, and/or daring. Whether we see ourselves as Audrey Hepburn or Dr Frank N Furter, we have something to say about the world that can be sexy and interesting, or at least challenging.

Long gloves may not be everybody’s ‘cup of tea’, but they do invoke a very gendered sense of style and eloquence — either in the contrasting Hepburn or Rocky Horror senses.

As the gloves suggest, religion only makes sense through a lens of gender and sexualities. The ways in which people make assumptions and understandings about these are deeply associated with the discourses of religion and religions.

The study of religion is the study of women and men. It involves the study of actual women and men (who have lived). It is also the study of discourses about the categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’ — ideals, expectations, and as practiced. Further, it is about categories that exist beyond and between this female-male binary.

It is also about categories of sexualities: normative values, challenges and progressive, and how ideas and practices of sexualities shape and are shaped by religious and cultural discourses.

In short, religions create genders and sexualities. And vice versa.

And this is a very important starting place for the study of religion.


5. Thermal/winter gloves

Picture: Snowball In Hand from publicdomainpictures.net

I live in a part of the world (Scotland) where the winter temperatures can get pretty cold. When I’m outside, my hands often need protection.

Likewise sometimes the student in the study of religion feels they need some protection.

Most acutely, perhaps, a person of a particular religious background may feel a potential threat to their faith or religious identity from such study. This may be particularly the case if they perceive studying religion as requiring them to either deal with challenging questions about faith, and/or if they are required to learn about other religions.

But any study of human differences (whether they be social, cultural, religious, or otherwise) can be challenging.

Even if we feel ‘safe’ in our faith, religion or lack of such, we may feel a challenge from other issues in these studies. Gender, sexualities, race and racism, history and power are all challenging issues for us to explore.

Looking out from beyond the perspective of what we know, and who we think we are, makes us ask questions and requires us to not only try to understand the others’ perspectives. It also may encourage us to rethink our own assumptions, values, and discourses.

This is not something that necessarily requires us to seek protection, although it can be nice to have some warm comfort to enable us to do so as we immerse ourselves in the process of learning.


6. Dress gloves (rooted in power and history)

Sir Evelyn Baring, British governor of Kenya, inspects African troops, 1954 (Imperial War Museum)

The world in which we live has a particular history. The study of religion in Britain, north America and other English-speaking countries cannot be dissociated from the history of encounter with non-Europeans through the processes of colonialism and empire.

The gloves worn in this photo are of a senior British colonial officer, Evelyn Baring, who was governor of Kenya (in east Africa) from 1952–59. Baring oversaw the British suppression of the Mau-Mau Revolt, a brutal policy making use of concentration camps, enclosed villages, massacres, and collective punishments.

This is one small example of European colonial history, the history that has given rise to the world in which we live today. We cannot understand today’s world without first trying to understand now the past that has shaped it.

This goes back to reflecting on how European influence has spread across the globe, particularly since the early sixteenth century — including the colonisation and conquest of the American continent, trade and empires in Asia and Africa, and the twentieth-century decolonisation that has laid the basis of contemporary globalisation.

Such an approach is often called postcolonial studies — an approach to understanding both the world in which we live, and the ideas and discourses that we use through acknowledging the ways in which power, colonialism, and empires have formed that world.

We might not want to wear Baring’s dress gloves of empire to come into contact with the colonial ‘subjects’.

But we need to give some thought to what aspects of our study (such as the terms that we use and the ideas behind them) might inadvertently be dressed in such colonialist apparel.


7. Gloves of protest

Photo: Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics by Angelo Cozzi

In the Summer Olympic games of 1968, held in Mexico City, two winning track athletes from the US staged a very public protest as they stood on the podium to receive their medals. Wearing socks, but no shoes, and each with a black glove on one hand, Tommie Smith and John Carlos both raised a fist high above their heads as the US national anthem played.

This was not intended to be, nor was it seen as, merely a gesture of triumph at their success in the Olympics. In the context of the time, of the Civil Rights movement in the US, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr and Bobby Kennedy, and much more, this was a gesture of protest in support of Black enpowerment after centuries of injustice, as a ‘cry for freedom’. It was a gesture that has close links with the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Although Smith and Carlos were both medal-winning world-class athletes, this protest meant that they would never race for their country again. Indeed, similar punishment was meted out on the other man on the podium, Peter Norman (the silver medal winner), by his own country Australia. Although he did not put on a glove or hold up his hand, he showed solidarity by wearing a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was also worn by both Smith and Carlos.

These three athletes, in their various ways, sought to draw attention to human rights and the problems of racism and white supremacism. The politics of race and racism underlined why they each chose to make such a visible protest, and to take on the harsh consequences of such a protest.

In order to understand this, we need also to understand the critical issues of race and ethnicity that lay behind the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and likewise behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today.

Such issues have come out of and also continue to feed into our understandings of the concept of religion on many different levels. Thus, (specifically Christian) religious discourses were part of the formation of white supremacism, slavery and segregation, and were also part of the challenges against it, in African-American resistance, Civil Rights, and anti-slavery.

When Smith and Carlos raised their gloved hands in public protest, they only had a single pair of gloves between them. That was all they needed, one glove each, to make a highly visible protest to raise awareness of injustice and to create an enduringly powerful icon of the need to understand power better.

Often this idea is framed in terms of an approach in the study of religion, as ‘critical religion’. Such an approach is based on seeking to understand history, power, and many forms of inequality and exploitation that are often ignored.

It can be about seeking to change the world, or more often about seeking to change the way we think about and understand the world in which we live.


8. No gloves

Photo: Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club, 1999

We have already seen how the study of religion can often be about conflict. Sometimes the rules of the engagement are clear cut, such as following the ‘Marquis of Queensberry rules’ (for boxing).

In contrast to this, there is the idea of ‘bare fist’ fighting, associated with films such as Fight Club. There are few rules, except of course ‘you don’t talk about fight club’. It is brutal, challenging, and in some ways transformative.

We could, perhaps, argue that Richard Dawkins pursues his critique of religion in such a bare-fist fight manner — when he writes about the ‘god illusion’, the gloves very definitely ‘come off’.

Indeed, this approach does have affinity with the more cautious (and less obviously violent) forensic approach. Instead of playing (or fighting) by the rules, the no-gloves approach is about going where the evidence (and the analysis) takes us.

But if we use the analogy of Fight Club, we also see a particular way of constructing gender and sexuality, and in particular masculinity. Although we may feel uncomfortable with such a violent way of ‘being a man’, it draws attention to how such gender is the result of culture and discourse — including, of course, religion.


9. Gauntlet (thrown rather than worn)

I am sure that this is not a comprehensive list. For those of you like their hands covered (or uncovered) there may be options that I have not included which you think should be here.

If you think of anything, then feel free to leave a comment below, or otherwise get in touch with me directly.

And so to conclude, here is my challenge, the gauntlet that I am throwing down to all casual thinkers about religion and religions:

All studies of religion are a study of humans, people and the worlds, cultures, meanings, ideas, and practices they live within.

Thus, whatever we may wear on our hands, what we do looks at:

  • power, conflict, control, and economic difference
  • gender, genders, sex and sexualities
  • race, ethnicities and the politics of difference
  • the various forms of intersectionality between each of these

Whatever our subject of study may be, and whatever approach we may take, it is always going to be located within the particularities of the history that has created us.

This history and politics is one of postcolonialism, after centuries of European colonialism and empires. Ours (and others’) ideas and knowledge are still largely shaped by those politics.

And to further complicate this, a central problematic in the study of religion is that even (and especially) the term and the idea of religion is the product of colonialism, empires, and postcolonialism.

We would not talk about religion in the way we do if we had not been shaped by such politics. The English-language term religion is extremely powerful. It can never be used neutrally.

And so likewise, what we choose to wear (perhaps metaphorically) on our hands helps to shape what we do in the study of religion.

And so it goes.


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.


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