Decolonizing the Study of Religion

Malory Nye
2019 Open Library of Humanities  
Nye: Decolonizing the Study of Religion 2 The ways in which contemporary scholars talk about religion remain steeped in the ongoing legacies of European colonialism and assumptions of white supremacy. 1 There are various lines of descent for the study of religion, and like much of the humanities and social sciences, they all lead back to colonialism, and in particular the 19 th -and early 20th-centuries. 2 Most scholars working on religion would recognize that this history raises a number of
more » ... ises a number of concerns and difficult questions. 3 These relate to not only how the discipline got from colonialism to the present, but also the much larger issue of where studies of religion should go from here. That is, to what extent can we say that the study of religion is so deeply the product of colonialism that its structures, presumptions, and methods are irredeemably flawed? Is the study of religion a rotten fruit of the poisoned tree of colonialism? The response to this question may take various forms, with a range of approaches across what could be called 'hard' and 'soft' expectations of decolonization. If the study of religion was effectively decolonized, then possibly there would be very little left standing of the current discipline -this would be the 'hard' alternative. Alternatively, there is a growing tendency across higher education to talk of a much 'softer' decolonizing process, with ' decolonization' emerging as a go-to approach in 1 This article started out as two posts on my blog, 'Religion Bites' (Nye, 2017b; Nye, 2018a) . A copy of the paper was made available online in August 2018 (on Religion Bites) for a short time for general comment and feedback, which proved a useful exercise in pre-peer review. I appreciate the various comments and ideas from this, in particular from Deborah Grayson and Ipsita Chatterjea, together with discussions with colleagues at my two recent posts -at the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling -along with many discussions and interactions in the broad academic communities on Twitter and Facebook. 2 Various nuanced histories, placing the study of religion within the colonial era, have been written, including by Tomoko El-Enany, 2018; the website for Biggar's project is http://www.mcdonaldcentre.org.uk/ethics-andempire). Alongside such obvious celebrations of colonialism, however, there is also a resolute part of the field of religious studies that has shown a marked indifference to its intellectual and political roots. Nye: Decolonizing the Study of Religion 3 efforts to ' diversify' and to attempt rather limited change through recognition of difference. In effect, such a soft approach may succeed in weeding out some of the most blatant roots of colonialism but in doing so it keeps intact the shell of the current terminology, disciplinary structure, and academic power structures. And so, for these reasons, I am not advocating here a 'soft' approach to decolonization. If this process is started, if such a decolonization is necessary, then how should the discipline develop? And what would this process of decolonization require? Outlining the parameters of the study of religion In discussing the relevance of decolonization to the study of religion, I am referring to a field of study that is both broad and quite narrow. In one respect, the study of religion is a small discipline within the humanities which is often also referred to as 'religious studies'. It is bounded and maintained institutionally, within universities in departments, divisions, centres, and through university chairs and other faculty (including many adjuncts and other precarious staff). On a wider level, it is organized by national, regional, and international associations, such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), and a number of national groups affiliated with the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). Each of these associations have regular conferences focused on the academic interests of their respective individual members, and thus reflect and materially practice the field of the study of religion. And, of course, there are the academic journals for this discipline, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and Religion. The disciplinary boundaries between this particular area of the study of religion, as institutionalized and practiced in such organizations and conferences, and other disciplines can be quite ambiguous. Thus, there are long-standing discussions about how the study of religion is distinct from areas of sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, etc., that all have some focus or interest in studying religion. There is also deep interaction between the study of religion and theology -very often the two can be found together in a single department (TRS) -and some argue Nye: Decolonizing the Study of Religion 4 that the fields are continuous (although this claim tends to be strongly refuted by many scholars of religion). Moreover, there are many scholars and areas of study that have (what is considered to be) religion as their subject matter, far beyond the disciplinary boundaries of the study of religion (for example, in security studies, legal studies, and international relations). Ahmed, S 2007 'A Phenomenology of Whiteness'. Feminist Theory, 8(2): 149-168.
doi:10.16995/olh.421 fatcat:ccyg2oafazfllieubf2txpe44q