Comment on the high court challenge to the new Religious Studies GCSE curriculum in England


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The Education Acts in England and Scotland (1945 & 1946) established that all children and young people at school should take ‘religious education’ and begin each day with some kind of act of ‘religious observance’.  Although the Acts are now sometimes observed ‘more in the breach’ – anecdotal evidence suggests –   this is still the case officially across the UK today.

There has always been a minority view since 1945 that ‘religion’ is not an appropriate subject to study at school in a ‘secular’ age. More recently however the content of RE curricula has changed in response to concerns about its ‘confessional’ character and people are accustomed to the idea that the content of RE now relates to a neutral treatment of ‘world religions’ rather than to the inculcation of a particular set of teachings, beliefs or practices.  Now another point of contention seems to have emerged. A group composed of parents and young people supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA) is going to court to challenge the government’s most recent revised curriculum for Religious Studies in England and Wales at GCSE level.

One argument appears to be that such a limited description of ‘world religions’  (typically in recent years only six recognized ‘major world religions’ are studied in the UK context) gives the impression that within the school curriculum, issues of truth and morality are predominantly if not exclusively addressed here and that ‘non-religious world views’ are somehow discriminated against as inferior. This view is understandable given the ways in which we use the terms ‘religion’, ‘non-religious’ and ‘the secular’ and this is something that a group of scholars associated with the term ‘critical religion’ have been working on in recent years. They have come up with the idea that this language does not simply describe several equitable positions or entities existing in the world that – as seems to be the demand in this case – should all have their place in terms of educational policy making and the curriculum. Tim Fitzgerald of Stirling University has argued for example that

‘…religion is a power category that, in dialectical interplay with other power categories such as ‘politics’, ‘science’ or ‘nature’, constructs a world and our own apprehensions according to the interests of private property, and the various beliefs, institutions and practices that have come into the world to protect private property.’

The BHA and the parents and young people they are supporting in this case may thus  be justified in their concern about the associations of ‘religion’ with notions of truth, conscience and morality that are arguably still significantly informed in policy contexts  by a privileged view of its meaning as explored by Fitzgerald for example.  By excluding humanism from the context of ‘religion’ in the curriculum, the BHA might quite reasonably argue they are thus  being excluded from a point of privileged moral and ethical reference in British society. At the same time, we could  say that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘the religious’ continue to act in British society to describe a sphere of influence that is subordinate.  Its proper concerns are determined by their distinction from ‘the secular’ within an essentially hierarchical binary. The sphere of ‘religion’ is viewed as contributing to a legitimate if subsidiary and largely privatized social and cultural richness or diversity, but there is little doubt in the present ideological context within British society that power in the public realm lies with values and institutions that are generally identified as ‘secular.’

In consequence the appellants seem at once justified and unjustified in their case.  Humanism does seem as worthy of study as, for example, Christianity or any other of the ‘six major religions’.  On the other hand, it is difficult to know what is to be achieved by trying to establish humanism as an equivalent to the other ‘world religions’ or even in terms of the synonymous  ‘world view’ whilst the RE curriculum continues systematically to exclude any discussion of the fascinating and not very neutral, normative concerns of contemporary society currently elevated in contrast as ‘secular’.

In other words whilst there seems to be an issue here about discrimination and the equitable recognition of diversity, there is perhaps an even more profound issue about the entire discursive language of religion/non-religion/secularity that in policy terms has already powerfully limited the possible differences of truth, conscience and morality with which young people can be encouraged to engage in school RE curricula, revised or otherwise.

Does ‘spiritual activism’ render spirituality ‘critical’?


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I have known but a few figures who have enjoyed something of a prophetic status, and one of them is Alastair McIntosh, the free-lance Quaker activist, writer, broadcaster, poet, part-time academic – and all-round provocateur.  I first met Alastair when I was involved in the organisation of the Conference Nature Religion Today that took place way back in 1996 at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside in the English Lake District. This unknown to us bearded figure arrived and began to deliver a formal academic paper on the environmental aspects of the controversial removal of Mount Roineabhal and the Harris ‘Super-quarry’ Inquiry, at which he had managed to persuade a Native Canadian chief and a prominent professor from the Free Church College in Edinburgh take part in a superbly well-publicised appearance.

Suddenly, some quarter of an hour into his slides the speaker put aside his text, slung a plaid over his shoulder and began to declaim with full bardic intensity his epic poem ‘The Gal-Gael Peoples of Scotland’. This had grown out of his involvement with the M77 road protest movement and had been ‘(w)ritten at the request of and dedicated to Tawny, Colin and Gehan Macleod and other powerful gentle warriors at the Pollok Free State M77 Motorway Protest in Glasgow, whose endeavours for renewal are both ecological and cultural’.

The impact upon those present, an unusual mixture of academic participants and representatives of the diverse wider Pagan community (some being both) was remarkable; I recall one participant rushing out of the lecture theatre tearing at his shirt apparently with the intention of re-connecting sky-clad with Nature. The elevated bardic style (think Dylan Thomas ‘hwyl’ – but as if charged up on whisky and magic mushrooms) is not for everyday use, but on this occasion it worked. I began more fully to understand the geopoetic intensity that lies behind that part of contemporary Scottish nationalism simmering on the rim of Caledonia amongst the dispossessed and damaged post-working class of Glasgow, just prior to the re-establishment in 1997 of the Scottish Parliament laid to one side in 1707 with the Union of the Parliaments. Since then the Scottish National Party has of course advanced in a remarkable way both in Edinburgh and most recently in Westminster.

Alastair and I found we had much in common as regards our experience of and resistance to the managerialisation and commodification of British universities. As Teaching Director of the Centre for Human Ecology then based in the University of Edinburgh, McIntosh’s teaching methods were considered controversial by authority, but in reality the introduction of a deep ecological perspectives and techniques into activism was turning out to be a highly effective critical response to the demands of agro-business and the animal research that formed and remains such a significant factor in university funding. There was sharp controversy in the press that reached the pages of the journal New Scientist and resulted in the eventual exit of the CHE from the University. McIntosh chronicled this conflict and his engagement in land reform and the Isle of Eigg buyout in his book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. Now, nearly twenty years later, McIntosh and his collaborator, the Leeds-based fellow activist Matt Carmichael, have published a how-to-do book, Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (Green Books), which also seeks to assert the intellectual validity of the integration of consciousness-altering techniques drawn from a wide range of sources into socio-political engagement.

Spiritual Activism is an intriguing and challenging book for a reader like me who has seen some of McIntosh’s work at first hand, but who regards himself as bound by limiting protocols as to the legitimacy of moving from an etic to emic posture. Thus what lies behind this lively and eclectic book is not simply the creative tension between participation and observation that underlies much research in ‘Religious Studies’, but the ingestion and integration of techniques and insights that have proven their utility in the field of protest – and not just been rehearsed vicariously in the classroom.  In short, this book is ‘critical’ in that its basic drive, its inner hermeneutical principle, is to make as many connections as possible between activism on the part of ‘one who acts to bring change in our relationships are structured, that is change in community, often taking one to a point of discomfort’ (p. 12), and the techniques that enable access to what McIntosh and Carmichael call the ‘inner aspect of reality’ (p. 30).

The problem for those working in British higher education (both sides of the border) is that what industry, commerce and the ever-proliferating apparatus of regulation imposed on body, mind and the social order are deemed to require is a human product manifesting informed passivity: the student outcome needs to know enough to conform in an intelligent way – or the chances are that s/he will over the cliff like Thelma and Louise. In Spiritual Activism the authors take a big risk and stick up two fingers at this now ‘normalised’ understanding of the education process.

Chapters consider the nature of activism, spirituality and its justification, the role of ‘higher consciousness’, the ‘structure of the psyche’, ‘movements and their movers’, ‘cults and charisma’, nonviolence and ‘the Powers that Be’, the psychodynamics of campaigning, discernment and, in conclusion, a chapter entitled ‘Into the Deeper Magic’. Each chapter concludes with a brief case study of a remarkable activist figure. Taken altogether this is a highly ambitious and heady mix. The exposition of Quaker and Jesuit protocols for deciding upon courses of action in chapter nine, ‘Tools for Discernment’ is particularly illuminating.  The book cover is graced with an exceptionally beautiful image of the Yggdrasil by Vic Brown of the GalGael Trust, in which the world tree is envisioned as the meeting point of all the themes in Spiritual Activism.

In a higher education world in which it were still possible to engage in experimentation (as was the case in the CHE), I would consider the possibility of using this book as an undergraduate resource. It would allow students to enter a zone into which spiritual texts and techniques are shifted from distant times and places and relocated in the controverted fabric of life today. It would also serve as a provocation as regards such questions as to how might the vision all hold together, are sources used responsibly and, if not then why not,  and so on. The reader is confronted by many connections made that are essayed in the interests of a higher purpose and transcend established conventions. The weaving together of many insights drawn from a wide array of sources with a qualified recognition of the proprieties imposed by either academia (get it straight or else!) or outright popularisation (give the reader an easy thrill!) put McIntosh and Carmichael’s book into an uneasy in-between category.

A hostile critic could well argue that this text confirms the predilections of the renowned intellectuals and activists (including Sir Jonathan Porritt, Starhawk, Dr Mary Midgley, the Revd Kathy Galloway, Dr Bashir Maan, Bruce Kent of CND, Professor David W. Orr of Oberlin College and the Australian deep ecologist John Seed) whose compliments and names are on the dustcover and in the opening unnumbered pages of ‘Praise for Spiritual Activism’. Alternatively, there may well be an equally negative stony silence on the part of some readers in the tunnels and caves of academe from which much of this material has been mined.

As a challenged reader I would venture the following positive evaluation. Whilst the authors are negative towards ‘postmodernism’, in reality Spiritual Activism is an exercise in what I would call critical constructive postmodernism. This is because whilst there is the surface level of collage that draws in full upon the capacity of information technology and the world-wide web to access the cultural artefacts of world history, the text is informed by a relentless emancipatory impulse to discern coherence in a world of commodified fragmentation – and to challenge it. In struggling with McIntosh and Carmichael to find these connections, rather than against them in denouncing possible transgressions, the reader is invited to join in the emancipatory task. The authors conclude with these words of encouragement:

Walk on, dear friends, stand in your love and power, go out and bless and be blessed. This is, indeed, a terrible time to be advocating ‘spiritual’ activism. That’s why the time is right (p. 198).

Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service is consistently ‘critical’ as regards an unjust global and local status quo and it is consistently informed by emancipatory principles, but its tone and contents may well repel those who find the ‘discomfort’ of this kind of enhanced and grounded activism – well – just too plain uncomfortable.

Edwidge Danticat ‘Creating Dangerously’


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Haitian born writer, Edwidge Danticat published a collection of essays in 2010: Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010). After watching the BBC 2 programme, Caribbean with Simon Reeve, (aired on BBC 2, 22 March 2015) on Haiti, and after the earthquake in Nepal, Danticat’s evocative collection came to mind, and with it, a desire to write about the gap that exists between the writer, the academic (and travel writer/broadcaster), and the individual for whom trauma, injustice, and poverty are a daily burden.

Danticat writes:

“The immigrant artist shares with all other artists the desire to interpret and possibly remake his or her own world. So though we may not be creating as dangerously as our forebears – though we are not risking torture, beatings, execution, though exile does not threaten us into perpetual silence – still, while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military ‘aid’ helicopters. And still, many are reading, and writing, quietly, quietly” (p.18).

In the BBC programme, Reeves shows how 5 years on from the horrific earthquake of 2010, parts of Haiti are still in rubble, still waiting for promised aid, and people still living in “makeshift tent cities”. The programme is keen to celebrate the forgotten beauty of this island and suggests that its recovery may be held in attracting more tourism to the region. I am still deciding if this programme is any different to other neo-colonial broadcasts that are dangerously invested in the exotic imaginings of the Caribbean that tell us much more about the European imperial imagination than the complex and heady mix of beauty and tragedy that make up this Island (and many other Caribbean islands).

Danticat continues:

“While I was ‘at work’ at 4:53pm., on January 12, 2010, the ground was shaking and killing more than two hundred thousand people in a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti. And even before the first aftershock, people were calling me asking ‘Edwidge, what are you going to do? When are you going back? Could you come on television or on the radio and tell us how you feel? Could you write us fifteen hundred words or less?’” (19).

Danticat’s essays reflect on what it means to be a writer whose words have evolved from birth and upbringing in a country of crisis, the exile caused by the honesty of these words, and the guilt and self-doubt about the observational practice that defines the writer’s task. And what about the reader of this work, the academic consumer, for are we just feasting on the tragedy and exile of Others? For Danticat, these are words that risk life; the stories Danticat tells mean that she will not return to Haiti to live; she is exiled, in order to create dangerously, in order to continue telling stories that share the brutality and horrors of a dictatorship but also the bravery of the people risking life and literally limbs in order for the world to hear. The stakes are high and the results are an honest and consuming collection of intelligently crafted essays. The least that I can do as a western academic/consumer/onlooker is to respond (ethically and thoughtfully) to this brilliant work, and others like it, regardless of the discomfort I feel because of my observational gaze. Because it has to be read.

One essay in particular that captured my imagination is “Chapter 7: Bicentennial”. In January 2004, Haiti observed 200 years of Independence but rather than a national celebration, the anniversary passed “midst national revolt” (100). “Perhaps, had it been given a fair chance in its beginning, Haiti might have flourished and prospered” (100). Danticat draws on the tragic ironies and contradictions of colonialism and slavery that saw North America flourish and Haiti disintegrate post Independence. Thomas Jefferson celebrated the French Revolution and the power and importance of insurgency, yet he was fearful of Haiti and its bloody, twelve-year revolution for Independence, and refused to acknowledge Haiti’s Independence when it finally came: “How could the man who wrote about freedom in such transcendent terms have failed to hear echoes of his own country’s revolutionary struggle, and victory, in the Haitians’ urgent desire for self-rule?” And instead “declaring its leaders ‘cannibals of the terrible republic’” (98).

At the centre of Haiti’s communal re-memberance of this twelve-year slave uprising is a man, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the vodou god, Ogoun. L’Ouverture begins a Vodou ceremony and calls upon the God of war, Ogoun; he is transformed into a warrior and leads his soldiers in a twelve-year battle against the French colonial masters, which, against all the odds, achieves Independence. This is what the people remember. This is what is passed from mother to daughter, father to son. This is also recorded by the historian C.L.R. James in “The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution” (Penguin Books: London, first published 1938, 2001 edition).

Danticat refers to Cuban author Alejo Carpentier and his 1949 novel “The Kingdom of this World” in which he combines myth and memory, “magical realism with historic facts” to write this story of Haiti’s journey to Independence, which he describes as the ‘real maravilloso’ the real marvellous.

Danticat continues:

“the real marvellous [sic], which we have come to know as magic realism, lives and thrives in past and present Haiti, just as Haiti’s revolution does. The real marvellous is in the extraordinary and the mundane, the beautiful and the repulsive, the spoken and the unspoken. It is in the enslaved African princes who believed they could fly and knew the paths of the clouds and the language of the forests but could no longer recognize themselves and the so-called New World. It is in the elaborate vèvès, or cornmeal drawings, sketched in the soil at Vodou ceremonies to draw attention from the gods. It is in the thunderous response from gods such as Ogoun, the god of war, who speak in the hearts of men and women who, in spite of their slim odds accept nothing less than total freedom.

Whenever possible, Haitians cite their historical and spiritual connection to this heroic heritage by invoking the names of one or all of the founders of the country: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri Christophe, and Jean–Jacques Dessalines” (103).

At the heart of this country’s painful journey through enslavement and Independence, dictatorships and national revolt, natural tragedy and crippling poverty is a spirit of resistance that is insightfully summarised by Danticat in this paragraph. The real marvellous is etched in the very fabric of their beings, to give hope, freedom, survival. I hope that those in Nepal reeling from nature’s painful blow are given glimpses of the ‘real marvellous’ in the horrors that they face, to empower them with a spirit of resistance, so maybe they can “read and write quietly, quietly” long after the media has left and the aid helicopters have ceased to come.

The marketisation of the academy for profit – is it founded on the myth of religious violence?


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“The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind”. –George Washington

We are all too aware that there has been a growing sense of higher education as a marketplace, indeed a global marketplace, and that has brought some benefits. Increased access for researchers and students to wider and more diverse cultures, emerging academic schools of thought and discipline that rely upon globalisation, and some opportunities for the development of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-class interaction for a wider range of students. The benefits are based on the global aspect, so what about the marketplace aspects?

There we find a less positive picture unfortunately. Multiple articles, newspaper columns and blog posting have been written about the over-saturation of administrative staff, the cuts in funding, and the burden of time detailing and cost efficiency that results in increasing number of casual contracts for staff, especially young staff. Often this is articulated as an attack on the humanities. While acknowledging that STEM subjects have received their own funding cuts, it is undeniable that the humanities have taken a stronger and more sustained attack for a greater period of time and is now, perhaps, reaching crisis point.

In the USA, in 2011, humanities subjects received less than half of one percent of the amount of funding that STEM subjects received. In the UK, the situation is not quite that severe, but it is moving in a general downward trend. The implied meaning behind such an approach is that studying the humanities is not profitable because it cannot be sold on and therefore studying it at university level is some form of self-indulgence that should not be funded by the public purse. Accepting this relies upon accepting that higher education, indeed learning itself, has moved from a good (something for the value of the individual, community or society writ large) to a good (a commodity for sale) to use Charles Taylor briefly.

There are multiple indices beyond funding that one can point to which also reveal this shift in global marketization of higher education into a profitable good. During Thatcher’s time (incidentally the only UK Prime Minister thus far who also served as Secretary of State for Education), there was the creation of the RAE (Research Assessment Evaluation) which later became the REF (Research Excellence Framework) used now to categorise, rank and centrally mandate value of research. There are now endless performance reviews, peer reviews of teaching, student questionnaires and funding goals to be attained. These are all means of creating something marketable and profitable far in excess of student fees.  Those departments which are seen to be less profitable or sellable, those subjects not so easily quantifiable in their outputs are being pared down or closed down. Typically these are the arts, social sciences and the humanities, especially in the UK.

So why is this and what does it have to do with a website on critical religion? Obviously the first question has been partly answered above and in the links; it is for profit and global market forces.

However that is only part of it, the narrative of progress heralded since the Enlightenment that requires what William Cavanaugh refers to as a dichotomizing, clash of civilisations that necessities a myth of religious violence to be perpetuated ad infinitum. According to Cavanaugh this “serves a particular need for their consumers in the West… [And] constructs the former as an irrational and dangerous impulse that must give way in public to rational, secular, forms of power.”

In the 21st century those ‘secular’ forms of power are capitalism as understood by neo-liberal governments and shaped by the interests of huge multinational corporations. We should ask if the interests of those corporations and the forms of power they maintain benefit from creating binaries and categories in much the same way as ‘religion’ and secular’ have been created and used in the West for half a millennia?

It is not much of a stretch to argue that language used to make STEM more desirable over the humanities, social sciences and the arts is really the next step along the path that began with the myth of religious violence.

In an apparently liberal, multi-cultural society it is deemed impolitic to use language which would suggest that those in power are devaluing or denigrating religious beliefs – unless, of course, they are seen as extremist and / or a threat to Western liberal democracy (read power). Why is it then acceptable to do so for those subjects that study religion; a key part of everyday life, or those subjects that seek to understand how we create, organise, negotiate and recreate our world around us?

Must everything be reduced to value added, and if it must why is developing an critical approach to thinking, developing a broader sense of what it is to be human not adding value to the lives of many students, staff and wider society? I would argue that it is adding precisely that value, but that value, that profit cannot be easily quantified, categorised and sold off and so is negated. I would further argue that the sustained attack on the arts and humanities occurring throughout the West is a reuse of the language and categories such to artificially separate ‘religion’ from the ‘secular and ensure the power remains firmly in the hands of those in one corner.

Stifling and closing down arts and humanities departments are not a march forward of the drive to progress, they are a repeat of the mistakes and prejudices of the past, they are a misuse of categorisation for the purpose of profit and a continuation of the false narrative about society (that it runs on dollars and pounds and not the ability, passions and skill of a myriad of different people). Collaboration and support should be the narrative, not division and destruction and if we fail to turn it around then we must, surely, stop calling places of higher and further education “seats of learning” and refer to them as what they have shown themselves to be – places of business.

“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” –Steve Jobs, in introducing the iPad 2 in 2011.

Postmodernism, postcolonialism, and the private property society


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‘Religion’ is part of a classification system that appears to the secular liberal as neutral, given unproblematically in consciousness as corresponding to how the world is, independent of the discursive formations that constitute our collective inter-subjective apprehensions. Yet on the contrary, classification systems embody power relations. Critical religion proposes that religion is a power category that, in dialectical interplay with other power categories such as ‘politics’, ‘science’ or ‘nature’, constructs a world and our own apprehensions according to the interests of private property, and the various beliefs, institutions and practices that have come into the world to protect private property.

The right to the outright private ownership of the earth, including the right to buy and sell for purely personal gain, unencumbered by any effects the practice might have on the lives of other people or the environment, is a historically peculiar idea, one which would have been incomprehensible to most of the peoples who ever existed. And yet this masculinist fiction of the naturally possessive individual and his supposed rights of private ownership – rights for which women had to struggle for centuries to achieve for themselves – has been transformed into our dominant notion of ‘human nature’, and has become the globalising norm of the world order.

The category religion has a unique function in the way it enables the mythical basis of private ownership of the earth, and makes it seem normal and inevitable. The right to unlimited private accumulation of our common organic inheritance, regardless of the effect on the rest, is the default position of liberal and neoliberal capitalism. In putative contrast to the blind faith of ‘believers’, private ownership of the earth is celebrated by generations of secular liberals as an enlightened discovery, a sign of a higher stage of progress and development, our collective arrival at mature knowledge of ‘reality’, including what it means to be human.

Critical religion is a revolutionary practice that seeks to subvert the rhetorical illusions that transform a peculiar way of owning the earth into common sense normality, as though there is an inherent inevitability – betrayed by such common expressions as “that’s the way the world is”, “you can’t change human nature”, or “stuff happens” – that the land, the air, the water, the energy, and even the genes of our collective organic inheritance can be privately owned and privately profited from, with minimal if any responsibility for impact on the remainder.

It follows from this position that there cannot be a genuine postmodern or postcolonial consciousness at least until the modern liberal categories of the understanding have been critically deconstructed and the illusion that they are neutral and objective has been dispelled. To be postmodern and postcolonial is to be post the categories of secular liberal understanding. We are not there yet.

To faithfully pursue this process brings one up against the inflexible resistance of the liberal or neoliberal university and its structures and priorities. This critical challenge to the dominant norms does not win one many friends. The liberal universities within which we work reflect and reproduce these ideological priorities. This is a good reason why liberal academics cannot effectively stand up against the neoliberal transformation of universities into business corporations with top-down, anti-democratic managerial structures, and an obsessive reduction of all values to market commodities.

Islamic State and the ‘theology of rape’


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Trigger warning: this blog posting discusses the rape of women and young girls.

Important update, 24.11.15 – please read the note at the end of this blog posting before clicking the links in the references.

The New York Times published a horrific story by Rukmini Callimachi on 13. August entitled ‘ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape: Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool’.  The story details the ways in which Islamic State fighters have sought to systematically carry out a programme of rapes and sexual violence against women and girls, opening with an account of the rape of a 12 year-old girl.  The IS fighter explained to her that ‘according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God.’  Similar stories have been published elsewhere, for example, by Richard Spencer in the Daily Telegraph last October.

The women and girls affected are from the Yazidi minority, who were in the news a year ago when stranded on Mount Sinjar; since then, the mainstream Western media seems to have largely forgotten about them.  However, IS has, according to the NYT, developed a ‘detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery’ and provided theological legitimation for raping Yazidi women and girls.  Yazidis are a long-standing Kurdish minority, whose practices go back to Zoroastrianism and other traditions, including Islam; they have incorrectly been described as ‘devil-worshippers’ by Westerners in particular.  The NYT suggests Islamic State’s misunderstanding of them as polytheistic is in part the basis for their treatment, as is the fact that they are not regarded as ‘people of the Book’ in the way that Jews and Christians are (unfortunately, the NYT doesn’t explictly correct this misunderstanding of Yazidi monotheism/polytheism):

… the Islamic State made clear in their online magazine [Dabiq] that their campaign of enslaving Yazidi women and girls had been extensively preplanned.

“Prior to the taking of Sinjar, Shariah students in the Islamic State were tasked to research the Yazidis,” said the English-language article, headlined “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which appeared in the October issue of Dabiq.

The article made clear that for the Yazidis, there was no chance to pay a tax known as jizya to be set free, “unlike the Jews and Christians.”

The NYT notes that justifications for the treatment of the captured Yazidis come from certain interpretations of the Qur’an and the Sunna, explaining that,

Scholars of Islamic theology disagree, however, on the proper interpretation of these verses, and on the divisive question of whether Islam actually sanctions slavery.

This is somewhat disingenuous, since today, apart from those connected to IS, the systematic enslavement and rape of prisoners is not really a serious topic of discussion for Muslims.  Jews and Christians have similar texts in their scriptures (written much earlier, of course, than the Qur’an), for example:

Deut 21: 10-14: When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

Num 31: 14-18: Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Of course, there will be almost no Jews or Christians today who would regard these texts as acceptable guidelines for dealing with prisoners of war, and for the NYT to even suggest that Muslims today are seriously discussing whether similar passages from the Qur’an allow such things, rather than that a tiny proportion of Muslims connected to Islamic State are doing so, does not really help anyone – Muslim or not – better understand contemporary global discourses amongst Muslims.

Asking better questions about IS might also help understand IS better: for example, Jason Burke notes ‘Isis is a hybrid of insurgency, separatism, terrorism and criminality, with deep roots in its immediate local environment, in broader regional conflicts and in geopolitical battles…’ – surely this is more helpful in understanding IS than trying to shoehorn a tiny minority opinion about Qur’anic texts into a wider discourse amongst Muslims globally?

More broadly, of course, most people would agree that blind adherence to any text without appropriate understanding of its context and historical significance is evading the responsibility to think for oneself, resulting in an abdication of an individual’s humanity.  One of the outcomes of such thinking can be seen in the terrible fate of the Yazidi women and girls captured by Islamic State; though there are also, thankfully, some positive indicators about their future too, as the Daily Telegraph’s Richard Spencer described on 19.8.15.


Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine mentioned by the NYT is available in various places online, including here.
The article referred to by the NYT is ‘The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour’ (author?) in issue 4, pp14-17.
Another article that may be of interest is by Umm Sumayyah Al-Muhājirah in issue 9 in the section ‘From our sisters’, and is entitled ‘Slave-girls or prostitutes?’, pp44-49.


I think it is obvious to most people that downloading Dabiq could potentially involve security services following up your interest in the magazine.

However, in the UK specifically, I have been alerted to the fact that a government minister has apparently said the government regards Dabiq as terrorist material under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000; scholarly research is presumably “a reasonable excuse” for doing so as outlined in 58 (3).

In the present Islamophobic climate in the UK, it therefore makes sense to advise caution in downloading the magazine if there is no demonstrable scholarly reason for you to do so.  Of course, in my view, following up the references I have given in this blog posting is a valid scholarly interest and should therefore constitute “a reasonable excuse” under 58 (3) – but I am not a lawyer and neither I nor the Critical Religion Association can take responsibility for any consequences arising from interest in Dabiq.

Michael Marten

‘Religion’ in Sociology


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My ‘critical religion’ article entitled ‘Critical Reflections on the Category of “Religion” in Contemporary Sociological Discourse’ has recently been published by Nordic Journal of Religion and Society. This article is my own personal attempt to suggest to students and instructors of sociology, especially those in the subfield of sociology of religion, to critically reflect upon the term ‘religion’ and to shift the focus of their academic inquiry onto the classificatory practices which employ the category ‘religion’.

Critical reflections on the category of religion seem to be rather counter-intuitive for most sociologists. When ‘critical religion’ perspectives have been acknowledged by some sociologists of religion, I argue, these critical perspectives have not been understood correctly and constructively. It has still been the norm in sociological discourse that the term ‘religion’ is utilised in a generic sense, as a self-evident analytical category, as if sociologists know what religion really is.

My article starts with critical reflections upon recent sociologists’ responses to ‘critical religion’ perspectives. The general attitude of sociologists towards ‘critical religion’ is negative. Sociologists, whom I briefly review in the article, tend to conceptualise ‘religion’ as a historically differentiated social domain, which has established its distinction from other domains such as ‘politics’, ‘science’, ‘education’, ‘law’, ‘mass media’ and the like. This has become the basis of sociologists’ conceptualisation of religion as a self-evident reality.

‘Critical religion’ perspectives would agree with sociologists’ understanding of religion as a historically differentiated social domain, but this is why ‘critical religion’ has turned ‘religion’ and its demarcations from other domains into a subject of critical deconstruction. Although sociologists are well aware of the historical construction of religion (whatever they mean) as a historically differentiated institutional system, they seem to turn a blind eye to the norms and imperatives which govern such a construction.

In the article, I urge sociologists to pay more critical attention to the social process of institutional differentiation and classification which construct the category of religion, particularly, the issues of ideology and power which demarcate ‘religion’ from other domains. I believe that this echoes the critical spirit the discipline of sociology inherited from its historical founders. However, sociologists might be threatened by this approach to ‘religion’ since it undermines the epistemological foundation upon which the discipline stands.

In the second half of the article, I have tried to deconstruct the idea of religion reified in Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (1994). As the main title indicates, this book explores the empirical findings on ‘religion’ as it is commonly understood and measured in Britain. Therefore, the idea of religion in this book represents what is generally meant by ‘religion’ in Britain.

In the discourse of religion in Britain, atheism and nationalism are assumed to be ostensibly ‘non-religious’ and ‘secular’ value orientations. However, given the functional and structural similarities between atheism and nationalism, on the one hand, and what is said to be ‘religion’ in the book, on the other hand, I tried to highlight the desires of classifiers. In this case, the classificatory practice of atheism and nationalism as non-religious secular has an intimate relationship with norms and imperatives of liberal democratic states, which exclude its rival value orientations from its operation by classifying them as ‘religion’. In this light, the category of religion itself is ‘ideological state apparatus’.

This argument is further clarified by interrogating the statistical classification of religion referred to in the book by Davie. I indicated that the taken-for-granted categorisation of Christian beliefs and churches as religion, as manifested in various social statistics, has been a consequence of the historical process whereby modern nation states gradually established dominance over the church. In addition, the inclusion of various non-western traditions and value orientations under the umbrella category of ‘world religions’ has been intimately linked to the historical process by which western colonial power extended its hegemony on a global scale.

The practice of classification is always governed by specific norms and imperatives of classifiers, and it is also interrelated to interests of the classified in complicated ways.  In my opinion, this can be an area of sociological inquiry. However, in order to critically study the religion-secular distinction and construct meaningful academic discourse, we have to abandon the generic concept of religion as an analytic category, since it is such a conceptualisation of ‘religion’ that is to be the subject of critical deconstruction. This would be a painful process for sociologists, since the intellectual tradition of the discipline has been deeply embedded in the religion-secular distinction, whereby ‘religion’ has already gained an independent ontology as a generic and analytical category.

In conclusion, I have suggested that a critical reflection of sociological discourse on religion should start from the most basic level. I have pointed out that the category of religion has been taken for granted in an introductory text book of sociology for undergraduate students. It has usually been the case that  the difficulty (if not an impossibility) of defining religion has been highlighted in the beginning, but the rest of the book proceeds as if we all know what religion is. Studying what is generally known as religion may be useful as case studies of particular institutions, social practices, value orientations, social movements, and the like. For sociological study of religion to be meaningful, it should focus on why something is categorised as religion and why someone is identified as religious, for example, by examining norms and imperatives of such classification and identification. Otherwise, the problematic discourse of generic ‘religion’ will continue to be reproduced by the next generation of sociologists.

Critical deconstruction of the religion-secular distinction indicates that if sociologists wish to critically address in a more meaningful way human suffering, which is occurring under the global system of modern nation states, it is fundamental to overcome the current discourse embedded in the secular-religious binary. From ‘critical religion’ perspectives, it is no exaggeration to claim that sociological discourse ultimately serves interests of modern nation states as long as utilising ‘religion’ as a generic and analytical category. If one wishes to critically analyse modern liberal democratic society, it is methodologically important to remove one’s discourse from the religion-secular distinction.

I hope that my modest contribution invites some sociologists to seriously reflect upon the category of religion and bring the issue of ‘religion’ to the heart of sociology in a more meaningful way.

Logic, Poetry, and the Myth of Disenchantment


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In this posting I will discuss some issues surrounding the use of formalized repetitions and the “disenchantment” of language in modern times.

Robert Yelle has shown in his book The Language of Disenchantment (2013) that the attempts of the British civilizing mission to roll back mantras and other apparently non-rational forms of language in India had a precursor in the polemics against Catholic “vain repetitions” back home:

Protestant iconoclasm at a deep level informed many criticisms of Hindu culture, beginning with its worship of multiple gods or images (murti) of these in stone metal, or wood. […] These polemics were in many instances simply transferred from Catholics to Hindus as their target, with little if any modification. Such was the case not only with the worship of images, but also with attacks on the various forms of chants that Hindus used – matras, Vedic recitation (svadhyaya), and the like – which, to many British, resembled the chanting of the Ave Maria by Catholics. (Yelle, 2013: 9)

According Yelle, “disenchantment” was an ideology, not an historical process that did happen or could have happened. The interesting question is therefore not how language got disenchanted but how disenchantment is employed as a rhetorical tool in narratives of approaching the other.

An example from Indian logic can show how fluid the boundaries between aesthetics, religious belief and rational argumentation can be. When Western scholars learned about the traditional five step inference model of the Indian Nyaya school, they considered it as inferior to the three step Aristotelian model because of the apparently redundant repetitions of the form. Ganeri (1924: 75) in his “A Note on the Indian Syllogism” called the Indian model “an untidy organism […] with vestigial structures and rudimentary organs”, especially when compared to the “more perfect work of art, the Aristotelian syllogism”.

It is true that in the Nyaya inference model requires apparently superfluous examples and repetitive steps:

Proposition: This mountain is fire-possessing.

Reason: Because it is smoke-possessing.

Example: Like the kitchen, unlike the lake.

Application: This mountain, since it possesses smoke, possesses fire.

Conclusion: This mountain is fire-possessing.

Both the examples and the repetitions can be explained if the background of Indian logic is taken into account. Logic in India was fundamentally rooted in rhetoric, and the goal was to guide the audience or the other party of the debate along every step of the argument so that they could follow and, if in amicable mood, agree with every single point. Repetitions were not seen as a flaw. On the contrary, Jainas considered the elaborate ten-step syllogism as found in the writings of Bhadrabahu the highest form of making an argument, superior to the five step model. A three step argument was also known to Nyaya logic, but was considered only suitable for drawing conclusions for oneself, not for convincing others.

While oral culture relies on formalized repetitions for both effect and style, for the British, logic had to conform to their preference for plain style and classicist aesthetics. For Randle, the Aristotelean syllogism was after all not only “perfect” but also a “work of art”.

Poetry, maybe the most obvious “word-art”, is today also dominated by the preference for non-repetitive forms. The argument is that poetry has been freed from the straight jacket of rhyme, form and metre. Rhyme, the regular correspondence of sounds, seems to be for modern ears a particularly vain, if not ridiculous, repetition. The first rule of Frank L. Visco’s famous list of “How to Write Good” reads “Avoid Alliteration. Always”.

Like the difference between Protestant plain style and the repetitiveness of Indian mantras or the Catholic rosary, this is not just an aesthetic preference. By using rhyme, poetry can recreate, reaffirm and conform to a given order. The fact that form and rhyme are out of favour on the poetry market reflects therefore a more general individualization and the rejection of traditional pattern in many areas of life.

It is not a coincidence then that the revival of poetical formalism was called for in particular by Catholics. In 1987 the Catholic poet and critic Dana Gioia (1987: 408) criticized modern mainstream poetry for the “debasement of poetic language; […] the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem.” He called for a renewed interest in the aural aspects of poetry that had been replaced by the more visual and text-centred focus of contemporary free verse. Metre, which Gioia (1987: 396) understood as dating back to times “when there was little, if any, distinction between poetry, religion, history, music and magic”, was taken by new formalism as part of the solution.

Unsurprisingly, new formalism has been called “patriarchal” and a “dangerous nostalgia”. But while alliteration may not always be awesome, free verse is just as dangerous in the sense of promoting a particular blend of “political” or “religious” preferences. In either direction, shifts in how language is supposed to be used can tell a lot about power relations but they do not in themselves constitute a form of “progress”. Like other judgements that are called aesthetic, political, religious or rational they are mingled with the myths we have come to hold true.

On ‘Innovation’: Professor Helga Nowotny’s Recent Gifford Lecture


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For participants in the Critical Religion network, Professor Helga Nowotny’s recent Gifford lecture, ‘Beyond Innovation. Temporalities. Re-use. Emergence’, delivered in the Edinburgh Business School on the 13th May this year is not without interest. The Gifford Lectures, were established by Adam Lord Gifford (1820–1887), a senator of the College of Justice in Scotland. The purpose of Lord Gifford’s bequest to the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews and Aberdeen was to sponsor lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God”. Since 1888 a remarkable and diverse range of contributors have maintained the enduring prestige of the Gifford Lectures. The summary notice circulated in advance of Professor Nowotny’s lecture stated that:

The quest for innovation has become ubiquitous. It is high on the political agenda and raises hopes where few alternatives are in sight. It continues to be equated with the dynamics of wealth and even job creation and is hailed as solution to the major challenges facing our societies. Yet, as Schumpeter observed more than one hundred years ago, innovation is not only disruptive, but can also be destructive.

A distinguished Austrian-born social historian of science, Professor Emerita Helga Nowotny of the ETH in Zurich set herself the task of exposing some of the paradoxical difficulties that attend the tensions between the rhetorical representation and the realities of ‘innovation’. Drawing in passing upon Marx and Weber as architects of ideas of modernity, Nowotny then settled as intimated upon a third figure, the Austrian economic thinker and historian of economic analysis J. A Schumpeter, and his conception of innovation as ‘creative destruction’. Innovation is not just technological but social, so that, for example, the quest for the quantum computer when successful will have a heavy impact upon the temporalities by which we live. We have to find a balance and trade-off between explanation and exploitation, whilst also being conscious that the reification of ‘innovation’ in an entrepreneurial culture (in particular that of the United States) can be misleading.

n reality, much so-called innovation is in fact ‘recombination’, and Nowotny illustrated this by reference to the ‘shock of the old’ in the juxtapositional work of the artist David Jablonski. In pointing out how mixed the outcomes of prediction can be, she also related her qualifications of the concept of ‘innovation’ to John Maynard Keynes’ optimistic vision in his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), in which “I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of … traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable”. Technological unemployment might, Keynes foresaw, free humankind for a higher form of existence for which we had to prepare, but present day workplace realities are very different. In short, the most brilliant minds can get things badly wrong, and the gist of Nowotny’s message was that what may save us then we come to the fork in the road ahead of humankind is the capacity to resist binary division and develop informed both/and responses to global crises rendered deceptively manageable because of the inherent unpredictability of innovation. Innovation leads to paradoxical consequences: the ‘natural’ in a post-human world is extremely complex and fraught with problematic real world juxtapositions highlighted by, for example, the contrast between the rapid take-up of cellphones in India as compared with slow increase in levels of basic sanitation.

‘Theology’ in however a vestigial form was very difficult, indeed scarcely possible to detect in Professor Nowotny’s lecture which could not be was not readily assimilated under the rubric laid down by Lord Gifford. Of course such resistance is not without precedent, given that the eminent Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth made it an essential part of his life’s work to deny the possibility of ‘natural theology’, albeit from a very different standpoint. What was, however, very much in evidence was Professor Nowotny’s defence of a distinctive kind of truth-seeking. She argued for the necessity of fundamental research freed from the immediate and all-encompassing diktats of what we in the United Kingdom are required to register in the metrics of socio-economic ‘impact’. Above all, for this listener, Professor Nowotny’s Gifford Lecture was a plea for a renewed sense of global responsibility informed by the full panoply of the ‘human sciences’.

Whilst there was to be a discussion the following day facilitated by the former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, Bryan Smith, it was disappointing that no questions were posed following the lecture by any of the many theologians currently active in Edinburgh. For this listener, Professor Nowotny’s critical account of the concept of ‘innovation’ was compelling. The risks raised by the unpredictability and unintended consequences of innovation give rise to a conundrum. The character of innovation might suggest that education, and in particular higher education should serve to develop an informed and agile responsiveness to change. By contrast, the societal reality of totalising managerial modernity is manifested in the urge of governments to impose ever greater degrees of control over our lives, and to understand ‘Quality’ as ever more sophisticated protocols of conformity. If, however, innovation is unpredictable then how can we know what we are directed to do will be the right thing? The posing of this question provoked a ripple of recognition in the audience, but no adequate response from the admirable Professor Nowotny.

“Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion” – comments on Maria Birnbaum’s thesis


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I just finished reading “Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion,” an outstanding doctoral thesis by Maria Birnbaum, who recently completed graduate work in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Birnbaum’s work will be of interest to anyone engaged in analysis and critique of religion as a category of public policy because:

  1. it advances theorizing about how religion becomes constructed in the discourse of international relations about the recognition of states and because
  2. it illustrates why such theorizing matters in the practical functioning of international statecraft.

I expect to cite Birnbaum in my work and will recommend her dissertation to graduate students and colleagues.

Before proceeding any further with a short summary of the thesis and a brief discussion of how it relates to my project, I want to indicate a significant lacuna in what Birnbaum has written: with the exception of works by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, there is very little mention of current critiques of the depiction and use of religion in IR. Most notably, Birnbaum makes no reference to Timothy Fitzgerald’s 2011 benchmark book, Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (Continuum). This is unfortunate since Fitzgerald’s substantial interrogation of themes and authors Birnbaum engages in her text would enrich her own analysis considerably. I hope that she will remedy this omission as she proceeds with publication of her important work.

The thesis is a clear and concisely written argument for practicing what Birnbaum calls “genealogical sensitivity” in international relations theory (IR). She uncovers major flaws in the work of Daniel Philpott, Scott Thomas and Jurgen Habermas – three authorities in IR who argue for the recognition of religion in global politics. Birnbaum shows although religion is assumed to be an “already present and intelligible” phenomenon that is a powerful determinant of identity and agency, none of the three can identify what it is that ought to be recognized. Furthermore, she argues that the process of recognition they support works to create that which it purports to be acknowledging. She claims that, in general, IR theory tends to be unaware of the contingencies of history, economics and power relations that underlie what gets labeled and institutionalized as ‘religion.’ Thus, Philpott, Thomas and Habermas exemplify what Birnbaum sees as forgetfulness and naivete in IR – forgetfulness (her word) about the processes of history that have brought about social groupings and classifications and naivete (my word) about how the very rhetoric of difference and particularity functions to produce the groups that governments aspire to manage.

Birnbaum condenses a great deal of complex theory and analysis in her text. Philosophical and political discussions pertaining to “being and becoming” are summarized and evaluated. She favors an approach that would balance the necessity of stabilizing social and governmental entities – i. e. “being” – with attentiveness to constant change that requires flexibility of boundaries and group definition – i.e. “becoming.” She reviews debates and literature related to the foundation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland and Israel as a Jewish state to show how religion emerged during the twentieth century dissolution of the British Empire as a “taken-for-granted juridical, cultural and political category” that affected the lives and deaths of millions. Her moving conclusion restates her argument that religion ought not to be used as a stand-alone analytic category because such a practice represses and thus disguises what is at issue in the struggles for power and resources that continue to fuel global conflicts.

Presently, I am at work on developing theory about how the category of religion is used strategically in technologies of statecraft to at times support existing orders of authority and at other times to undermine them. I argue that ‘religion’ has emerged rather recently as a placeholder for conquered and marginalized groups that are allowed to exist with some degree of cohesion within the jurisdictions of dominant sovereignties. The dominated group is allowed a circumscribed degree of autonomy as a religion if it agrees to abide by certain limitations chiefly in regard to a renunciation of the forms of violence – i.e. police and military functions – that the ascendant state reserves for itself. Thus, I understand religions to operate as the weakened vestiges of former states within fully functioning states. However, the very fact that religions are accorded some degree of sovereignty within dominant governments gives them a platform on which to strive for increased power and recognition. Religions are always restive to some degree and therefore behave like once and future states. Likewise governments habitually aggrandize religions by invoking theistic traditions as honored predecessors in order to glorify authority wielded in the here and now with a mantle of mystified and ancient grandeur. Examples abound in the preambles of contemporary legal and quasi-legal documents that make vague reference to a divine power as the ultimate justification for the present governing order. Because such theistic antecedents are almost always male, such contrived practices of nostalgia result in the shoring up of patriarchal ruling structures that characterize current governing regimes.

The thrust of the theory I am proposing undermines difference between so-called secular and religious orders of governance. Instead, I posit the existence of two unequal registers of government that eye one another with alternating degrees of competition and collusion, that jockey each other for domains of influence and that make use of one another to maintain and increase power.

I am developing such arguments along with several colleagues in a series of essays, edited collections and a monograph in progress. Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty, edited with Trevor Stack and Timothy Fitzgerald, will to appear this year from Brill. My essay in the volume, titled “The Category of Religion in the Technology of Governance: An Argument for Understanding Religions as Vestigial States” is an overview of my position.)

By showing how theorists in international relations articulate ideology that first reifies religions under the guise of recognition and then works to create and solidify contemporary state apparatuses to manage what is imagined as already there, Birnbaum enhances understanding of how ‘religion’ is linked to processes of governmentality. She also documents a sinister side to the whole business by pointing out some of the ways in which reified religions have become carriers of rigid and policed identities that exacerbate inter-group tensions and undermine progressive politics. Her work contributes to a growing and urgently necessary body of theory that is unraveling confusions propagated in the narratives of government in which we are all enmeshed.

NB This blog was first published on the NAASR site, 11.5.15.


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