Postcolonial and Subaltern Rethinking of Critical Religion


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The early 20th century formulations of Indian identity involved using the constructions of specific understandings of religion, and gender. Critical Religion (CR) has provided a crucial methodology to understand the workings of these ideological operators in identity formation within such colonial contexts. In this line, CR has rightly shown that constructions of religion/secular, sacred/profane dichotomies enabled the legitimisation of hegemonic colonial discourses. It is crucial for us to look at the question of ‘how’ these appropriations were carried out by the colonised.

Historical archives show conflicting and complex narratives on the indigenous understandings and usage of religion both as an ideological category and as a term. For instance, the archives show that South Indian nationalists often used the terms religion, sacred, secular, science, and profane in their discourses on Hindu/Indian identity. Much as these terms were appropriated, they were not necessarily used as the colonial narratives intended. Thus, whilst secular was criticised as modern, modern here meant materialistic — that is pertaining to materiality such as corporeality (sex), objects (wealth), etc., and therefore, profane). Science was often seen as a ‘Western value’ that potentially contributed to materiality when it was not thoroughly grounded in spirituality as Hindu philosophy was. Sometimes, science was cast aside as ‘not Indian’ . This understanding shifted when science was used to define Hinduism as superior to Western society. Science when grounded in Hindu philosophy was understood as a body of knowledge. Other times nationalists quoted medical knowledge from the ancient texts (for example, Ayurveda and the Vedas) to show that science was embedded in Hindu philosophy.

Thus, Indian nationalistic discourses used the language (terms and categories) of the colonisers to beat them at their own game, as it were. For CR, semantics are important for our understandings of these discourses, but nationalists’ mere use of these terms should not be seen as their adoption of a colonial, Christian understanding of these categories. The nationalists indeed used these terms religion, secular, science, and materialism in some instances that pointed to a colonial understanding of these categories. However, there were other complex ways in which these terms were used. As we can see from the examples give above, these terms had multiple meanings depending on the contexts within which they were used. These also transformed depending on who the discourses were aimed at, whether the colonisers or the subaltern groups. For instance, the regional linguistic nationalism that was a subaltern counter-movement to the hegemonic Indian nationalist movements in South India often advocated the importance of rejection of religion, and embracing science as the objective method of understanding human nature. Strongly grounded in Enlightenment values, these movements, whilst rejecting ‘Hinduism’ as a brahmanical religion, did not reject other faiths because their primarily objective was to hoist a counter-argument to what they saw as brahmanical hegemony. Arguably, the agenda of these movements swayed the way these ideological terms and categories were used.

This emphasizes the fact that we cannot assume that appropriation of the colonial categories were homogenous. We must delve deeper into these movements to provide a contextualized understanding of identity formations. Deconstructing ideological categories and to do away with them might clear the discourses of modernity clouding our understandings of historical, colonial developments. But it does not fully provide a postcolonial subaltern understanding of historical indigenous discourses. To put it simply, the question should not only be whether the term religion was used, and where they learned the term, it is to also ask how the term was used. To not take that into account is to make the mistake of succumbing to the orientalist discourse of a pre-Christian indigenous era when religion and secular were one and the same, and a Christian/colonial indigenous era where these distinctions were introduced, which the nationalists appropriated. This, then, would be a good example of Aditya Nigam argues as a postcoloniality that is an echo of modernity. If we look at the regional anti-colonial discourses, it is obvious that the indigenous nationalists had more agency than that. Subaltern Studies stands as a testimony to it. Perhaps, I should make a point very clear: I am not suggesting that we should abandon Critical Religion (and given the space this blog post is published in, that would be rather ironic!). But, if we are to provide a historical postcolonial subaltern understanding of religion, then we must move beyond (as in, add to) the scope of Critical Religion to listen when the said subaltern speaks. We now have two issues at hand: a) how do we understand the heterogeneity of anti-colonial, and nationalistic discourses; b) how do we listen when the subaltern engages with these heterogenous anti-colonial, and nationalist discourses?

In an article soon to be published by Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory, I have attempted to answer the first question using Dipesh Chakrabarty’s now famous theorisation of histories. Chakrabarty theorises History 1 as the ‘universal history of capital’ that abstracts labor as a function that is removed from its contexts, and Histor(ies) 2(s) as ‘numerous other tendencies . . . intimately intertwined with History 1 . . . to arrest the thrust of capital’s universal history and help it find a local ground’. At the outset, History 1 and Histor(ies) 2(s) can be seen as polar opposites that History 1 is the secular capital and Histor(ies) 2(s) are the indigenous traditions, i.e., religion. However, as Chakrabarty has shown, Histor(ies) 2(s) are present in History 1 in order for the capital to function; rituals invoking the divine, such as worshipping tools for weaving, etc. Thus, within these indigenous contexts, religion/secular categories, with the emergence of capitalism, does not function dichotomously. Rather the ‘religious’ is embedded in the secular to prevent a total takeover of the secular. However, this theorisation provides tools to understand only certain nationalistic discourses. For example, it points to the phenomenological aspects of orthopraxy. There are such multitude of hegemonic nationalistic discourses that need to be acknowledged to understand how colonial categories were appropriated. Moreover, we must also look at how subaltern groups engaged with these hegemonic discourses – both of the nationalists and the colonisers. After all, it is rather evident that the methodological tools used to understand the hegemonic nationalist discourses cannot be used to understand the engagement between the hegemonic and subaltern groups.

Michael Marten’s theorising of ‘religious alterity’ helps us to provide a better understanding of these discourses.* Discussing the missionary narratives in the Middle East in the early 20th century, Marten argues that the Protestant missionaries’ understood the native practices and faiths as an Otherness, an ‘alterity’, that was somehow ‘religious’ in a way. In other words, Protestant missionaries encountered practices and faiths that they saw as definitely ‘religious’, but understood them as an alterity, by Othering these native practices. Christian missionaries in the colonies were by no means postcolonial or subaltern. Nor were their understandings of indigenous faiths and beliefs. But as Marten argues, it is important to understand moments of Othering ‘whilst . . . hearing and respecting the language used by the individuals being discussed’. How does this work pertaining to the discourses of South Indian nationalists, and the subaltern groups? In using the colonial categories, South Indian nationalists were involved in two forms of Othering – a) towards the colonisers through consistent differentiation between their ‘superior Hinduism’, and the colonial ‘Western values’; b) towards the subaltern groups that challenged their hegemony — here the distinction was drawn between their version of Hinduism and that of the ‘degenerative’ versions of the Others. Within these forms of alterity, the nationalists used ‘religious’ in multitudinous ways some of which have been describe above. I acknowledge the risk of arguing that the nationalist discourses involved Othering the colonisers. At a fundamental level, this would be akin to making a case for ‘occidentalism’. That is certainly not what I am trying to do here. Rather, I am pointing to the indigenous nationalistic discourses that used similar, if not the same, language of alterity used by the colonisers (and the missionaries) to assert their position and agency in the domain of colonial politics. In doing so, they certainly indulged in ‘religious alterity’ with the subaltern groups. Acknowledging this would enable us listen to the language of the nationalists, and accept that they had more agency than what we admitted that they did. Acknowledging this would also provide us with a new methodology to listen to the ways in which subaltern groups responded to such alterity.

* Marten, Michael. “Missionary Interaction as Implicit Religion”. Presented at Implicit Religion conference, Salisbury, 2016. The author kindly shared this with me; I understand it is being prepared for publication.

Why is there still ‘interreligious dialogue’?


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In a blog post written for this website, Michael Marten had pointed out the problems of speaking about ‘interreligious’ dialogue or the almost interchangeable ‘interfaith’ dialogue and has suggested an ‘interhuman’ dialogue instead. The increasing involvement of Humanist groups in ‘interreligious dialogue’ and the success of the book The Faitheist may indicate that the practice of dialogue is developing into the opposite direction: that the number of those feeling themselves represented by the category ‘interreligious dialogue’ or wanting to participate in such events has extended to increasingly include also people who self-identify as ‘non-religious’ (thereby accepting but simultaneously subverting the disputable binary category of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’). At the same time, the important criticisms Marten voiced are also increasingly gaining attention:in a very recent book, Muthuraj Swamy, both a scholar and practitioner of ‘interreligious dialogue’ in India, discusses ‘interreligious dialogue’ as an elite project that reinforces and in some cases constructs the very boundaries it seeks to bridge.

Like Swamy, many people who talk about being involved in ‘interreligious dialogue’ do also problematize the category they use, and for matters of transparency, I have to say that this includes myself. When I recently attended an event on the intersection of ‘interfaith’ theory and practise in Rome, the participants of the plenary discussion were introduced as all being both academics and practitioners in ‘interreligious dialogue’, yet almost all of them took, in some form, issue with the term ‘interreligious dialogue’. This was either because dialogue was seen to mean talking instead of acting, or as a general and abstract discussion that fails to get down to the much more specific root of the problems. One participant said that his organisation for a long time did not consider itself as doing ‘interreligious dialogue’ but was simply trying to do the work of the gospel. At another occasion, a leader of an international ‘interfaith’ organization told me that he did not really like the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ because he was critical about trying to influence others on theological grounds and that he preferred the term ‘religious diplomacy’ for his work that tries to bring leaders of different traditions together to make a difference in the world. Another position is that the practice of ‘interreligious dialogue’ is just mission in disguise, and for this it has attracted criticism both from those who ask for an encounter without ulterior motives and those who would like to see a more self-confident and direct missionary approach.

As the category ‘interreligious dialogue’ is taken to be problematic also by practitioners, I am interested in the reasons why they nevertheless use or accept the category. I think one of the reasons is that ‘interreligious dialogue’ can refer to a diversity of social practices without distinguishing among them. It serves as an umbrella term with positive connotations of goodwill, leadership, harmony or peace that is unspecific enough to allow for different actors to come together without having to disclose their precise attitude toward the other and also without the precondition that all actors share the same attitude toward the other. Within this diversity of social practises we can ask what people do in specific cases when they talk about doing ‘interreligious dialogue’.

The power of institutions in dialogue is a very strong factor in the persistence of ‘interreligious’ instead of ‘interhuman’ dialogue. The practice of ‘interreligious dialogue’ is very often done by individuals that represent or refer to an institution in order to present their position as coherent and authoritative. Those who are interested in an exchange of individual interpretations that do not claim to be representative or authoritative for a tradition and its institutions have an important role as innovators but they are usually not in a position to define the terms and conditions of the practice.

During the last months, I have been studying the high-level dialogue of the Catholic Church, particularly the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). For the Catholic Church, Catholic-Hindu dialogue does, strictly speaking, not mean the Church’s dialogue with ‘Hinduism’ but the Church’s dialogue with people who say that they are adherents of ‘Hinduism’. Although the Catholic Church has pointed out repeatedly the wisdom of the Indian traditions, the question of the truth of the ‘Hindu’ teachings is not considered as particularly relevant for the practise of dialogue. Most of the official communication of the Vatican directed at Hindus is kept general or focuses on issues of social or environmental concern. Jenn Lindsay, a doctoral candidate at Boston University, observed during her grassroots research in Rome that initiatives that describe themselves as ‘religious’ often do not differ radically in methodology or objective from, say, intercultural dialogue, and there are some dialogue events where there is no talk about ‘religion’ at all beyond the tacit assumption of ‘religious’ belonging. Much of the Church’s dialogue is of a rather diplomatic nature, which may not be surprising considering that the Church is not only a group of Catholic individuals but one of the world’s biggest organizations whose officials have to find strategies for positioning the Church on various issues and in relation to other actors.

I found that within the PCID there was a clear awareness of the plurality within ‘Hinduism’. There was no assumption that they could meet the Hindu tradition in a single person. When I asked an official how he selected potential Hindu partners for dialogue, he replied that he did not because that would amount to deciding which of the thousands of groups would be the proper representative of ‘Hinduism’. Instead, he pointed out, the Vatican relies on its cooperation with the Church structures in India who recommend participants for meetings, for example on social issues, or Indian persons of authority who would like to meet with the Pope. Personal contacts are thus channelled and filtered through the church structures. One of the central aspects of the council’s work is to advise the local churches on the framework within which dialogue is considered possible and fruitful for Catholics and what would run contrary to Church guidelines. But why should Hindus be interested in ‘interreligious dialogue’? ‘Hinduism’ as a very diverse tradition (the criticism of speaking of ‘Hinduism’ a single tradition is well known), has no strict institutional selection criteria but depends on student-teacher lineage an intersubjective practice of reputation. Besides theological and social reasons, ‘interreligious dialogue’ with the institution Catholic Church as represented by individuals like the Pope or the members of the Curia can seem attractive for Hindu leaders as his or her approach is thereby externally acknowledged if not ‘officialized’ as an authoritative voice of ‘Hinduism’.

One of the reactions I received when talking about the work of the PCID was that this was not ‘interreligious dialogue’ but rather church politics. Yet in my view this distinction would itself be problematic because it reinforces the dichotomy between the religious and the political that has been criticized by Timothy Fitzgerald and others, and which appears as particularly artificial when the focus is not on individuals but on a giant global institution. While the general approach of the PCID may for some be neither ‘interreligious’ nor ‘dialogical’ enough, it has the conceptual advantage that it does not essentialize ‘Hinduism’ but is prepared to engage also with a tradition in which few people may hold exactly identical beliefs. The Vatican communication does, on the other hand, often essentialize Catholicism by presenting a unified ‘Catholic’ perspective. This is however not because the Vatican officials are under the illusion that all Catholics believe the same but because they hold that all Catholics under the guidance of the Church should do so. The Catholic Church also speaks of a dialogue of life to which every member is called, but on the organizational level interreligious dialogue signifies the benevolent and constructive interaction between the institution Catholic Church as the bearer of truth and the individuals and organizations of the wider world.

The Vatican’s take on ‘interreligious dialogue’ may be closer to diplomacy or even the public relations of a big organization than to either the ideal of ‘interhuman dialogue’ or the sentiments behind the harmony beads referred to in Marten’s post. Yet even within the Vatican the case is not clear-cut. Looking through Church documents that contain words like ‘Hindu’ one finds two very different approaches: while one is rooted in seeking to understand the mission field or a diplomatic partner, the other takes non-Catholics as fellow pilgrims who can engage in mutual support and cooperation and even a joint search for the truth. The recent video on ‘interreligious dialogue’ by Pope Francis is particularly interesting in this respect as the dramaturgy of the video implies no hierarchy among those addressed by the Pope but places the individual’s belief in ‘love’ into the centre of the dialogue. These approaches ranging between mission, diplomacy, public relations and ‘interhuman dialogue’, all with their own conceptual challenges, co-exist side by side. For understanding what people do when they speak of doing ‘interreligious dialogue’ one therefore has to look at concrete and limited cases and take plurality of actors, aims and motivations into account that seek to shape the concept and practise of ‘interreligious dialogue’ even within a single organisation, a single edited book or at a specific dialogue event. One of the reasons why the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ is still around is that in an increasingly plural and interdependent world it sets a stage that very different organizations use for negotiations of institutional and individual interests.

The Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan: A Review


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Winnifred Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom addresses her involvement in and observations of the legal case study of Warner v. Boca Raton concerning the decoration of gravesites in a Boca Raton cemetery. The author is both an academic and a lawyer, and she probes the case from a predominantly sociological viewpoint rather than by articulating a legal argument.

The highlight of this book, in my opinion, is that it is so rich with detail. The photos, the uncomplicated narrative and the comprehensiveness of information tell a complete story well-presented. Sullivan makes the characters come to life; I was moved by the grief of her diverse interviewees who were being treated so pitilessly by the cemetery authorities. It is a very interesting and important book. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom is an account that was well worth putting together.

That said, the author could have developed the theoretical analysis further for a more instructive conclusion. She is saying that “Freedom of Religion” is impossible, but, problematically, never clarifies what exactly “Freedom of Religion” is. In the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), Justice Potter Stewart writes “that “hard-core pornography” is hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it”. Similar approaches have been made in defining the Freedom of Religion in law. Phillip Griego notes that the Sun-Worshipping Atheism case before the Fair Employment and Housing Act was dismissed for similar reasons. Without giving any clear explanations, Sullivan seems to be relying on the ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ approach, which is the cause of the ‘impossibility’ she critiques in the book. Applying a critical theory approach would yield a conclusion other than “this is impossible”.

‘Freedom of religion’ is protected by law; it stands trial on a regular basis, proving it not to be “impossible”. Every day in America, the country featured in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, citizens (and corporations like Hobby Lobby) are operationalizing laws concerning Freedom of Religion to their benefit. In March 2016, North Carolina passed a bill that requires gender-segregated washrooms and seven other states are discussing following suit, in April 2016, Tennessee legislators passed a bill to allow therapists and counselors to abstain from treating people they think are gay, and in April 2016 Mississippi signed a Religious Freedom bill into law that allows businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Religious Freedom works. What Sullivan has not distinctly explained in her book is who is producing the discursive norms of ‘religion’ protected by Religious Freedom, who is excluded or marginalized by this ‘domination of knowledge production’, and how the totalizing category of ‘religion’ is produced to protect particular interests—in short, she has not pointed to who is benefitting from this arrangement. The author sees that unclear definitions of religion lead to discrepancies between sociologists and lawyers, but where does that take us in terms of theoretical understanding or social justice? The Warner v. Boca Raton case study provides the opportunity to deconstruct the colonial, sexist, homophobic and coercive aspects of Freedom of Religion legislation, but Sullivan stops at “impossible”. (This is not to devalue her overall critique of ‘religion’ as a legal category. Such critiques are incredibly valuable).

Throughout the book, Sullivan notes that judges, lawyers and legal professionals of various kinds are puzzled and annoyed by her need to explain that there are innumerable definitions of religion, and these are all highly contested. They are confused that she can’t describe what she is an expert of, or what she studies. The effect is that her position as an expert witness is undermined, and she is unable to use her knowledge and position to bring justice to people in need. This is not her fault, but it points to a serious problem which Religious Studies scholars hoping to be public intellectuals need to address. The Religious Studies scholars in the book may be a confused bunch, but the theologians know exactly who they are. A rabbi and a priest are also called to be expert witnesses in Warner v. Boca Raton, and they had great confidence in their abilities as authorities.

In Boca Raton, Sullivan could have stood up for the rights of individuals in the face of corporate interest, she could have sparked a debate about private expression and public sterility, or she could have embarked on a fascinating contemporary analysis of burial culture and the legal context. In the book, Sullivan places great emphasis on her background in law, and so she could have used this case as the foundation of a rectification of the legal system to respond to the “impossibilities” which she is identifying. In the end, after the discussion about the indefinability of religion, Sullivan concludes that if people say that what they are doing is religion, they should be allowed to do it as long as it ‘looks like’ religion. There is nothing particularly harmful in this conclusion in this case, but as a qualified specialist the potential to do more was there. For example, Sullivan asks “[c]an “lived religion” ever be protected by laws guaranteeing religious freedom?”. If she is engaged in challenging the construction of religion in freedom of religion laws, perhaps a better question would be “can the freedom of expression protect the rights of these people to decorate graves?” That might be a more productive line of questioning.

Another important legal take on ‘religion clauses’ is Micah Schwartzman’s thorough article “What If Religion Isn’t Special?”, referring to ‘religion’ as a special entity within law. The implications of Schwartzman’s work are that ‘religion clauses’ foster divisions rather that solidarity, encouraging people to fight for small “accommodations” for their in-group instead of guaranteeing rights for society at large through freedom of assembly and freedom of speech legislation.

A fear that is sometimes voiced by my colleagues in Freedom of Religion discussions is that while the construction is problematic, something will be lost, or something important and indescribable will be left vulnerable if the problematic Freedom of Religion were not there. As expert witnesses, scholars need not convince lawmakers that religion is some enigmatic confusing thing they’ll just never quite understand; they need to lend their knowledge to constructive ways of ensuring that the behaviours classified as ‘religious’ that are worth protecting (or at the very least worth studying) are protected by other means.

The Impossibility of Religious Freedom is an interesting and insightful book which stimulates great thought and debate. It has potential, perhaps in a supplementary chapter with reference to Schwartzman’s suggestions, to push the theory further, but it provides a great introduction to the difficulties and challenges associated with Freedom of Religion in law.

The Harris Treaty (1858) and the Japanese Encounter to ‘Religion’


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Following on from my last blog entry, this short piece briefly describes the second Japanese encounter with the English language term ‘religion’, which occurred, this time, via the Dutch language. It took place in the treaty negotiations between the Japanese officials and Townsend Harris (1804-1878), the first US Consulate to Japan. In this process, Japanese translators had to be engaged with the idea of religion more intensely than on the previous occasion. Harris’ painstaking effort resulted in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (‘Harris Treaty’) which was signed on July 29, 1858. Article Eight of Harris Treaty contains the clause on ‘religion’. When the Japan’s translation bureau chose four different Japanese words for the five instances of ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ in the original English text, the Chinese ideograph shū 宗 was employed as the central concept. In the Japanese language, the character of shū, with its Buddhist origin, generalizes the sectarian confines of Buddhist tradition itself.

The treaty negotiations between Harris and Japanese officials were conducted bilaterally via Dutch. The original English text of Harris Treaty was translated into Japanese from its Dutch version. In order to understand how the Japanese negotiators interpreted ‘religion’ in Harris’ discourse, it is important to examine the ways in which the Japanese translated the equivalent term in their negotiations with the Dutch. Almost parallel to Harris’ negotiations with the Japanese, the Dutch commissioner Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius (1817-1879) was also negotiating a Dutch treaty with the Japanese. Importantly, the Dutch treaty contains the term ‘godsdienst’, which was utilized by Harris Treaty as the Dutch translation of the English term ‘religion’. The interpretation of this Dutch terminology by the Japanese is likely to have impacted upon their understanding of the English term ‘religion’ in Harris Treaty.

The Dutch word ‘godsdienst’ was the dominant Dutch term for the English concept ‘religion’ in the nineteenth century, and it literally meant ‘service to God’. Having maintained contact with the Dutch, while the country had been closed off to other foreigners for more than two centuries, the so-called ‘Dutch learning’ (or Rangaku) intellectuals in the Tokugawa era were familiar with the Dutch language, to the extent that Japanese Dutch dictionaries had been available for Japanese intellectuals. By the early nineteenth century, the Dutch term ‘godsdienst’ had been defined in a Japanese Dutch dictionary as kami ni tsukauru hito, which means ‘those who serve kami’. The implicit notion of god in godsdienst had been translated as kami. This point is worth paying special attention to.

The Japanese concept of kami is not the same as the Western concept of God. It is in fact ‘radically different from the concept of God in Judeo-Christian tradition’. Kitagawa explains:

The term kami means (etymologically) “high,” “superior,” or “sacred.” It is usually accepted as an appellation for all beings which possess extraordinary quality, and which are awesome and worthy of reverence, including good as well as evil beings.

It is also important to highlight that since the sixteenth century, the Catholic notion of God had been translated into Japanese as tenshu天主. This was a concept clearly demarcated from kami. The appropriation of the term kami to denote the Dutch notion of God, therefore, indicates a tacit distinction of the Dutch godsdienst from Roman Catholicism, which had been feared by the Japanese authorities for more than two centuries as jakyō邪教 (‘heretics’ or ‘evil teaching’). In contrast to the Catholic notion of God, having been appropriated by the Japanese notion of kami, the Dutch (Protestant) idea of god had been positively accommodated in the existing Japanese cultural framework.

The demarcation between the Dutch godsdienst and Roman Catholicism is apparent in the Japanese translation of its Article 33. This clause can be translated into English as follows: ‘The Dutch have freedom to practice their own or the Christian religion, within their buildings and at the gravesites appointed for them’.[1] It contains the rather confusing phrase, ‘their own or the Christian religion’. This may be read in two different ways: ‘they have the freedom to practice their own religion or some other religion, which is called Christianity’; or ‘they have the freedom to practice their own religion, which is to say, Christianity’.

Japanese translators read this clause in the latter sense. Japan’s translation bureau originally translated it simply as ‘Protestantism’ by the Japanese term yasoshū耶蘇宗. This word was clearly distinguished from Catholicism, which was at that time called tenshukyō天主教. In addition, it is important to highlight that the Japanese interpreters chose the term yasoshū, rather than yasokyō耶蘇教, which was also a common designation of Protestantism in Japan. This indicates the interpreters’ preference of shū over the concept of kyō. While kyō is a generic notion of teaching, shū means a class of sectarian tradition. This is related to the Japanese policy strategy, which discouraged doctrinal debates, whereas it tolerated ritual practices. This conceptual preference continued into the negotiations for Harris Treaty.

This specific way of translating godsdienst, however, was slightly altered in later years. It should be noted that all the Japanese international treaties, including this Dutch treaty, were retranslated after 1884. When the retranslation of the Japanese-Dutch Supplementary Treaty was published in 1889, the term yasoshū in the earlier translation, was replaced with the broader term of shūhō which literally means ‘sect law’[2]. Nevertheless, both terms in the earlier and the later translations still share the concept of shū, which played a key role in translating the term ‘religion’ employed in Harris Treaty.

[1] The new Japanese translation of the Article 33 published in 1889 goes: ‘阿蘭人其館内并定りたる埋葬所に於て其國の宗法を修するには障なき事’.

[2] The Dutch original version of the Article 33 is: ‘De Nederlanders hebben vrijheid tot uitoefening van hunne eigene of de Christelijke godsdienst, binnen hunne gebouwen en binnen de voor hen bestemde begraafplaatsen’ (Gaimushō Kirokukyoku 1889: 525).

The Perry Expedition (1853-1854) and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”


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Under orders from American President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) commanded an expedition to Japan in the 1850s. After more than 7 months at sea, Perry and his squadron finally reached Uraga, at the entrance to Edo (Tokyo) Bay in Japan, on 8th July 1853.

The Perry Expedition carried a letter from the President of the United Sates to “the Emperor of Japan” (in fact, meaning the Shogun)[1]. This letter was drafted in 1851 by Daniel Webster (1782-1852), and was signed by President Fillmore. This was accompanied by another letter written by Perry himself. These letters contained the English words ‘religious’ and ‘religion’, though there were no equivalent concepts in Japanese at that time.

The letters were presented by Perry to the Japanese officials on 14th July 1853, at Kurihama (present-day Yokosuka). Chinese and Dutch translations were provided together with the English originals. However, it was the Chinese translation from which the widely-circulated Japanese translation was produced. This was the first time the Japanese had encountered the English language concept of religion.

The original English letters were translated into Chinese by the expedition’s chief translator, Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), and his Chinese assistant. The process of translation was not an easy one. William’s Chinese assistant spoke Shanghainese, while Williams could only speak Cantonese at that time. Speaking different dialects, they had trouble understanding each other. In addition, with regard to the generic notion of religion in the letters, the Chinese language had no equivalent either.

Whilst translating President Fillmore’s letter into Chinese, the phrase “religious or political” was interpreted as 政礼, meaning ‘governance and rites’. By the mid-nineteenth century, the English language had already established the notion of ‘religion’ as distinct from ‘politics’. In contrast, the Chinese terms of ‘governance’ (ching) and ‘rites’ (li) did not have the same binary relation as ‘politics’ and ‘religion’, and carry very different nuances. Whilst ching implies the ruling of a territorial country by the imperial authority, li denotes the code of human conduct encompassing both the private and the public realms. Li renders the general sense of propriety and etiquette, which cannot be confined in the modern western notion of ‘religious’.

The Japanese version of the letter inherited the Chinese phrase 政礼 (governance and rites) in place of the English phrase “religion and politics”. When it came to be bilaterally translated into Japanese, however, the meaning was once again transformed. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese ideograph, ching政, was read in Japan as matsurigoto, which is derived from the word matsuri, meaning ‘to worship’. The concept of matsurigoto indicates that the purpose of human governance was “to celebrate the deities who created the realm and the people” (165). It contained an element which can be regarded as ‘religious’ in the modern sense.

As for the Chinese concept of li (rites), it was read as rei in Japan. While the Chinese concept of li represents the Confucian concept of propriety, in mid-nineteenth century Japan, the notion of rei was understood as norms of respecting existing social hierarchy. In this conceptualization, it is very hard to regard rei as the equivalent to the western notion of ‘religious’ as distinct from ‘political’. The Protestant notion of private faith, as articulated by the term ‘religious’, was bilaterally translated into the Japanese concept of rei, as a set of cultural codes which encompassed the entire social practices, including governance.

A similar transformation of meaning can be found in the process of the bilateral translation of Perry’s letter which accompanied President Fillmore’s letter. Whereas Williams used the term li to translate the adjective ‘religious’ in Fillmore’s letter, he chose the Chinese word kiáu教, for the noun ‘religion’ in Perry’s letter.

As Williams’ own publications in Sinology indicate, the mid-nineteen century Chinese notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western concept of religion as private faith. For example, the definition of kiáu in Williams’s 1856 dictionary is: “To instruct, to teach, to show how; to command, to order; precept, principle, rule; doctrines, tenets; a religious sect, a school, or those who hold to the same opinions” (144). In addition, kiáu indicates a kind of hierarchical harmony between the old and the young, and between ruler and subjects (372). It is also a kind of teaching to be transmitted from the old to the young, and from ruler to subject (372). The notion of kiáu was much broader than the Western category of religion, with a strong sense of ancestral traditions, which included families and the state.

The Chinese character for kiáu was employed in the Japanese translation of Perry’s letter. In the Japanese language, the same ideograph is read kyō. It is also pronounced oshie. As kiáu does in Chinese, the Japanese notion of kyō or oshie refers to the generalized idea of teaching or teachings. However, the Japanese concept of kyō or oshie seems to have moved away from the strong hierarchical connotation which is apparent in its Chinese meaning. For the Japanese, it meant a kind of systematic knowledge constituting the basis for public morality and the outward form of state ritual (161). In this sense, it was likely that such things as the constitutional systems and state ceremonies in Europe and America, would have been categorized as kyō by the Japanese (162). In this light, the tacit distinction between religion and the magistrate, which Perry made in his letter, almost completely disappeared in the Japanese version.

Following on from the Perry Expedition, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Townsend Harris (1804-1878) in 1855, to be America’s first consul to Japan. Harris opened the first US Consulate in Japan in 1856. He successfully negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (also known as ‘Harris Treaty’) of 1858, in which he inserted a clause on ‘religion’.

The American projection of ‘religion’ onto Japan in the mid-nineteenth century was an integral part of America’s Christian imperialism, powered by its self-belief in its divine mission in the world. The generic idea of ‘religion’ was brought to Japan by the Perry expedition, and subsequently by Harris, in this cultural context. These issues are fully examined in my forthcoming article, ‘American Imperialism and the Japanese Encounter with “Religion”: 1853-1858’, which will be published this year in the special issue of the Sapienza University of Rome’s Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni.

[1] Perry mistakenly thought the Shogun was an emperor, while the Japanese historically conceptualized the Shogun as the Emperor’s military commander.

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.