When Regular PCR Tests Become Penance: Agamben, Biopolitics and Critical Religion 

By GAO, Zhe

“In the name of science Vs in the name of religion” — The Chinese team wore masks while the Iran team wore hijabs in the first set of their Asian Cup encounter on Aug. 25, 2022 ©GETTY IMAGES

One of the lessons intellectuals should have learnt since the pandemic, I believe, is how quickly both the virus and our knowledge about it and the pandemic could change, diachronically and geographically, to the extent that you may easily feel embarrassed to read some of the viewpoints you published merely two months ago towards a certain part of the world. This applies more to humanities intellectuals than to scientists. While the latter could face with much greater calm their published findings becoming invalid due to the change of context as they are quite aware of the variables (and, of course, their susceptibility to change) involved in their studies and always acknowledge them, the former, on the other hand, has embarrassed themselves much more due to the seemingly more ‘universal’ nature of the statements they made. 

Ironically, mutations of the virus and diversity in global governance can also have ‘saving’ effects on an intellectual’s reputation. When Giorgio Agamben sent his messages regarding the pandemic in 2020/21, even those who had supported his critiques of ‘biopolitics’ were eager to draw a line with him, especially when they found that a close parallel could be identified between the way he saw the pandemic and that of right-wing conspiracy theories. In an imaginary caricature, where lifeboats sent by governments are saving people from the COVID-19 flood, Agamben is obsessively shooting at both the lifeboats and the water, claiming that the boats were actually driven by aquatic Nazi zombies under water, as those in the 1977 movie Shock Waves, who will eventually send the boats to concentration camps. 

Thanks to both the vaccine and Omicron, the (fatal) flood started to retreat since 2022. While our feet and shins are still in the water, at least people can now walk by themselves, though still stagger from time to time and have to face the risk of falling – especially for those who are relatively dwarf for different reasons. Any “Nazi zombies” left uncovered by the tide? There seems to be, in China, who in the first two years of the pandemic had been seen by many as one of the top students in the global hygienic exam, now considered being obsessed with sticking to their unnecessarily harsh regulations and measures, what Beijing prefers to call ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ policies, even with the price of enormous governmental expense, more deaths (than those associated with COVID) as ‘second disasters’, plunging into a steep economic recession, and increasing impatience from the general public. 

Did China see the pandemic as an opportunity for imposing more control over the society and its people from the very beginning and they have therefore consistently implemented their totalitarian biopolitical scheme for nearly three years? Or did Beijing actually follow science when dealing with the crisis of Wuhan in 2020 and only started to send zombies later on when they realised that the pandemic provided a perfect excuse for further domesticating their people and that the new technologies emerged during the pandemic can help facilitate this? In either scenario, it seems that Agamben at the very beginning of the crisis already acutely identified at least the potential danger of ‘techno-medical despotism’.

Did we blame Agamben wrongly? No and yes.

What cannot be denied is that asserting the fictitious nature of a pandemic when we knew little about the disease is nothing but irrationality. It is hard to assume that any western government had had a clear picture about where the virus would bring the world to when Agamben made his earliest comments on the pandemic. Otherwise, they would have moved (much) more swiftly than they actually did. In hindsight, they could not have got a clear biopolitical agenda back then. On the other hand, however, Agamben (2011) has always been consistent, and correct, in denying the binary distinction between modern politics and theology. This accords with, and could be complemented by, the analyses provided by Critical Religion scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald (2007) about the series of interdependent modern dichotomies such as religion and the secular politics (economics), spirit and matter, body and mind, female and male, superstition and science, etc., and their rhetoric force in shaping the former as private, subjective and nonrational or irrational and the latter as public, neutral and rational, even though these dichotomies are merely constructs and numerous parallels can be found between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ deemed as two distinct realms of human enterprise.

Studies, such as that of Deborah Brown and Tun-jen Cheng (2015), have drawn parallels (and differences) between the Catholic Church and the party-state in China, which can be illuminating sometimes. However, this kind of comparison cannot make its full sense without recognising the problematic nature of the most fundamental modern binary distinction between religion and the secular. Under the light of this recognition, even those less obvious similarities between modern ‘political’ manoeuvres and ‘religious’ devices can be understood as quintessential parallels.

From the outset of the Christian history, (the Sacrament of) Penance has never been a private affair, as its alias ‘Reconciliation’ indicates. The establishment of Penance was for nothing but reconciliation, firstly with God, and meanwhile with the church, i.e., all in the same mystical body of Christ. That is why in the first several centuries, penance had been conducted in front of the congregation, and its completion pointed to the sinner being taken back by the community. Private penance became more the rule since the 6th century and multiple times of penance were allowed, although public rite of penance only officially ended with the Fourth Lateran Council’s decree in 1215 (McBrien 1994). However, these have not prevented penance/confession from being understood and used by the Catholic Church primarily as a device for adjusting one’s relation to God and the community. 

In fact, the whole Catholic sacramental system is described by Paul Tillich (1968, 228) as ‘a system of objective, quantitative, and relative relations between God and man’, managed and actualised by ecclesia. The quantitative and relative nature of this system is a double-edged sword. For Jon Martello, the main character in the 2013 movie Don Jon, a modern-day Don Juan, the weekly penance at church always fix things up. Although watching and masturbating to hardcore pornography distance himself from God, confessions and reciting Lord Prayers and Hail Marys can certainly bring him closer to God again. Nothing to worry about. But for Martin Luther, this quantitative and relative relation apparently meant that he could never do enough in terms of asceticism and merits; the danger of distancing himself from God constantly haunted him, and so did his guilt and the anxiety of losing his salvation. Everything to worry about. What is common to both Martello and Luther, and virtually to every member of the Catholic community, however, is the fact that without certain forms of remedy mechanisms, their existence would have always been in the process of being away from God and excluded by their community. For the community as such, these remedy mechanisms are also ‘immunitary mechanisms’ (Esposito 2011), whose operations protect the community and prevent it from collapse not only from ‘disease’ (sin) but, perhaps even more importantly, from its members not believing the fatality of ‘disease’ (sin) and thus the indispensability of the community for their ‘immunity’ (absolution) and life.

Workers waiting to show their health codes and proof of a negative Covid-19 test outside a Beijing office building in May. ©Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

It is such a sacramental system within which millions of people in different Chinese cities are now living. Because of the impossibility of eliminating Omicron, the whole system of immunitary measures can only operate in a quantitative and relative manner. Even though ‘baptised’ with the vaccine, no one can be certain of their ‘salvation’ (immunity), and different manoeuvres have been designed in order to sustain both a certain level of immunity in the society and of people’s belief in the necessity of this inhumane immunitary governmentality. Among these the most prominent for the time being is regular PCR tests. ‘Regular’ means two things: 1) the result of PCR tests determines one’s relation with the community – whether they can enter (most) indoor public places and contact with people in there, including their workplaces; 2) a negative result expires in a certain period of time, usually 48 hours. The result of both is that most people would need to take the test at least every two days if they want to be seen as a ‘legal’ member of the community. One needs to ‘confess’ to the whole community (usually meaning people living in the same city or province) regularly in the form of taking PCR tests – not for committing any definite hygienic foul, but for not being able to prove their personal hygiene since the last test – as the interval between two tests itself implies estrangement from the community and puts the community and its immunity in danger (recall Durkheim!), not to mention that due to the complexity of hygienic casuistry it would be extremely difficult for one not to violate any rule during that time. Therefore, both absolution and reconciliation are needed. 

Does this mean one is expected to ‘confess’ as frequently as they can? The uncertainty of ‘salvation’ indeed urges people to do that. One of my friends, with his municipality requiring a 48-hour PCR test result, usually take the test on a daily basis as this gives him more security (of not being excluded by the community). When people travel from a city (or province) to another, this sometimes entails a new test upon arrival, no matter how close the last test before departure was, as the new community requires new ‘confession’ to them. Just as lay Catholics were only expected to follow commandments and monks, on the other hand, should take the full yoke of Christ, that is, counsels, some places require 24-hour negative results from their residents. ‘But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). Within such immunitary governmentality, one needs not get infected to be considered guilty – not ‘confessing’ in time as such would be more than enough to be seen as a behaviour endangering the community, even though there is no cause-effect relation between it and contracting the virus. If you see a crowd who are queuing for a test suddenly parts, like the waters divided by Moses, it is most likely that someone’s negative result was just found having expired two hours ago, and people behave like s/he had caught cholera. For one holding an expired result, although remedy ‘confession’ would be still available, it can only be taken at certain testing stations which are particularly for these ‘sinners’, suggesting a moderate form of segregation as penalty.

All of this, though conducted in the name of science and modern politics, reminds us everything of practices and institutions in history we ‘customarily’ label ‘religious’. It is certainly more than merely about biopolitics as a ‘secular’ sphere of human affair, but neither would it be adequate for us to simply define it as a communist ‘religious’ scheme. Identifying everywhere ‘religious’ as something substantial would only continue the desperate effort in searching for pure ‘secularity’ and perpetuate the false binary distinction between religion and the secular.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Translated by Lorenzo Chiesa (with Matteo Mandarini). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011. 

Brown, D. & Cheng, T. ‘The Vatican and the Chinese Party-State: Where Do the Parallels End?’ Orbis(Philadelphia), 60: 1 (2016), 73–86.

Esposito, Roberto. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Translated by Zakiya Hanafi. Cambridge; Malden MA: Polity, 2011.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism. Edited by Carl E. Braaten. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Butler, gender performativity and religion

The gendered dimension of the ‘good religion’/‘bad religion’ narrative and its racial implications

By Rabea Khan

What does the modern category ‘religion’ have to do with Judith Butler’s theory on gender performativity? Quite a bit, if you consider how religion in Western modernity is a feminised category. In my recently published article with Critical Research on Religion, I show how a feminine gender identity is inscribed into the modern (and as I prefer to call it modern-colonial) category ‘religion’. What illustrates this feminisation of religion especially well is the popular ‘good religion’/‘bad religion’ narrative, which is particularly prominent in the discipline of International Relations (IR). This narrative entails a gendered logic which imagines ‘good religion’ as the ‘angel of the house’ (or more fittingly in this context the ‘angel of the state’) only concerned with inner spirituality, emotion, affairs of the heart and salvation. Good religion stays in the private sphere. ‘Bad religion’ on the other hand is the kind of religion that has become ‘political’ rather than staying in the private sphere. It acts as the ‘irrational maniac’ threatening to destroy public order and the rational politics of the nation state (see Fitzgerald 2011). It is regularly described as violent, irrational, and its actors as ‘fanatic’, ‘extremist’, and ‘radical’. ‘Political’ religion, it seems, is acting against its ‘true’ nature. In other words, it is acting against its feminine, peace-loving, private nature and as gender non-conforming by inserting itself into the masculinist, public sphere where it does not belong and where it is therefore the cause of chaos and disorder. A very similar line of argument has been put forward by earlier theorists, such as Rosseau, Hegel and Freud, about women’s innate deficiency and threat to civilisation, rationality and public order if not kept in check and confined to the private sphere (see Pateman 1980). Essentially, then, ‘bad religion’ is discussed and presented in similar terms as gendered bodies that are seen to act against their ‘natural’ gender identities.

As an IR scholar, I come across ‘religion’ frequently. Religion is being discussed when it comes to issues deemed relevant to the study of IR, such as terrorism, conflicts, war, violence etc. Unsurprisingly, IR scholars talk about religion as if it is a clearly definable phenomenon, a ‘you-know-it-when-you-see-it’ sort of phenomenon. Although by now there is an abundance of literature that proves otherwise, this literature has not yet arrived in the discipline of IR which still seems to be stuck in a discourse that perpetuates what Cavanaugh (2009) has referred to as the ‘myth of religious violence’. This means that IR continues to perpetuate the baseless and popular assumption that ‘religion’ has a special propensity to induce, cause or intensify violence, war, conflict, and terrorism. This is especially the case for ‘bad religion’, which does not conform to the secular standards of the ‘good religion’ model based on (Protestant) Christianity. Bad religion, inserts itself into the public sphere, causing violence, bloodshed and importing backwardness – it is a regress. This also demonstrates the racialised implications of the good/bad religion narrative. Indeed, bad (gender non-conforming) religion is most likely attributed to religions that are non-Christian, and imagined as distant from the Christian, Western model. 

This very typical way in which IR has discussed ‘bad religion’ (and indeed this seems to be the only form of religionconsidered relevant to IR) reminds me of the way in which IR, and terrorism scholars more specifically, have talked about female terrorists. As Gentry and Sjoberg (2015) note in their book Mothers, Monsters, Whores, the female terrorist is presented as even more dangerous than her male counterpart because she is seen to act gender non-conforming, and against her feminine nature. Women are supposed to be the nurturing, peaceful ‘angels of the house’, and not political and violent, as female terrorists have chosen to be. Their violence, then, is perceived as unnatural, hence especially dangerous and violent. Indeed, the advice given to members of a West German counterterrorism unit was to ‘shoot the women first’ (MacDonald 1988). The female terrorist as Third (2014) argued, is perceived as ‘hyper-terrorist’, i.e. more terrorist than her male counterpart.

What does this have to do with religion, you might wonder? A similar ‘shoot religious terrorists first’ policy seems to prevail in the minds of counter-terrorist practitioners, advisors and scholars. The ‘religious’ terrorist is assumed to be more dangerous, lethal, fanatic and irrational than the secular one by the vast majority of Terrorism scholars – despite the lack of empirical evidence for this assumption. Within Terrorism Studies, ‘religious terrorism’ has been discussed as usually non-negotiable, nihilistic, and irrational, necessitating much harsher counterterrorism measures than secular terrorism,which is often credited with at least some degree of rationality. Attaching the gendered label ‘religion’ to concepts, phenomena, bodies or actors is a speech act that has consequences. It is feminising, i.e. denying rationality. In IR this can have material consequences, illustrated by the harsher counterterrorism measures suggested for, and imposed on violence or terrorism considered to be ‘religious’– hence more irrational and more dangerous. 

Feminising something, however, is also always racialising – as Sara Ahmed (2004, 3) notes, becoming feminine also implies becoming less white. The fact that most examples about ‘religious terrorism’ that come to mind are non-Western, usually Islamic, then, comes as no surprise. Non-Western, non-Christian forms of terrorism are more likely to be perceived as ‘religious’ – even if their actors’ motivation is primarily nationalist. For the case of ‘Islamist’ terrorism, the fact that the terrorist act or actor is situated in the ‘Middle East’– a region considered to be inherently ‘religious’, and not advanced to a more progressive, secular state – often suffices as proof that the act or actor in question must be religiously motivated. And even the instances of religious terrorism which are clearly ‘Christian’-inspired or perpetrated by white actors, are often presented or discussed in media as outlier cases which are not really Christian, but instead an abomination of the same, perpetrated by actors whose rationality is questioned with the frequent suggestion of mental instability. Thus, marginalising these actors as not representative of the West, of (real) Christianity, too, is a form of racialising these actors as distanced from the ideal form of whiteness that is implicated in the idea of rationality, the West, and Christianity. 


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge. 

Cavanaugh, William. 2009. The Myth of Religious violence: Secular ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2011. Religion and Politics in International Relations: The modern myth. London: Continuum Publishing Corporation

Gentry, Caron and Laura Sjoberg. 2015. Beyond Mothers, Monsters and Whores. London: Zed Books.

MacDonald, Eileen. 1988. Shoot the Women First. London: Arrow Books. 

Pateman, Carole. 1980. “ ‘The Disorder of Women’: Women, Love, and the Sense of Justice.” Ethics, 91 (1): 20-34.

Third, Amanda. 2014. “Mediating the female terrorist: Patricia Hearst and the containment of the feminist terrorist threat in the United States in the 1970s.” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 39 (3): 150-175.

Note: For a more detailed account of the gendered nature of “religion” please see my recently published article: Speaking “religion” though a gender code: The discursive power and gendered-racial implications of the religious label. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/20503032211015302

Logic in Magic, and Human Cognition: Towards a new theory

By Zenko Takayama[1]

Phenomena that religious scholars of the past could unreservedly describe as “magical” are still occurring all the time, even now. For example, under the influence of COVID-19, some people destroyed the 5G antennas by believing that this would curb its infection. They have also begun to sell amulets or stones that supposedly prevent COVID-19. These would have been pointed out in the past as being based on “magical thinking” without a doubt. But the problem with the conceptualization of magic must be dealt with first before we consider “magical thinking”. The main focus of this article is this magical thinking rather than the concept of magic itself, but let’s first briefly look at the the concept “magic”.

It is well known that the concept of magic, little late to the debate about the concept of religion, has also been considered as problematic since about 1990. Some have suggested replacing it with “ritual” or “healing, divining, execrative” in order to avoid pejorative connotations. However, nearly three decades after 1990 the word “magic” still remains in the public discourse. More recently, there have been cases of describing what would be seen as unscientific reactions to COVID-19 as “magical,” which seems to have strongly imprinted society with the impression that “magic” is indeed unscientific, something researchers have been trying to avoid. For example, The Magical Thinking of the White House’s New Covid-19 Plan (WIRED: America), COVID-19 isn’t through with us: Our summer of magical thinking comes to its inevitable end (NationalPost: Canada) use the phrase “magical thinking” to give the impression that this was an unscientific measure.

One might argue that we should use a different word for our daily lives than for our research. We could also do a historical and cultural study, arguing that “magic” should be considered as an object rather than as an analytical concept. However, before I go deeper into this issue, I would like to suggest that the concept of “magic” must be considered differently from the concept of “religion”. This is because scholars have argued that “magic” is a concept, characterized by a logical aspect, that is different from “religion”.

Logic of magic?

From the perspective of scholars of religion and anthropologists of religion, “magic” is still a field that is placed under the umbrella of “religious studies”. From the perspective of the historians of science, however, it is a part of the “history of science”. This swing in perspective can be seen in the time of Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer. According to Frazer’s theory, which continues to be influential today, magic, unlike “religion”,  is “pre-scientific” due to the   “elementary processes of reasoning”(Frazer 1900, p. 70). This logic can be simply called “analogy” (it can be understood as a form of resemblance or similarity, but I will use the word analogy as a representative of these here).Although the use of the words logic and reasoning here may seem strange, since we are usually aware of them as explicit thought activities that we explicitly perform. However, they are used here not only in the explicit realm, but also to include the flow of thought and connections that we implicitly and unconsciously think about.In this sense, the logic of this post is close to the meaning of cognition.

Now, as mentioned above, we are left with the problem of how to deal with this analogy even if we were to stop using the concept of “magic”. What is the nature of this logic and why has this been thought to be a form of “magical thinking” are the problems  we now face. Even if we say that “magic is an ideological term,” insofar as it involves a logical problem, it also involves the question of what part of this logic is ideological because it is impossible to separate magic from this logic.

It is for this reason that I am going to consider the logic of magic next, but there is a new issue lurking here. It is the issue called cognitive science. This is because cognitive science has led to a general understanding that analogy is not limited to “magic,” but a universal human cognitive function that is also used by scientists especially when they create a new idea of research and teaching theories (to begin with, there are a lot of words analogically constructed in science such as “cell”or “wave”― they are originally to mean small room or billow). We can no longer simply look to analogy for the logical features of magic.

Here “magic” has seemingly been trapped in an impasse. First of all, this problem of logic gets in the way of studying the concept of magic, and also the achievements in the field of cognitive science has problematized this logic of analogy, or traditonally put, of “imitation.” But here, I am proposing a newer perspective.  I do hope that they will somehow serve as a starting point for our understanding of the logic of magic. The perspective that I proposed is that magic is characterized not by analogy, which is also used by scientists, but by a cognitive function that takes the analogy as real, for example, not only thinking that the flow of blood is similar to the flow of a river, but also thinking the blood and the river are one and the same, and believing that we are the earth itself. When we become aware of this cognitive function, we name it magic.

My research has showed that ancient Indian philosophers believed the individual and the universe were analogous because the individual and the universe were similar (i.e. they saw the analogy as a real linkage); therefore, they believed that immortality, i.e. the state that one escapes death, was possible for humans.  Thus, I argue that examples of magic such as attacking a puppet that resembles a particular person with the belief that person would suffer in reality (found in Japanese magical practices, Haitian Voodoo, and other practices around the world) are examples of how analogy is thought to have a connection with the real. We can also understand that there is an analogy between the puppet and human body (puppets are made to mimic a person in the first place), however, there is a wide gap between whether the analogy is seen as a real connection or not. Moreover, if we believe that in cells of our body little humans live (so that we need to eat foods to full their stomachs) or drinking liquid made from the wave of sunlight makes our body healthy, we may want to call it magical thinking. The keywords for understanding these thinkings are not analogy itself, but actualization of analogy and its cognitive function. So, I put forward that we should focus on a cognitive function that takes the analogy as real rather than analogy itself to think “magic.”

From this, I think it may be possible to explain the normative understanding of the relationship between  “religion – magic – science”. Depending on which point of magic we focus on, it may be called religion or science (e.g., focussing on its aspect of logic get us call it rather science and on its aspect of actualization of logic get us want to say rather religion). However, as we know, “religion” has conceptual problems. While I can also understand the opinion that “religion” should not be an analytical concept, but an ontological one… my current argument is that the study of the concept of religion and recent cognitive science of religion/cognitive science may be closer than one might think. It seems to me that these two major fields that have been influencing the study of religion in recent years are actually internally related.. And if the concepts of magic and religion are deeply related to the (universal) cognitive functions of human beings, then the phenomena we like to call magic and religion will not disappear as long as we exist, and the theory that these concepts themselves are strongly responsible for the prejudicial values of certain regions/traditions will be open to reconsideration. I now imagine that by addressing this problem of logic, we may be able to provide new insights into the study of the concept of religion, perhaps in the future.

[1] The new idea put above is mainly argued in my paper written in Japanese 呪術とは何か—近代呪術概念の定義と宗教的認識 (Trans: What Is Magic?:The Definition of the Modern Concept of Magic and Religious Cognition), Japanese journal of cultural anthropology, 83(3), 358-376, 2018. However, the base of idea is also written in English here https://doi.org/10.1080/0048721X.2018.1466002https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsys.2016.10.001.

Frazer, James George, 1990, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Second edition. Vol. 1 of 3. London: Macmillan.


Takayama Zenko was born in Fukushima, Japan and currently based in Tokyo, is the president of an academic venture company Nihon Kenkyusya Publishing. His research focuses on the conceptualization of religion, and human cognitive functions that enables the constructions of believe systems around the concepts such as God, soul, and spirit. Some of his publications are “How are religious concepts created? A form of cognition and its effects,” Cognitive Systems Research 41, 2017, “How does knowledge bring one to the state of immortality in early Upaniṣadic philosophy?” Religion, 48, 2018. He has also written articles in Japanese publications. 呪術とは何か—近代呪術概念の定義と宗教的認識 (Trans: What Is Magic?:The Definition of the Modern Concept of Magic and Religious Cognition), Japanese journal of cultural anthropology 83(3), 2018, 宗教的な宗教現象と世俗的な宗教現象のあいだ (Trans: ‘Between “Religious” Religious Phenomena and “Secular” Religious Phenomena: What Sort of Element Can Be the Norm of Religion?’), Shukyo Kenkyu 92(1), 2018.



宗教概念への疑義にやや遅れて、呪術概念も1990年頃から問題にされてきたのは、もはや周知の事実です。差別的な意味合いを避けるために、「ritual」や「healing、diviningやexecrative」に置き換えようという発言をする者もいました。しかし、その後約30年たった今でも、「呪術」という語は残っています。むしろ最近では、新型コロナ下で非科学的な対応を「呪術」と形容する事例が出てきており、「呪術」は非科学的なものだという、研究者が避けるべきだとしてきた一面的な印象を強く社会に植え付けているようです。The Magical Thinking of the White House’s New Covid-19 Plan(WIRED:America)やCOVID-19 isn’t through with us: Our summer of magical thinking comes to its inevitable end(NationalPost:Canada)などの記事では、非科学的な方策だったことを印象づけるために「magical thinking」という言葉が用いられています。



宗教学者・宗教人類学者の視点から見れば、「呪術」は現在も「宗教学」の傘下に位置づけられる一分野です。しかし、科学史研究者の視点から見れば、「科学史」の一部分です。このような視点の揺れは、Edward Burnett TylorやJames George Frazerの時代にすでに見ることができますが、今なお影響を与え続けているFrazerの理論によれば、呪術はその論理性によって宗教的というよりも、前科学的な性質をもっています。この論理性について、フレーザーは「elementary processes of reasoning」と形容していますが、これはあるものがあるものに似ているという感覚にもとづく論理的思考、つまり「類似」のことを意味しています。









Politics of Love: Secularism, Religion, and Love as a Political Discourse

By Ting Guo*

“The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”—indeed, as Che Guevara most famously put it, love is a powerful language for not only revolutions, but also politics. Love has been a powerful mechanism in shaping Chinese modernity. Rather than studying love in the private realm such as romance, relationship, and family, in my forthcoming book Politics of Love, I study love as a public and political discourse, and examine how the concept of love has been introduced, adapted and engineered for the building and rebuilding of a modern nation by looking into the different adaptations and usages of ai (love) by political leaders, in order to reveal the versatile nature of love as a critical mechanism within modern Chinese politics, informed by both secularism and religion. 

Political Religion in the Postsecular Age

The study of postsecularism has been following a chronological order as the social phenomenon of religious resurgence that takes place after secularism. This book argues for a new framework of postsecularism as the political disturbance of our secular condition from a global perspective by critically investigating four scenarios of political religion that challenge the secularism thesis. 

Italian historian Emilio Gentile famously observed that in modern politics, it is possible for secular political entities to become objects of faith, love, and loyalty. Love, in particular, is a powerful emotion in which bottom-up agency and top-down power can converge, even as political players seek to manipulate and monopolise its expression. 

At the same time, modern secular governance has contributed to the exacerbation of religious tension in postcolonial areas, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarising religious differences, as Saba Mahmood most famously pointed out. In addition to exacerbating religious tensions, the prevalence of secularism as a form of modernity or modern governance also makes it convenient for “secular”, post-socialist authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to further regulate religious freedom and religious expressions. The secular, in this sense, is a historical product with specific epistemological, political and moral entailments including the modern state’s relationship to, and regulation of, religion and the set of concepts, norms, sensibilities, dispositions that characterise secular societies and subjectivities. Modern secularism, therefore, entails fundamental shifts in conceptions of self, time, space, ethics, and morality, as well as a reorganisation of social, political, and religious life. 

Love as a Political Discourse in Four Scenarios

I begin with late imperial China when love began to emerge as a political discourse for the building of a new nation as well as for the spontaneous expressions of new sense of belonging and subjectivity. Rather than charting a genealogy of love in general, I focus on the specific ways in which ai is adopted as a political discourse in four chosen phases or scenarios of China’s modernisation, namely bo’ai (universal love) and the political theology of love in the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as the Republic of China (1912-1949) that set the course for modern China, re’ai (ardent love) and the political religion of love as the epitome of political affect in Mao’s China, the familial nationalism of love in the renewal of personal cult and charismatic authority in Xi Jinping’s China, and finally, the discourse of motherly love, postcoloniality, and parental governance of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s most controversial Chief Executive since the Handover in 1997.

In the first chapter, I introduce a genealogy of love as a political discourse, including aiqing (romantic love) and aiguo (patriotism) in relation to China’s transition into a modern nation-state. In Chapter Two, I then chart the course more specifically of how the key political leaders of modern China, including the Nationalist Party (KMT)’s Sun Yat-sen and Li Dazhao (1888-1927) and Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), the founders of the CCP who introduced communism into China, shared common ideals as they adapted the language of love in terms of bo’ai for their political campaigns and ideologies. I argue that bo’ai, an intuitively Christian concept that nonetheless has its roots in Soviet radicalism, had not only informed the founder of the Republican China and KMT leader Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, but also shaped the ways in which the founders of the CCP, the opposing party of the KMT, characterised the concept of communism as they introduced it from Soviet Russia to China. Although Sun Yat-sen’s bo’ai appears to be an adaptation of Christian vocabulary, its meaning, later development, and application throughout the revolutionary course of China from 1912 onwards had more to do with the socialist sense of universalism and radical affect. Despite the fact that the CCP and KMT would eventually enter a ten-year-long civil war that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, during the early twentieth century their paths crossed within the same political territory of universal love, bo’ai, which I term as a kind of “political theology of love”, to refer to the theological framework Sun is known for and the common assumptions about the ways in which he characterise his politics.

It is often debated whether or the extent to which when the CCP took power during the Maoist revolutions, love became diminished as to discuss any aspect of personal life, romantic relationships, or sex became a taboo. However, love also became a key political language to shape patriotic devotions and even transform it into a personal cult in Maoist China. In Chapter Three, I show that the political language and theatrical representations of re’ai in Mao’s era inherited radicalism as well as popular religions to mobilise the masses and consolidate power, and into what I refer to as the “political religion of love”, to refer to the theatrical and rhetorical aspects of Mao cult.

Chapter Four is dedicated to the political discourse of love in contemporary China under the Xi Jinping administration. In China today, family love has been elevated to a propaganda level in order to encourage and reassure people’s devotion to the regime and maintain social stability. At the same time, we see the return of charismatic authority in China in the era of digital culture, as images that portray President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan as a modern loving couple become widely circulated in state propaganda and social media. Underneath this highly political image of a loving, modern-looking couple, is a deeply conservative agenda. In the light of an ensuing gender gap and the rise of feminist movements, the new concept of “love”—a loving domestic relationship and family life as the foundation for social harmony, the love and devotion for one’s own family and national strength—is in reality a makeover for the shrinking space for civil participation, gender equality, and individual freedoms. This kind of love is termed as the “familial nationalism of love” in this book.

Women are often subject to mobilisations or even repressions in patriarchal societies, and in Chapter Five I seek the ways in which female leaders and activists transform or respond to the social and political circumstances around them in terms of political discourses. Responding to the 2019 pro-democracy protests, for instance, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam employed the discourse of motherly love to justify her political stances. It has been noted that casting citizens as children and leaders as benevolent parents charged with disciplining them is a distinctively PRC metaphor with Confucian justifications. Scholars such as Charles Armstrong (2005) and LMH Ling (1994) have further discussed the ways in which familism constitutes a kind of political religion in socialist regimes in East Asia—China and North Korea—as familial nationalism replaces the abstract language of Marxism-Leninism with a more easily understandable and identifiable language of family connection, love, and obligation. In particular, as the CCP continues to use state violence as a method of conflict control in post-Handover Hong Kong, the Confucian script of parental governance remains the core feature of political interaction. It casts political relations as Confucian family relations, thereby constructing political actors as either filial dependents or benevolent but firm fumu guan (parent-officials). Lam’s take on the fumu guan position is further complicated by the fact that she is the first female leader to assume this role in modern China, while Xi Jinping is the first leader in post-socialist China to emphasise Confucianism and traditional values. This chapter will tease out this complex story by investigating the background of such parental governance in the PRC, its gendered aspects, the ways in which it has been applied in contemporary politics, and the ways in which Lam, a Catholic, a female leader, and a proxy parent-governor in Hong Kong, re-appropriates this political discourse of love and parental governance.

In short, in scrutinising how love as an affective concept has been introduced, adapted, and engineered for the building and rebuilding of a modern nation, I reveal the versatile nature of love as critical mechanism for modern politics and for individuals to understand, and interpret their political experiences. In unveiling the postsecular ideology in the project of China’s modernity through the political discourses of love, I further propose a postsecular framework through which secularism could be more productively studied as social formation of emotional regimes.

* GUO Ting is currently based at the University of Hong Kong, focusing on (post)secularism and political religion, including issues of gender, science, and technology. She gained her PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh and was research fellow at Oxford and Purdue Universities before Hong Kong. She is writing a book on love as a political discourse in modern China.

The Contagion of White Christian Libertarianism and America’s Viral President

By Brian Nail

As many Americans grow increasingly optimistic about the possibility that Trump will soon be voted out of office, it is worth considering the more widespread set of political and religious forces which produced this viral president in the first place. Trump’s time in office has revealed longstanding structures of racial oppression that are unlikely to simply disappear in the event that he loses the upcoming election. Although many advocates of so-called “political civility” have regarded him as a monstrous anomaly,Trump’s ascendancy has a genealogy, or perhaps epidemiology, that can be easily traced to White Christian libertarianism–the nexus of contagion that has so far sustained America’s viral president.

Despite the advice of medical experts, the president, and the Republican party more broadly, continue to pursue policies to promote a condition of herd immunity that is based largely on conjecture. Writing in The New Yorker, physician Dhruv Khullar argues that Trump has in practice become the “pro-infection candidate.” Khullar suggests that for Trump and his political allies, embracing the risk of infection and disregarding the threat their behaviour poses to others is regarded as a sign of patriotic strength: “According to the Republican leadership, real patriots risk their lives and the lives of others; liberty is walking into a store without a mask; power is touring a hospital without one[.]” This aversion to mitigating the spread of the virus through social distancing efforts and mask-wearing has been eagerly embraced by Trump’s evangelical following.

For many evangelicals, efforts to curtail large in-person gatherings have been interpreted as an affront to their religious liberty. In a recent radio interview, the president’s son went so far as to claim that his father “literally saved Christianity” by opposing some states’ efforts to limit large worship services and religious gatherings. According to Eric Trump, “They want to attack Christianity, they want to close churches, they want to―they’re totally fine keeping liquor stores open―but they want to close churches all over the country.” Meanwhile, in states like Florida, its Republican governor Ron Desantis has fought to keep bars and restaurants open throughout the state in order to maintain its tourism economy.

By mimicking Trump’s own aversion to wearing a mask, Kate Blanchard suggests that the president’s evangelical followers are risking their own lives in order to prove their loyalty to him and the worldview he embodies: “I suspect that refusing to wear a mask is not actually a denial of its danger, any more than to handle snakes is to deny the danger. Going maskless is, rather, a way of embracing danger, of proving membership in the club and obedience to their leader.” Through the president’s insistence upon holding unrestricted campaign rallies and his administration’s emphasis upon affirming citizens’ so-called religious and economic “liberty,” Trump has affirmed the values of his base, while also putting many of their lives in danger. But the viral threat that Trump poses (in some cases literally) reveals the self-destructive logic of a political ideology that embraces death in multiple forms, perhaps even its own.

In a recent video promoting an anti-lockdown protest movement in Idaho, the state’s Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin appears holding a gun over and a Bible to deliver the following message: “We recognize that all of us are by nature free and equal and have certain inalienable rights, among which are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing happiness and safety.” The gun and the Bible each serve as potent symbols of the political and cultural legacy of settler colonialism. By brandishing the gun, McGeachin invokes what Patrick Blanchfield terms “gunpower”–a mode of social reproduction that maintains White hegemony in the present by legitimating forms of dispossessive violence that are the historical legacy of settler colonialism. Likewise, the Bible is invoked as a symbol of the supposedly divine mandate that has been employed by White Christian Libertarians to affirm and sanctify their dispossessive violence. Wrapped within the thanatopolitics of racial capitalism in the United States, God, guns, and country continue to constitute the sacred forms at the heart of White Christian libertarianism–having recently cast aside his Presbyterian upbringing and embraced “non-denominationalism,” this is indeed the faith of Trump.

Trump’s conservative Christian base are often described as “evangelicals,” but this broad term typically connotes a distinct religious and political expression that in many ways defies denominational classification because many of its core values are deeply secular. According to Gerardo Martí, “The Christian libertarian ideal asserts confidence in believers becoming financially self-sufficient, stimulating a productive economy, and gives no regard to blaming social structures for the failure to accumulate investment wealth” (21). This fusion of an evangelical prosperity gospel with the racist politics of White conservatism developed alongside a growing reliance upon Black and immigrant labor in the United States. This economic reality is one of many stark contradictions that lie at the heart of the oppressive structure of racial capitalism that White Christian libertarianism has sought to maintain.

From its origins in the ideology of settler colonialism, White Christian libertarianism has embraced overt structures of racism through its association of divine blessing with the accumulative advantages afforded to Whites by racial capitalism. Trump invokes this toxic blessing each time he promises to “Make America great again.” As Joan Wallach Scott notes, the MAGA movement “conceptualizes the nation not just as a firm, but as an exclusively white firm.” This conception of the nation as a white firm obtains its divine mandate from the theocratic vision of Christian nationalism which rejects the notion of American secular pluralism, seeking to build instead what they define as a nation built exclusively on so-called Christian moral principles.

And yet, Trump’s popularity among evangelicals remains somewhat difficult to explain in light of his personal aversion to the Christiann faith and its professed moral code. Roberto Esposito’s explanation of the immunitary dynamics of political community provides an illuminating theoretical lens for understanding the contradictory, self-destructive, death-dealing logic of White Christian libertarianism. It turns out that what we may be witnessing is an immunitary crisis in theory as well as in practice.

In his book, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Esposito literalizes the body politic metaphor to explore how the biological dynamics of immunity may provide a hermeneutic framework for understanding the ways that political communities are produced and survive. He begins his study with an explanation of the etymological kinship between the concepts of immunity and community, noting that their relationship is not merely oppositional but dialectical. The Latin words immunitas and communitas share in common the root word munus, which “refers to an office–a task, obligation, duty” and also a gift (Esposito 5). Therefore, to live in community, the individual is obligated to participate in some form of social reciprocity: “Common life is what breaks the identity-making boundaries between what is proper to each individual and what belongs to everybody and hence to nobody” (Esposito 22). But Esposito suggests that the expropriative demands of a community can ultimately erode the agency and autonomy of individuals to the extent that the very survival of the community itself might be threatened. This is where the concept of immunity comes into play.

Esposito’s theory of immunity points to the key insight that the survival of any community depends upon the degree to which its institutions are resilient enough and adaptable enough to mediate between the internal and external pressures that are an inevitable feature of any society that is truly alive. According to Esposito, religious forms of the sacred and the institution of law are intimately bound up with the processes of immunization that is necessary to sustain the balance between radical individuality and radical community. But in doing so, the institutions perform their homeopathic function through a paradoxical logic of exclusive-inclusion: life is affirmed through death, the sacred is defined in contradistinction to the profane, and law only exists through the threat of violence. But Esposito notes that when immunity is “unable to directly achieve its objective, it is forced to pursue it from the inside out. . . . [I]t can prolong life, but only by continually giving it a taste of death”(9). If left unchecked, the immunitary dynamic that responds negatively to external as well as internal demands for reciprocity can mutate into what Esposito defines as a crisis of autoimmunity, which occurs when “the warring potential of the immune system is so great that at a certain point it turns against itself as a real and symbolic catastrophe leading to the implosion of the entire organism.”

In a recent interview regarding the pandemic, Esposito suggests that the very concept of “social distancing” is paradoxical:

“The immunity system is necessary for survival, but when it crosses a certain threshold, it starts destroying the body it aims to defend. That threshold is crossed exactly when social distancing demands a total rupture of social bonds. At that moment, it becomes an anti-communitarian propensity.”

Although it offers its own powerful expression of collective identity, the ideology of White Christian libertarianism is predicated upon a rejection of the social and economic forms of reciprocity needed to maintain a political liberal society. This rejection of the social reciprocity necessary to sustain community is manifested through the flawed concept of “herd immunity.” Esposito argues that in practice, the pursuit of herd immunity is “a form of eugenics, and in some ways even thanatopolitical, because it entails the deaths of a considerable number of people who would otherwise live.” This thanatopolitical dynamic is not merely a bug but rather a feature of the ideology of White Christian libertarianism. The story of Trump’s own contraction of the coronavirus, and the incalculable number of people who may have contracted (and may still contract) the disease due to his behaviors, serves a kind of parable of his movement’s own immunitary crisis. By seeking to evoke strength, they demonstrate their vulnerability, and in the process render themselves more susceptible to obsolescence.

As America’s viral president, Trump may be regarded as a portent of the “real and symbolic catastrophe” of self-dissolution that is likely just around the corner for White Christian libertarians. With the persistent rise of the religiously “unaffiliated” or the “nones,” there has been some debate about whether or not “evangelicalism” in general is in demographic decline. But recent data suggest that as a percentage of the American population, the number of self-identified evangelicals has stayed more or less the same for the past decade.

What is changing is the ethnoracial demography of the United States in general. According to Ryan P. Burge, “In 2018, 81 percent of evangelicals were white, compared to 72.4 percent of the population overall. More than 4 in 10 Americans under 25 are people of color. For evangelicals to keep offsetting losses in future generations, they will need to become more racially diverse.” This basic fact has led some writers to conclude that evangelicalism is on the verge of significant political and cultural shift. However, as Chrissy Stroop argues, “If anything, young evangelicals are becoming even more right-wing than they once were, because evangelical culture-warring pushes young people who cannot in good conscience support the Christian Right’s agenda, or who cannot conform because of their own identities, out of evangelicalism altogether.” In short, Stroop’s analysis suggests that evangelicals are essentially doubling down on their White Christian libertarian values. As a result, evangelicalism is accelerating a crisis of autoimmunity by rejecting its own demographic future.

From a demographic standpoint, White Christian libertarianism does not appear poised to maintain its cultural and political hegemony for much longer. But the political and institutional destruction that it has wrought, not to mention the psychosocial trauma it has produced, will require decades, if not more, to address.

The pandemic has revealed the stark reality of socioeconomic inequality and the massive disparities that exist in regard to healthcare, education, and housing in the United States. Once again, Esposito’s immunitary theory of community is illuminating–to maintain the delicate immunitary balance necessary for a community to survive, institutions are necessary, especially when political conflicts threaten to destroy a body from within. Esposito argues, “Political conflict needs special institutions to achieve real political reform. And yes, institutions are full of flaws and limitations. They are often conservative and sometimes they are reactionary, but imagine how this pandemic would have developed without institutions.”

It is not too difficult to imagine what it would be like to deal with a pandemic without institutions in place. As the virus continues to spread throughout the United States, the prospects of universal testing, the possibility of accurately tracking outbreaks at schools, or even the barest assurances that citizens will be able to access affordable treatment have all virtually disappeared from our public discourse. While Democrats have framed the upcoming election as a referendum on the coronavirus (and rightfully so), it remains to be seen whether or not the party’s leadership can break with its own neoliberal inclinations in order build the kinds of institutions and social welfare provisions necessary to save lives not only from the pandemic but also from the viral threat of poverty that continues to jeopardize the future of so many Americans. If it is true that, as former president Barack Obama once cynically declared, many White working class Americans “cling to guns or religion” to relieve their frustrations, it is equally true that the bipartisan neoliberal status-quo has ensured that security, stability, and mutuality remain in short supply in the United States. The self-implosion of White Christian libertarianism itself may signal the end of the myth of American exceptionalism–and along with it the illusion of economic beatitude upon which it rests. In the coming days, the Trumpian fever may finally break in the United States, but the virality of racial nationalism persists.


Esposito, Roberto. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.

Martí, Gerardo. “White Christian Libertarianism and the Trump Presidency.” In Religion Is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Grace Yukich and Penny Edgell, 19–39. New York: NYU Press, 2020.

“Walk to Buchenwald” – Thoughts on Collective Mourning

By Isabella Schwaderer

An approximately two-hour walk from Weimar’s railway station takes you to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Thousands of victims of the Nazi regime had to walk this way. On 16 April 1945, shortly after the liberation of the concentration camp, around 1,000 Weimar citizens also walked this way – at the order of the American Supreme Command. They were to see the horror of Buchenwald with their own eyes. 

To commemorate these events, media artist Christoph Korn composed an audio walk for the project “Gang nach Buchenwald” (“Walk to Buchenwald”) of the Kunstfest Weimar. His eponymous audio piece is a tentative approach: walking on asphalt, tar, leaves, and gravel towards that unspeakable place. The starting point is a conversation with the witness Naftali Fürst (Haifa), who took this walk in 1944, aged 12, and miraculously survived. After remaining silent for 60 years, he started sharing his memories. Since then, for the sake of future generations, he has been pursuing his pedagogical mission to bear testimony to the atrocities of the Nazi era.

In April 2020, no official commemorations of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp could occur, so this walk on 13 September 2020 also had political significance as an institutional practice of remembrance. Moreover, it was meant to be a strong demonstration of the democratic forces in politically volatile times. Thuringia had been shaken only in February by a political scandal, during which the parties of the liberal-conservative spectrum were accused of cooperation with the national-conservative, populist party of the AFD in an attempt to prevent the re-election of a left-wing government. For this reason, not only the organizers of the Kunstfest art festival but also the prime minister of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, walked in the first line.

Especially in Weimar, where the spectres of National Socialism are particularly palpable in their constant presence-absence, it seems essential to take a physical approach to the act of commemoration. But Germans have learned, and for excellent reasons, to mistrust political demonstrations of Durkheimian collective effervescence after 1945, even to the extent that a commemoration ceremony for the 9,300 victims of the Corona pandemic, which Federal President Walter Steinmeier brought up for discussion on 5.9.2020, did not meet with much approval. In this highly charged political climate, the form of a walk chosen here seems to be an acceptable form of public commemoration.

The “Walk to Buchenwald” combines different religious and historical aspects. It evokes the connotation of a penitential pilgrimage, such as that of the Roman-German King Henry IV, who had been excommunicated during the investiture controversy. He visited Pope Gregory VII in the castle Canossa from December 1076 to January 1077 to pray and repent. In today’s language, a plea that is perceived as humiliating, but necessary, is metaphorically called a “walk to Canossa.” 

On the other hand, pilgrimage as a physical-religious practice has developed exponentially over the past three decades; for the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, the number has increased from a few hundred at the end of the 1980s to over 25,000 in 2019.[1] An equally impressive number of publications in the field of religious studies now places the phenomenon, formerly reserved for a Catholic minority, in an individualistic context of late modern spirituality appealing especially to Protestants and even to people who describe themselves as non-religious.[2] Pilgrimage as a performative, physical practice integrates the particular situation of human being-in-the-world with its manifold self and world references. If religion is interpreted as a transhuman experience in the horizon of the unconditional, the late modern subject moves to the centre of the investigation. 

During the commemorative walk on Sunday, 13 September 2020, the approximately 200 participants walked about nine kilometres from the square in front of the Weimar railway station to the former concentration camp. The event’s mimetic character, the bodily practice of self-inscription/ self-effacement, and the over-writing of a historical event by the participants distinguished it from the usual political commemoration events. They left a large part of this process of collective and personal coping with mourning work to the public instead of to a high state representative. On the other side, the participants were, as in a pilgrimage, separate but not alone, and could, if they wished, fuse with the group – following the rules of social distance – at any time. “Perhaps we should establish a culture of crying together,” said professor, activist, and social scientist Naika Foroutan about a year earlier in Weimar. The occasion of her comment was a laboratory for the development of contemporary strategies of remembrance and historical enlightenment given the impact of history. Weeping and mourning together as a physical practice, would open up the possibility of healing through a ritual in a political and social context as well. It could develop the culture of memory on the National Socialist past pointing at options of taking responsibility for the future without forgetting the victims in the past.

Crying together as an approach to public mourning might be considered very emotional in a country which, especially in its political context, is committed to a tradition of enlightenment and disenchantment. Yet, this kind of penitentiary pilgrimage might have offered a way out of the dilemma. The embarrassment is that of modernity, which, in the words of Charles Taylor, had effaced older bodily practices to produce “an excarnation, a transfer out of embodied, enfleshed forms of religious life, to those which are more in the head.” [3] The dilemma arises if modernity is perceived as a history of loss and a God-forsaken (or meaning-forsaken) world. The “Walk” is open enough to allow each attendant the decision whether he or she prefers to commemorate the 56,000 victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp or, e.g., the personal loss of a close family member. Moreover, it serves it helps to shape a future in which the commemoration of genocide is as relevant as to issues of migration and human rights.

Today, it seems that the omnipresent hygiene regulations by themselves continuously remind the public that physical persons can only carry out any form of political or religious activity. The physical-performative aspect of political demonstrations, as well as religious services, permanently produces new forms of presence and authenticity. East Germany, the territory of the former GDR, is generally regarded as secular since the largest religious group here is that of those who claim not to belong to any religion (approx. 78%). Nevertheless, religion is everywhere in public life. An event like the walk to Buchenwald shows that religious aspects have not vanished along with the declining numbers of church members but, on the contrary, have been incorporated into artistic and political practices. To better comprehend this phenomenon, the concept of religion needs to be re-examined and placed on a broader basis that goes beyond traditional institutions.

Picture : Walk to Buchenwald, 13.09.2020. © Isabella Schwaderer.

[1] Isabella Schwaderer, „Pilgern – eine religionswissenschaftliche Einordnung eines zeitgenössischen Phänomens“, in: Theologie der Gegenwart 62 (2/2019), 95–106.

[2] Lienau, Detlef: Religion auf Reisen. Eine empirische Studie zur religiösen Erfahrung von Pilgern. Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2015.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge/London, 2007, 553-554.

On Making a Critical Shift

Russell T. McCutcheon
University of Alabama

Anyone familiar with our Department at the University of Alabama may know that we have a pretty active social media presence, among which is a Facebook group devoted to our current students and graduates of our program. Apart from putting a variety of Department announcements there, such as recent posts from our blog (on everything from student writing to updates on how we’re handling the Fall 2020 semester), I occasionally put a news item there, with #inthenews as the tag, to suggest to our students that there’s considerable application of the skills that they’re learning in our classes—such as understanding groups via the way that their members classify, rank, and thereby organize themselves. That the grads who stay current with the group sometimes offer guest blog posts of their own, illustrating this very point—despite each of them working in pretty diverse careers today—confirms for me that opting for such a focus in a Department of Religious Studies was a wise choice.

Just the other morning, for example, I posted an item from that day’s New York Times concerning a just-released U.S. Supreme Court decision that will allow employers to opt out of what had previously been Federally-mandated health insurance requirements—opting out based on religious grounds. As the article’s opening lines phrased it:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a Trump administration regulation that lets employers with religious or moral objections limit women’s access to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. As a consequence of the ruling, about 70,000 to 126,000 women could lose contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to government estimates.

As for the text that I wrote to accompany the post?

Need another reason why it’s a good idea to have someone studying the practical effects of classifying some things, claims, or people as religious?

I offer this example to make a simple but, I think, far-reaching point that sometimes seems to elude those who seem tired of work that focuses on the category religion. (It’s a weariness that surprises me, I admit, given that people are still turning out plenty of dissertations on Augustine or St. Paul, so just a couple decades’ worth of focus on “religion” itself hardly seems to have exhausted everything that there is to say about it—suggesting that claims of tedium are but a handy way to dismiss what is increasingly becoming a focus of people’s work in the field.) For the ease of assuming that “religion” innocently and properly names an obviously distinct and self-organized set of items in the world is something that we need to work against should our interests be more aligned with studying how groups of people signify, navigate, and, yes, contest their worlds. So any opportunity to provide a manageable thought experiment, where the impact of the designation itself can be considered or seen to be working in real time, isn’t something to pass up. And that Supreme Court decision—as with a host of legal rulings over the years in liberal democracies, all of which focus on the extent to which exemptions can be granted as a way to manage social discord—struck me as yet another moment where designating something as religious could be seen to have a practical effect of real consequence to people’s lives.

Whatever else this thing some now call critical religion may be, it at least strikes me as an agreement that this shift—from studying religion or religions to studying why we even call anything religious in the first place—helps us to produce new knowledge about the way our modern lives work, the way our spaces are managed, and the way that identities are created and reproduced within them. Contrary to those who study religion or religions, then, I have no interest in normalizing let alone using any given understanding of the term, something that inevitably occurs, I’d argue, when we just get on with studying religion, as some call us to do. So, with another recent but rather more international news story in mind, the goal of such work is not to decide whether the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul really ought to be understood and used as a museum (as it has been for eighty years) or, as the Turkish government today wishes, a mosque, and, should its religious identity be successfully asserted, neither is it to do a careful ethnography of what some call religion on the ground at this location; instead, it’s the contest itself that can attract our attention, as a way into studying—in this case—a long history of conflict between two modern nations, which draws on pre-national allegiances and disputes, and the manner in which these disagreements have (or have not been) been managed by that artful designation of “museum.” For the issue is not whether the building really is a Greek Orthodox cathedral or a Muslim mosque but, instead, is whether we can understand why the compromise of designating it as a museum now fails to negotiate not just these differing significations but the larger socio-political structures of which each designation is but the visible sign.

So the shift that I am recommending, and which an increasing number in the field are now exploring, opens our field to working with those across disciplines who are equally interested in such things as how identities are formed, reproduced, and contested—whether those identities are local, national, or trans-national. And, along with them, it draws us into studying the structures, whether political, economic, gendered, racial, etc., in which identification and, to put it more broadly, signification takes place. It thus invites us to take our Durkheim all the more seriously, by examining those unified systems of beliefs and practices that, insomuch as we participate in them, establish a social world in which significance can be established or undermined.

Long ago I lamented the strategy adopted by previous generations, insomuch as they sought to build an autonomous field based on the presumably unique and set apart nature of their object of study—and, along with it, the distinct methods needed for its study and the Departments that housed those doing such work. I thought that while helping to create the modern field such an approach inevitably marginalized it as well, given that such scholars lost their voice and their relevance when it came to studying anything but the supposedly ethereal and elusive thing that was once called the sacred. (By asserting that the sacred animated everything Eliade thought that he could reinstate the field’s preeminence, by the way—a claim I certainly resist.) I thought that shifting the field to studying classification, and the socio-political worlds made possible by designating things either in this or that fashion (such as sacred/secular, religious/political, private/public, religion/cult, myth/legend, or ritual/habit, etc.), would not only make good use of our skills but would also demonstrate to those outside our field—whether on or off our campus—that we had something to contribute to understanding this thing that so many of us also study: people, what they do and what they leave behind once they’re gone. Sure, we might each study it a rather specific and different site—those places we known as modern India, the Afro-Caribbean, or maybe ancient Greece—but our work is animated by a shared set of questions which we’re not the only ones asking.

And it’s that shift to broader questions, explored at discrete sites (made possible by an interest in what contestable systems of designation tell us about groups of people) that demonstrates the relevance of our work—something apparent to me last week when a grad of our undergraduate program, who has been out working in her career for 14 years, contacted me asking about some of the books that we read in a course long ago, since she was aiming to re-read some of them. Why? Well, she and her sister-in-law were discussing U.S. monuments commemorating the Civil War, what they meant, to whom they meant it, and whether they should just come down—at least here in the U.S. there’s few more prominent issues than racism demanding our attention in the daily news. While I’m not sure what conclusions they’ll reach, what seems to have been clear to that onetime student was that the sort of scholar of religion that I’m discussing here, and which was modeled for her long ago in our Department, has a surprising amount to contribute to making sense of how and why we talk about the past as we do, how we manage the many possible pasts that are all competing for our attention today, and the sorts of people that we will see ourselves and others to be by adopting this versus that way of signifying a statue.

And it’s just that shift to studying these enabling conditions, made possible by a focus on classification, that comes to mind when I think of what it means to adopt a critical religion approach to our material.

Covid19 and other machines

by Alison Jasper

A protestor wears a mask honoring Breonna Taylor in downtown Louisville, Kentucky on 1 June 2020. Photograph: Amy Harris/Rex/Shutterstock

One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most fascinating concepts is that of the war machine (A Thousand Plateaus, 1988) or more broadly, the notion of a machine. It suggests endlessly complex and variable interrelationships between institutions, social groups, bodies, objects, movements, ideas and environments, moving and producing change in accordance with shifting and differentially weighted purposes and moods. In a machine, components are brought together or rearranged for different aims that can be anything from the nurturing of a child (involving a sucking mouth and a breast) to the way in which states and nations are made, moved or dismantled through the mobilisations and disconnections of civil and military forces in relation to environmental factors such as the weather.

Talking about the exponential growth and sophistication of medical and information technologies, Andrew Hass has already suggested that these implicate and are implicated in a great range of human processes and desires. In terms of this Deleuzian & Guattarian idea of the machine, you could perhaps describe them, in the current situation, as components of a Covid19 machine. The virus is dispersed around the world by means of human breath, speech and song, inhalation, ingestion, touch and physical contact, that have been mediated through innumerable technological, entrepreneurial and bureaucratic processes driven by human desire and anxiety. It’s a machine of human desiring but also one for the growth and spread of a living non-human organism. Humans constitute a vital vector for the virus. The machine has grown the virus wonderfully well. In that way, it’s a success story! Meantime the human hosts or victims are themselves provoked into thought, action or change by their desires in response to this disease.

I have been reading and considering these things during lock down. It is uncomfortable, to think of oneself, not simply acting but being worked or acted upon. But shifting our perspective – uncomfortable or not – does allow us to see and feel differently. So for example, this is not simply an invisible enemy whose attacks leave us feeling intensely vulnerable and frustrated. It is also a revelation of how we can trust and count on each other. And then, we start to recognise how much we are currently trusting and counting on a whole range of poorly-paid ‘unskilled’ workers – cleaners, shop assistants, drivers, farm workers, food preparers – many of whom, like NHS staff, have been forced to put their health and lives at risk for the rest of us. We see that we cannot do without those who clear away our rubbish, or cook hospital meals or help our elderly get to the toilet and dress when we are not there to do it ourselves.

Another notable effect of this shift of perspective has been the increased visibility of racism and racial violence during this time of pandemic. Far from being irrelevant or simply coincidental, I would say that racism is profoundly interconnected with Covid19’s progress. BAME people are disproportionately affected by the disease. They come to this health crisis with poorer underlying health. They are disproportionately represented in poorly paid work. They will be disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic. If they are dismayed by a general contempt for what many of them do as ‘un-skilled’ workers, they are often in a poor position to change these circumstances. The racism part of this machine is itself an assemblage of multiple factors from the existence of powerful, well-funded and militarised police forces and the profile of the judiciary, to the differential availability of housing and education and the circulation in all of this of some deeply rooted stories of racial hostility and contempt. In societies dominated by forms of white masculinity, they invoke the thought that people who are not white, are not entirely – or at all – human. They frame BAME people as a threat to white lives and property and they must be controlled. These stories are ultimately, the legacy of slavery and imperial conquest, but more recent racist customs and statutes such as Jim Crow or apartheid, though long suspended, remain lodged in parts of the common imaginary as the possibility of legalized racial segregation.

Staff outside King’s College Hospital in south London join in the applause to salute NHS and care workers © Jonathan Brady/PA

Covid19 and racism achieved one very clear machinic articulation last month, when our intense involvement with technologies of information and communication brought us the video streamed death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minneapolis. George Floyd died on May 25, 2020 when four armed police officers arrested him on suspicion of having purchased something at a convenience store, using a counterfeit $20 bill. He was held in a choke-hold by a police officer for so long that he died. It was a powerful illustration of that fear and need to control; saving black lives was not the priority here. The incident has led to widespread and persistent protest – a sense that many people want things to change. But this assemblage of racist attitudes and actions can also be subject to further intersectional analysis. Another part of the Covid19 racism machine is the silencing rather than the circulation of stories. It takes considerable effort to find out the (many) stories of how black, lesbian, trans women or women with mental health issues, have been killed in similar situations to George Floyd.

Last week, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, interviewed a group of six women involved in the campaign #SayHerName! for her podcast, Intersectionality Matters. All of the women had lost sisters or daughters. Fran Garrett, the mother of Michelle Cusseaux described how her daughter was killed on 14 August 2014. In the course of following up on a mental health check, 8 armed police officers responded to Michelle, raising a hammer by shooting her dead. Maria Moore described her sister Kayla, as a trisector – a black transwoman with mental health issues. Like Michelle Cusseaux she was killed when police, as first responders, deployed forms of control in preference to de-escalation. Even more shockingly in some ways, Shelley Frey was killed by a Wallmart security guard – an off-duty sheriff. Suspecting her of shop-lifting, he shot into her car, even though he was aware there were children in it. At the time of the interview, five of the six had received nothing by the way of justice, compensation or apology. The one successful prosecution was subsequently overturned by a judge. The campaign iterates how these stories need also to be told. If no one tells these stories, how can anything change?

The Covid19 pandemic is an assemblage of parts and motivations and viewed as a machine, prompts us to recognise that human agency and desire maybe overlaid by other, less obvious purposes including those of the virus. Nevertheless, one of the features of this conceptual framework where human desire is involved, is the presence of cross-cutting stories that fuel and direct its flows and trajectories. Drawing on some of the insights of CR we can perhaps suggest that it can be fruitful to pay more critical attention to the presence and effects of these culturally freighted stories. There is a familiar feel to some of them as they express praise, thankfulness and respect for self-sacrifice reflecting a desire to save lives. But in the Covid19 machine, there are also stories whose effects produce sorting strategies for determining which human lives are, in Judith Butler’s memorable term ‘grievable’, or for limiting our view of which particular lives matter and call forth that kind of self-sacrifice (Frames of War: When is life Grievable?, 2010). Thinking courtesy of Deleuze and Guattari in this sense does not provide us with any clear rules or best options but it does encourage us to reflect in this time of pandemic; to try out shifts in our perspective and perhaps internalise tools for averting the worst dangers of ‘final solutions’.

Pan-technology in and out of Lockdown


A thinking has developed, following the Frankfurt School proponents of Critical Theory, that technology has been instrumental in “replacing” religion. Just as Walter Benjamin had famously claimed that “capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion” (Benjamin, 2005, p. 259), so now technology, in all its ubiquity, is said to deliver the same relief. Technological advance has satisfied a multitude of concerns, and has left religious concerns obsolete or irrelevant. As Herbert Marcuse had written, already in the early 1940s, “theological dogmas no longer interfere with man’s struggle with matter” (Marcuse, 1982, p. 145); we overcome the obstacles and inhibitions placed upon us by Nature now without the need of divine intervention. This has given an inverted sense to the term Deus ex machina. God now really comes from the machine.

But the global outbreak of Covid-19 has complicated this thinking considerably. On the one hand, worry, anguish and disquiet have been raised to a new level, in relation first to the virus itself, and the devastation it has caused in so many lives, then to the political inadequacies and incompetencies seen and felt in so many supposedly developed nations, and finally to the economic fallout whose full measure we have yet to experience. Technology on these scores, except to survivors of hospitalised cases, has proven itself deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, communication and virtual mobility during lockdown have relied exclusively on screens and interconnectivity, allowing some workers to continue in their employment and the general public to hang on to the remaining threads, thin as they are, of social cohesion. Technology on these scores, except for those too impoverished to afford it (and we should not underestimate this number), has proven itself a lifeline. The question then stands: has the dissatisfaction, fueled by the heightened worry, anguish and disquiet, outweighed the satisfaction, drawn from the increased ability to share with one another our heightened worry, anguish and disquiet? Has the lack of answers to our concerns, whether shared or unshared, rekindled a need to look beyond our technological infrastructures, and the enhancements we thought we had achieved with them?

Examining the intricacies of these infrastructures might give us some insight into these questions, and show us how the pandemic has altered all of them – the questions, the infrastructures, and the nature of their intricacies. Toward this end we might say that advanced modern technology now operates on five interconnecting levels: efficiency, cohesion, diversion, acquisition, and salvation.

The form of technology operating on the first level we could call vocational technology, technology designed for the workspace of homo laborans. This form, an extension of the industrial revolution, is characterized chiefly by efficiency, whereby the occupation of our being in the process of work is expedited through time/cost savings. This level is not particularly convincing, insofar as its instrumental efficiency has proven to be viciously self-consuming: what technology frees up in our working processes is only filled up by more work, not more leisure, and this added work requires more efficiency, whose savings are then filled up by more work, in a relentless cycle of what Marx called the exploitation of surplus value. Email technology is perhaps the most widely accepted example of this phenomenon. What the lockdown of Covid-19 has brought is a palpable realization of just how vicious this cycle had become, and, perhaps, how unnecessary. All too quickly we have found we can survive very well without the perpetual need of responding immediately to all incoming work emails. The suspension of efficiency brought on by the pandemic was initially, for so many, a blessed relief.

The second form we could call social technology, a form that carries the most subscribers. If the dominant device of the form of vocational technology is the computer, the dominant device of social technology is the mobile or cellular phone. On this device, social media has its fullest and most insistent expression, and communication its widest reach. But their ubiquity is both celebrated and reviled. Perpetual connectivity has brought the world closer and transformed our understanding of social cohesion, while at the same time it never leaves us alone. Social media offers a sense of instant community, but in doing so betrays a profound unaccountability within the communal fold. During the lockdown of Covid-19, social technology in general has come into its own: the nastier side of superfluous interaction encouraged by hyper-public social media sites – those for whom “going viral” is not merely a virtue but a sanctification – has been overtaken by more privatized use, as people connect with friends, family and loved ones for their exclusive means of socialization. To many, video calls have been the only portal to life outside a hermetic existence, or solitary confinement.

The third type we could call cultural technology, and is related closely to the second type, though with this difference: rather than focus on cohesion through communication, it focuses on distraction through entertainment. The internet has opened up unprecedented access to all forms of cultural diversion, from films to television, YouTube to TikTok, music streaming to meme generating, gaming to esport spectating. The volume of cultural products in this sphere is bottomless, and so too the levels of preoccupation and separation, by which non-digital reality is often reduced to a second-best option. The coronavirus has certainly played into the strength of, and need for, these diversions, for they thrive on the isolation of the viewer looking for relief from the tedium of static existence.

The fourth form we could call consumerist technology, for it promotes and expedites the accumulation of goods. Online purchase and delivery are now available for virtually every line of product, and one company stands above the rest in creating, capturing and channeling the need for consumption: Amazon. This worldwide market regime has gained its dominance by mastering integration of the first three technological spheres – vocational, social and cultural. One cannot navigate any of these spheres without soon encountering Amazon’s presence, with its platforms to acquire all material goods for both business or personal use. Covid-19 has been a steroid for online shopping in general and for Amazon in particular. What cannot be deemed essential – and even much that can – has been obtained through clicks of the mouse and the delivery vans they trigger into motion. Economies will take a brutal beating from the global pandemic, but the likes of Amazon will be seen as the ventilators that have kept them from an altogether fatal collapse.

What operates on the final level we could call scientific technology. This is easily the most revered, the most lauded, and the most encouraged. It involves the ever-deepening examination of Nature at its extremes – the microcosmic and the macrocosmic – and the harnessing of Nature’s power to control, enhance, and direct what we call our quality of life. In the medical world, this means a greater understanding of the human body and the environmental conditions within which it lives, and leads to the alleviation of certain ills, some common, some rare, towards a longer life expectancy. The coronavirus has brought out once again a tacit assumption or expectation about scientific technology: that it will eventually triumph. Very few doubt that scientists will eventually find a vaccine for Covid-19, even if there is considerable debate about its timing, and its effectiveness against mutations. This confidence is based on our past record of discovery, and on the now global size of the scientific community working on the problem. Modern medicine will in time prevail. Amid the bleakness and tribulations of lost lives, there is a soteriological promise, however deferred. Scientific technology offers itself as a panacea, not because it can now solve or cure all medical problems, but because in our collective imagination it holds out the hope that it can.

Now, if together these forms, and their unmistakable integration with one another, serve to replace, substitute, or surrogate the domain in which our greatest anxieties were once most satisfactorily allayed, the traditional domain of religion – here as faith practices and the tenets that direct them – then the current pandemic crisis has forced us to rethink this technological redemption.

The pause in our work routines has shown us how technology set up for vocational efficiency has in fact produced a more intense and demanding work environment, where endless data and incessant communication have led to a more frenetic work day. Self-isolation and home-working have made us consider the long-term harm of these frenzied routines, as we slow the pace down, and discover that, in most cases, the working world does not implode when we refrain from an instant reply to this demand or that. Labour can no longer be the redemption of life, in Hannah Arendt’s terms – that is, it can no longer redeem us from the “predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process” (Arendt, 1958, p. 236) – when the technology employed imprisons us all the more. Lockdown has provided us the chance, once the whirr of the machine has stopped, to ask anew: “What then might redeem us?”

Self-isolation has also forced us to reconsider the nature of social cohesion. What had emerged in the general polarity of the social media dynamic was not a greater coming together of disparate peoples, ethnicities and communities, but in fact a moving apart, a divisiveness characterized not merely by discourtesy but all too often by acridity and offense. Social media, as a place of unbridled opinion, has bred unrestrained ad hominem attack and invective. Cyber-bullying has reached the level of pastime, even for heads of state. What was supposed to bring us together under a shared ethos of unregulated connectivity has in fact made us much unkinder and more disparaging towards one another, as freedom of expression expands at the same rate as impunity. But while the emergence of Covid-19 has not proven to be a social leveler, for not all are equally vulnerable, it has caused us to redirect our energies towards a different kind of engagement, as general suffering has dominated our thoughts and experiences. Since the social binding and collective representations that organized religion once provided have found no adequate substitution in social technology, as is now patently evident to even the casual user, finding modes of cohesion beyond social media is now an exigent matter. Quarantine has asked us to reconceive the technology as an instrument that no longer imposes suffering but rather helps to relieve suffering by allowing us to share the experiences of suffering, beginning with the suffering of our own isolated selves.

Cultural technology offers exponential distraction, not least from this suffering. But the coronavirus pandemic has awaked us to the fleeting, directionless, and often vacuous nature of these distractions. Digital trends, viral memes, addictive gaming, celebrity culture, the cult of sport fandom – each of these amusements carry their own elements of worship and devotion. But now, with so many no longer available or replenishable in their old form, their empty need has been exposed as what the Hebrew preacher Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes had called a “vanity of vanities”. As much as we require diversion, and in lockdown more than ever, these meaningless divertimenti no longer hold our attention. Or at least we can say this much: in the grand context of a pandemic, superficiality does not carry the same satisfactions as before; its veils are too thin, its fabric too diaphanous, to block out the glaring concerns and needs of a world in the straits of rampant affliction.

In this context, consumerist technology is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom of goods to arrive directly onto our doorstep, and so furnishes the essential needs threatened by crisis. But it goes beyond this, and salves the need for non-essential acquisition, which, in capitalism’s indoctrination, is vital to our understanding of personal and national prosperity. On the other hand, that very movement, as a global phenomenon, is part of the problem of infectious spread: what allows goods to travel globally around the world for consumption are the same pathways that spread a virus so quickly and extensively. The pandemic has therefore set the conditions for its own metaphorical transference: what has allowed the rapid spread of the virus, the exploits of globalization, especially as directed by and to the West, has become a virus in and of itself. Wanton consumerism attacks the well-being not only of the consumer, with its false sense of prosperity, but also of the planet and its resources. Is it accidental, or somehow indicative, that the largest online company for consumer technology is named after a region with the earth’s greatest biodiversity but also its greatest environmental spoliation? Covid-19 has provoked a re-evaluation of our values, and of our responsibility not only to each other but to the planet we inhabit. In asking so much of the earth, we have plucked a diseased fruit, and brought travail upon ourselves, and we are left asking what reparations, what expiation, we can offer.

The ensuing inflictions and infections go beyond the physical. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is how little the medical industry still knows. It has not been able to give us definitive answers concerning the virus’s behaviour. It has not been able to stop all spread, or avert all casualties, even in places not yet infected. Politically, it has not been able to coordinate an effective and uniform strategy across major centres of population. And even if it eventually discovers a vaccine, it will not put at ease the general worry that a mutated strain could develop at any time, or that a future pandemic is more than likely. The soteriological narrative of scientific technology as the realm to solve the problem of human mortality – or, less ambitiously, to keep extending our quality of life – has been thrown yet further into question. We are all grateful for advances made that have kept the coronavirus under some semblance of control. But we are more conscious than ever of how our trust in scientific technology is based on assumptions and hopes that are fragile, tenuous, and ultimately unreliable, to the point where we are forced to recalculate the extent of our human limitations. And this is even more the case when we make that metaphorical leap to a viral condition beyond the physical body. What the various faith traditions have always provided is a comprehensive sense of soteriology: what is under the banner of salvation, however conceived, includes body, soul, spirit, and cosmos. We have always been integrated; movement between these levels, as taught in these traditions, has never been metaphorical. What infects one level in reality infects them all.

Common to each of these five general forms of technology – vocational, social, cultural, consumerist, and scientific – is what Marcuse had called a technical rationality, a rationality that has changed little in the last one hundred years (even if the various forms of technology have). This way of thinking is characterized chiefly by an instrumentality, or by a focus on the means to an end in which the means is so prioritized, so paramount, that the end becomes forgotten, even irrelevant. The pandemic, in all its disruption, has revived the questions of ends: to what purpose do we do the things we do, not just vocationally, socially, culturally, acquisitionally, and scientifically, but beyond these means of activity? And can now the means be justified in light of the ends? These questions have become more salient in our general consciousness.

Technical rationality is also characterized by what Lewis Mumford had called (even before Marcuse) matter-of-factness, wherein technology is the factor and we humans the factum (Mumford, 1934, p. p. 361). Here the “fact” is seen as an empirical solidity verified through measurement and quantification. It divests itself of any metaphorical element. In today’s digital parlance we might modulate this and say the human has become the datum, the quantification that fits into the larger schema of data organisation. In this sense it has fulfilled Marcuse’s prophetic announcement of the one-dimensional person (Marcuse, 1964). The pandemic, however, has challenged this reduction of the human to mere matter-of-factness, to being-data. Statistical numbers for human existence and human activity remain useful instrumentally; but when they are produced for that which threatens human existence and activity, when they capture the shift from existence to non-existence, and measure obliteration, our matter-of-fact attitudes provide less of an assurance, if they provide any assurances at all. Religion has never been contextualised within “the facts”. Rather, “the facts”, whatever they constituted, have, up until modernity, always been contextualized within religion. The question raised by Covid-19 is this: how ought we to contextualise our facts, now that technology has proven unsatisfactory in rationalising the harsh realities, the data and the numbers, in the statistics and graphs and tables we encounter on a daily basis?

We don’t expect traditional, institutionalised religion to quickly refill this context – at least, not in the West. But the question has been asked: will lockdown, self-isolation, and for many an occupational shift into neutral gear move us anew toward introspection, individual and collective? And will this introspection, having seen both the power and the limits of technology, challenge us to rethink what values and what ends we should impose upon technology, rather than what values and what means technology should impose upon us? Technology will not replace religion. But might it re-inspire religious thinking by means of its own limitations? Might we say, as once did T.S. Eliot’s magi, that “we are no longer at ease here” (Eliot, 1971, p.69), in this world of instrumentalised rationality, in this world of matter-of-factness, where disease becomes dis-ease, and we are compelled to seek a new dispensation? Might we invoke a new deus ex machina that releases us from the jammed plotlines of our own making, and frees the gods from the machines in which we have encased them?

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958.
Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion [Fragment 74]”. Trans. Chad Kautzer. In The Frankfurt School on Religion. Ed. Eduardo Mendieta. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Eliot, T.S. “Journey of the Magi”. In Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”. In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continnum, 1982.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1934.