I was Reader in Religion at the University of Stirling from 2001 to 2015. I referred to my project in general as Critical Religion, which shifts the viewpoint from data that is supposed to be religious data, to the deployments of the category ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ itself. How can we decide, for example, what is a religious practice or institution and what is a non-religious practice or institution? Critical religion can be more completely unpacked as ‘the critical study of ‘religion’ and related categories’ – the most obviously related category being the idea of the ‘non-religious secular’. The relation here is one of opposition and mutual exclusion. This immediately shines the light on the secular (non-religious) academic who is choosing the data, on the secular university as an institution and on its knowledge production. However, historically and conceptually the term ‘politics’ was deployed in the late 17th century to refer to government separated from religion, and ‘science’ was redeployed from its earlier uses to refer to knowledge separated from theology, and these are arguably the primary domains that represent the non-religious secular. Therefore the study of the category ‘religion’ is in my view inevitably also the study of categories such as ‘politics’ and ‘science’. Many other modern categories follow, including ‘modern’ itself, and the idea of ‘modernity’.
The term ‘critical religion’ also became a generic term for what we taught as a subject area at Stirling, and during that time my colleague Dr Michael Marten made and managed the Critical Religion webpage. In addition to this affiliation with Critical Religion, now edited by Dr Bashir Saade, I am also a research associate with Critical Research on Religion, edited by Dr Warren Goldstein, and both sites are generously offering me a space to publish my ideas.
I was fortunate to have studied for the BA degree in Religious Studies at King’s College, London (1977), which was a well-organised and well-taught introduction to a wide range of significant topics. Yet when I had completed it and had graduated, I did not know what ‘religion’ is, which seems an interesting paradox (I have discussed this paradox in more detail in my books, such as The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) and Religion and Politics in International Relations (2011). We undergraduates took taught courses in philosophy of religion, anthropology of religion, sociology of religion, psychology of religion, and two World Religions (my own choices were Hinduism and Buddhism).
In several of these informative, testing and intellectually stimulating courses we encountered arguments about the definition of religion, many of which were contradictory, and it became apparent that there is little or no agreement among academics on what religion is or is not, even within the discipline of ‘religious studies’. Yet despite there not being any agreed referent for the term ‘religion’, the ‘study of religion’ as a distinct academic discipline, and its various professional associations, journals, and conferences continues to thrive. But what is the topic? Definitions are concerned with boundary issues. For example, can we distinguish between the study of religion and the study of culture or society? Can we justify at the theoretical level distinct departments of religious studies, cultural studies or social studies? I would extend this further now. I have discussed this definitional issue exhaustively in many books, book chapters and articles.
While I was doing my PhD at King’s College, London (1977-1983), I was fortunate to get a job in 1980 in a college of higher education teaching Hinduism, Buddhism and Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. Writing and developing courses for my students, I became even more aware that World Religions are highly artificial and rather arbitrary constructs, and, in an attempt to unravel these arbitrary features, I introduced as much anthropology into my courses as possible. At that time I was very much influenced by Louis Dumont and the debates in Indian anthropology that he stimulated in Homo Hierarchicus (1979). At much the same time, the critique of Orientalism by Edward Said became relevant, not least because so-called world religions like Hinduism and Buddhism were invented by Orientalists. Unfortunately, neither of these authors fully deconstructs the religion-secular dichotomy, though Dumont comes close to it in his Essays on Individualism (1986), a book that has had a considerable influence on me. I think it is an open question whether or not Dumont’s own theoretical grounds in Homo Hierarchicus are themselves orientalist. Even more paradoxically, I do not think that Edward Said ever fully deconstructed the secular grounds of orientalist presuppositions. In one recent book chapter I have argued that his own failure to fully critique secularism is an orientalism itself, and a ‘postcolonial remains’. I would like to think that this approach is a contribution to Chakrabarti’s project in Provincialising Europe, though generally I think the ideological function of the religion-secular binary is not properly understood by the Subalternists.
This invention of ‘world religions’ such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Shintoism and other ‘isms’ was happening as India and other parts of Asia were becoming increasingly subjected to colonial domination throughout the 19th century. These apparently neutral descriptive terms increasingly looked like power categories to me and a few other academics, or acts of cognitive imperialism. Throughout my published work I have given reasons why these ideological categories have been useful in the colonial and neo-colonial projects of domination, while seeming to be merely neutral, scientific and descriptive categories. Liberal political economy appears as a factual science and the result of progress over the superstitious religious past. I would say it is a disguised hegemonic ideology for normalising or naturalising private property and its accumulation.
What is it that one is studying, teaching and researching when one claims to be studying, teaching and researching ‘religion’? Unlike a small minority of fellow academics who also raised such questions, it does not seem to stimulate most people in our profession. I can understand why. To question the categories that define one’s expertise threatens the disciplinary boundaries within which one is employed to teach and research. It does not win one many friends or help promote one’s career. One cannot slot one’s CV neatly into any orthodox disciplinary career path. Potential employers who have not themselves been able or willing to think outside the boundaries of academic normality cannot ‘place’ you. I would say that similar arguments can be made about the study of culture, the study of society, and the study of politics.
Before Stirling I was in Japan for 13 years (1988-2001). Seeing the world from the viewpoint of Japan had a strong effect on my understanding of world history, of the study of religion, and the problem of representation. This is reflected in the various articles I have published on Japan, and three chapters I devoted to analysing Japanese practices and institutions in my first book The Ideology of Religious Studies.
I also spent several months at different times in India (1983-4; 1991; 1992). I was especially interested in Dr B.R. Ambedkar and the Dalit and Buddhist movement that he led. I have published several articles and book chapters on Ambedkar, Buddhists and caste, as can be seen from my list of publications, and there are two chapters in The Ideology of Religious Studies.
Much of my subsequent work has developed from the initial critique of the category ‘religion’ and its relation to non-religious secular categories such as ‘society’, ‘culture’, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’. My own view is that to classify any practice or institution as ‘religious’, ‘social’, ‘political’, or ‘economic’ is not objective and neutral, but is an act of power. Probably this is true in one way or another and to some extent in all acts of classification, though it will depend on the context. However, religion has an important historical, ideological and constitutional function in the construction of liberal modernity.
Though experts in all these supposedly distinct fields of study will feel they have reasonably objective grounds for their separation, my own view is that they are all power categories and not neutral or objective as they claim to be. While each of these categories is associated with a number of other concepts that can stand in for them, they are all universalising abstractions in the final analysis. A question that arises is: how can very abstract terms with indeterminate content have so much power in ordering our world? I have increasingly attempted to answer this question in my published work. One point is that these are all rhetorically-driven ways of classifying the world for a purpose, though the purpose is typically not disclosed and remains largely unconscious. We can recover their purposes by retracing their historical emergence in the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. These categories have subsequently been developed and internalised into our systems and classifications since around the late 17th century, and have entered our everyday language, our academic vocabulary, and our unquestioned way of thinking and speaking. It is because we deploy terms like ‘religion’, ‘politics’, culture’ or ‘society’ largely unconsciously, as though it is obvious what it means, and as though we are simply naming a visible feature of the world, that they have such ideological power. This initial starting point led to a wider critique of liberal secular academia and its function in the reproduction of largely unanalysed categories of the understanding.
I now think of these categories as largely empty signs that operate at an abstract level to organise our texts, our speech acts, our institutions, and our ways of organising (or disorganising) the world. Most of my published work explores these issues. I have made critical readings of a wide range of texts showing in considerable detail how these categories arose historically, and how they actually operate across the humanities and social sciences. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that these categories operate us, rather than us operating them. My most recent book dealing with these issues is Religion and Politics in International Relations (2011).
I am presently engaged in writing a book with the title Abolishing Politics: categories as signs in an automatic signalling system. This is intended to appear as a series of discussion sections or blogs on this webpage and on critical theory of religion. We deploy the term ‘politics’ constantly in our academic papers and our everyday speech acts. Its meaning seems assured. We feel we know instinctively how to use the term. We feel intuitively that we cannot do without this term, either for description and analysis, or simply to refer to human reality. In public discourse we talk about politics as though it is the essential field for the rational solution to our problems. Yet if we ask ‘what is politics?’ we cannot find a clear way to answer. It is difficult to find any clear definition in the work of political theorists. I have frequently found ‘politics’ defined tautologically by experts in the field in terms of ‘political institutions’, which strongly suggest that it is a purely circular discourse, much like ‘religion’. How is it that words without clear meaning can play such a big part in our public discourse and rhetoric? What drives their deployment? What is it that makes them feel so necessary?
There are many other terms that turn out to be strongly associated in modern discourse – nature, nation, state, progress, markets, liberal, liberty, equality and so on. My project is to dig up and expose the subterranean connections between all of these categories, and to work out how they operate as a configuration, or as a system of signs in an automatic signalling system. When one tries to pin down these categories and open them up to critical inspection, they all reveal a radical instability and contestability. They appear to stand for distinct and objective aspects of the world, or to have obvious and self-evident meanings, but turn out on closer inspection to work like signs in a system. This system does not describe an independently existing reality but constructs it in thought, in the imagination. To understand how they organise our world of ‘modern progress’ and its illusions, as distinct from the supposed ‘backwardness’ of the past, we have to uncover the system as a whole.
Readers might be interested in two edited books exploring some of these issues: T. Fitzgerald (ed.), Religion and the Secular in Colonial Contexts (2007); and T. Stack, N. Goldenberg and T. Fitzgerald (eds.) Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty (2014). If any reader of this compressed account wants to discuss it with me, I can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
To see all my blog postings on the Critical Religion website, click here.