Decoloniality article

Religious Studies and/in the Decolonial Turn

The Waldseemüller map from 1507 is the first map to include the name “America” and the first to depict the Americas as separate from Asia. There is only one surviving copy of the map, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 2001 for $10 million. Credit: Martin Waldseemüller / Public domain.

The history and study of the anthropological category of religion is deeply entangled with the formation of modernity/coloniality. In this context, whoever defines, identifies, and explains religion wields much power. Modernity/coloniality is not meant to describe the experience of modernity in the colonial territories, as opposed to modernity in the metropolitan European empires or the “developed” world. Rather, modernity/coloniality refers to the logic of colonial differences and hierarchies that are constitutive of the idea and project of Western modernity since at least the sixteenth century.

It was in the context of the early formation of Western modernity as an idea and a project that the category of religion emerged as an indispensable term for making sense of the difference between the colonizers and the colonized. Since then, “religion” as a category of classification and analysis has served as a dispositive of the coloniality of power, knowledge, and being in the formation and solidification of “modern Western civilization.” It has been crucial in the constitution of the “secular line” and the “color-line,” understood broadly, that are at the center of how the globalized Western human sciences and the modern state understand and forcibly construct a “world.”

Religious Studies and the various sub-fields that constitute it can participate in the collective struggle for ideas, practices, and institutions that aim to overcome the limit of the “modern world order” by engaging in a decolonial turn. This turn involves enriching, complicating, and sometimes moving away from a focus on the classical debates in the field of Religious Studies and Theology to an embrace of fields and epistemic practices grounded in decolonial transdisciplinarity, such as Ethnic studies and related bodies of thought and practice.

Religion and the Colonial Project

An initial question that scholars during the sixteenth century pursued in the context of conquest and colonization was whether the indigenous peoples of the Americas had religion or not. The question indicated a break with the general presumption that the Orbis Christianus (Christian world) was populated by people with religion and that the main difference between them resided in the degree of truth or falsity in their beliefs. It was a dangerous question to explore: having no religion could indicate the lack of a soul, which pointed to an ontological difference, and not merely to an epistemological difference, between the beliefs of conquistadors and those they colonized. In short, if religion was a universal characteristic of humans, then not having religion indicated a lack of humanity.

In the Christian theocentric paradigm, a religious other was someone whose beliefs can be questioned, and the main goal was conversion. In the emerging paradigm, on the contrary, the non-religious other is someone whose very humanity is put into question, which opens up a horizon of unexpected possibilities in terms of practices of engagement and behavior. Determining who has religion and who doesn’t, as well as what kind of religion they have, then, became crucial not only for social organization, but also for making sense of the globe. This was not a small matter given that European Christian kingdoms and the emerging nation-states became the largest empires that the world has ever seen, and that European travel narratives, racial thinking, as well as economic and geo-political ambitions, informed the creation of maps and narratives that were used to navigate, order, and make sense of space and time in the world.

The differentiation between people with religion and those without it had important precedents in the “Old World,” which is why Columbus was able to deploy the concept in his first contact with Taino peoples on the island of Guanahani in 1492. It is necessary to continue studying these uses prior to 1492, just like it is important to consider the Middle Passage, after 1492, to understand the full scope of how the differentiation between people with religion and people without it came to define Western attitudes toward colonized peoples in the unparalleled planetary expansion of the system of presuppositions, symbols, and institutions that is called Western modernity. It is also important to consider that more crucial than the specific categorical distinction between people with religion and people without it is what it creates: an environment where, no matter how well a racialized group performs, demonstrates, or is simply assumed to have “religion” or any features reserved for humans, their full humanity is still continually put into question.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Credit: Bain News Service, publisher / Public domain.

Looking back from the vantage point of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the formidable social scientist and thinker W. E. B. Du Bois recognized the problem well when he wrote, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question”: “How does it feel to be a problem?”[1] This perpetual question is a manifestation of the Manichean misanthropic skeptical attitude toward Black people, indigenous people, and people of color that entered Western modernity perhaps most clearly through the distinctions between having religion (and a soul) and not having religion.[2] This skeptical attitude is like a dangerous poison that turns a desire for progress and civilization into genocidal acts.

Du Bois confirms the ever-present character and reach of this modern/colonial attitude when he writes that “above [the] actual words and obligato of tune and tone” of “even the sweeter souls of the dominant world” continually plays the following recommendation:

‘My poor, un-white thing! Weep not nor rage. I know too well, that the curse of God lies heavy on you. Why? That is not for me to say, but be brave! Do your work in your lowly sphere, praying the good Lord that into heaven above, where all is love, you may, one day, be born—white!’”[3]

Du Bois describes a social reality where Manichean misanthropic skepticism is no longer a doubt or a question, and not merely a matter of science and fact that can be refuted with evidence, but a belief and a tenet of faith. The audacity of such a religion, a “religion of whiteness” or “white religion,” to use Du Bois’s terms, is such that the recommendation of a prayer for whiteness turns the racist question about the humanity of someone into the expectation of self-annihilation—to kill the Black in oneself so that the white can be born.

Misanthropic skepticism thus generates its own colonial and racist spirituality as well as a prayer that serves as a constant reminder about the meaning and value of whiteness: “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”[4] The identification and critical analyses of questions, attitudes, prayers, religions, and spiritualities that harbor and reproduce coloniality is as important as the analysis of “religious” formations that counter the prayers and spirituality of whiteness. These are all important areas for decolonial religious studies, decolonial philosophy of religion, and decolonial theologies.

In short, the anthropological discourse about religion was from the outset deeply implicated in the discourse of race and in projects of global expansion and socio-political control. It is thus not possible to understand the genesis and power of the anthropological category of religion without understanding race and modern colonialism, and it is not possible to understand the formation and workings of race without understanding the various uses and functions of “religion” in the modern/colonial world. Determining who has religion and what kind of religion they have is clearly then, not merely a disinterested scholarly affair, but a crucial endeavor in the design of an increasingly globalized modern/colonial order.

The Spread of Colonial Logics

Surely, with time, Western societies conceded (or were made to concede) that basically all peoples around the globe had one religion or another, just as they had culture. But it is important to recognize that this only happened in a context where the West found other markers by which to distinguish itself and maintain its sense of superiority over non-Western others. This was the case especially in relation to “Black” people, whom they regarded as natural slaves. The new terms used to discriminate were philosophy and science, which opened up the possibility of formally conceiving the study of religion as a scientific affair or as an extension of philosophical reflections on religion or religious ethics.

The entanglement of science and philosophy in the reproduction of modernity/coloniality is clear in the reproduction of racist taxonomies, craniometry, and presuppositions about the intellectual capacities and autonomy of non-Western peoples through the 19th century, for example. In the United States, these found a home, probably less in religious seminaries than in the emerging universities of the time, which in turn became homes for Religious Studies. There were also notions of high culture and low culture, as well as of rational religions and primitive religions that came to inform work in the field. The classification of the religions of the colonized as primitive or irrational was instrumental to sustain the dehumanizing logic that justified colonialism and slavery.

The conception of religion as truly universal, including collectives that had been considered as lacking religion before—although not so clearly including people who were considered to be natural slaves—did not challenge the racist differentiation between the colonizers and the colonized. It rather became another form of colonization via inclusion. That is, Christian categories for understanding Christianity—as well as modern/colonial distinctions between the religious and the secular—became the optics through which other “religions” would be observed and analyzed. The religious would be distinguished from the secular, and Christianity would often be conceived as the religious formation most attuned with modernity and the secular organization of society.

In this framework, non-Western religions could only aspire to be represented as “world religions.” However, achieving this status would still keep them at odds with modernity because the number of followers and geographical extension of a religion does not endow it with the capacity to offer a ground for or to complement a rationally organized society. For regardless of geographical reach and size, in relation to Christianity any “world religion” could be represented as irrational. The political repercussions of this should be clear since the more irrational any “religion” is represented the more threatening it appears—take the discourse on Islam and Islamophobia today, for instance. Coloniality, therefore, takes place not only when certain practices are excluded from the category of religion, but also when they are included in it. A decolonial turn in the study of religion takes a critical engagement with this logic of categorization as a necessary step in the production of any new knowledge about religion or the religious.

Religious Studies and Decoloniality

Religious Studies has certain advantages over traditional disciplinary formations when it comes to engaging in a decolonial turn. To start, its interdisciplinary character can make the religious studies scholar less attached to the methods and organizing principles of any discipline than mono-disciplinary scholars. Interdisciplinarity can lead to a healthy skepticism of the powers of any given discipline in light of the way the categories it employs are bound up with categories central to other disciplines. And yet, interdisciplinarity falls short of introducing a decolonial turn because the modern Western disciplines are themselves typically built on the epistemological edifice of coloniality.

“La presión” by Giovani Diaz Morales. Mural in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of the author.

Combining Western-centric disciplines does not make the combination any less Western-centric or colonial. For example, religious studies scholars could employ linguistics and geography to study the Middle East and still reproduce Orientalism. Studying Judaism through the lenses of archaeology and hermeneutics could remain confined within and reproduce an anti-Semitic framework. Cultural anthropologists could add area studies to their scholarly tool set and also remain limited by explicitly or implicitly approaching indigenous populations as if they are passive or largely ignorant. In short, the proliferation of inter-disciplinarity by itself does not challenge the color-line. The same is true of reassertions of mono-disciplinary formations and of defenses of science, the humanities, and the liberal arts. More creative and audacious thinking is needed to turn academic disciplines and inter-disciplines, including Religious Studies, into consistent engines of decoloniality.

Given how instrumental the identification and study of religion has been for the conceptualization and legitimization of the modern/colonial order, Religious Studies has to engage in self-critique along with a wider critique of the modern European sciences to help dispel the limitations and dangerous effects of modernity/coloniality. For this, a positive relation with emancipatory and decolonial transdisciplinary spaces such as Ethnic Studies and related fields becomes necessary. These fields not only have a long history of critical engagement with the traditional disciplines, but they have also formulated questions and produced approaches that are crucial in uncovering coloniality. They generate knowledge that contributes to decolonization, and seek to create border zones of decolonial activity in between the university and a wide array of knowledges that are found outside it. A decolonial turn in Religious Studies through a generative interaction with Ethnic Studies and related fields, and with other decolonial projects inside and outside the university as well as in different parts of the world, is crucial to produce a twenty-first century Religious Studies. Likewise, as I hope that the analysis of white religion and prayer above demonstrates, fields such as Ethnic Studies and decolonial projects outside the academy could gain much from the analyses and insights of decolonial Religious Studies, decolonial philosophy of religion, and decolonial forms of religious thought and theology.


[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. Authoritative Text. Contexts. Criticisms, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), p. 9.

[2] For an exploration of misanthropy, white supremacy, and an analysis of a white God in an anti-black world see Lewis R. Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1995).

[3] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Humanity Books, 2002 [1920]), p. 56.

[4] ibid., 56. A picture of “religious leaders” praying in the Oval Office with Donald Trump after he signed the proclamation for a national day of prayer on Sept. 1, 2017 lends itself to further analysis of the prayer of whiteness, white religion, and white Christianity. J. Kameron Carter uses the picture in his column entitled “Behind Christianity Today’s Editorial is a Deeper Crisis of America’s Religion of Whiteness,” Religion News Service, Dec. 24, 2019.

Nelson Maldonado-Torres
Nelson Maldonado-Torres is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Professor Extraordinarious at the University of South Africa, and Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. A former President of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, he co-chairs the Frantz Fanon Foundation, and is a senior associate of the Soweto-based Blackhouse Kollective. His work focuses on the philosophical dimensions of coloniality, race, and decoloniality, and he has published extensively in phenomenology, the theory of religion, the philosophy of race, and the theoretical foundations of ethnic studies. His publications in English include the monograph Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (Duke University Press, 2008), and the co-edited anthologies Latin@s in the World-System: Decolonization Struggles in the 21st Century U.S. Empire (Routledge, 2005), and Decolonial Feminism in Abya Yala: Caribbean, Meso, and South American Contributions and Challenges (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022). Relevant articles and book chapters include “Religion, Modernity, and Coloniality,” Religion, Conquest, and Race in the Foundations of the Modern/Colonial World,” “The Meaning and Function of Religion in an Imperial World,” “Secularism and Religion in the Modern/Colonial World System: From Secular Postcoloniality to Postsecular Transmodernity,” “What is Decolonial Critique?,” and the forthcoming “Combative Decoloniality and the Abolition of the Humanities” (Routledge Companion to Postcolonial and Decolonial Literature, ed. L.R. Brueck, and P. Gopinath).

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