Religion in Modernity Glossary: A Religious Studies Masterclass

affective politics

Affect theory is the critical study of affects, which is a term typically taken to encompass embodied emotions, complex underlying feeling states, and/or subjectively-experienced feelings that precede or are inarticulable by language. Affect theorists—particularly critical theorists such as Eve Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, and Sara Ahmed—frequently approach emotions and feelings as public, relational, contextual, and/or embodied in order to explore how certain embodied feelings might be socially produced and/or be mobilized in support of political or ideological projects. The term affective politics refers to this social/political production of particular feeling states and/or the ways that these feeling states are used to advance particular social/political views and actions. A focus on affective politics enables scholars to move beyond viewing emotions as private, interior, and isolated occurrences by instead considering broader implications and relational networks. For example, Contending Modernities contributor Michael Vicente Pérez draws from affect theory in order to name and critique the divisive affective politics of “fear-as-threat” that reinforced Islamophobia following the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre. Pérez argues that an alternative affective state of shared mourning—evoked by the affirmation of queer Muslim existence—opens up political possibilities which resist both homophobia and Islamophobia.


Apartheid is an international legal category and its practice is considered a crime against humanity by organizations such as the United Nations. It describes policies and practices of segregation, discrimination, persecution, and violence—such as those of South Africa in the mid-twentieth century and in Israel/Palestine today— which are “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” The word has its roots in the Afrikaans language, and translated literally means “apart-hood,” or “separateness.” Its practice in South Africa can be traced back to the colonial Dutch East India Company. For more on apartheid in Palestine Israel, see blog posts by Raz Segal, Atalia Omer, and Moshe Behar.


The term apocalypticism is derived from the Greek word apocalypsis, which refers to a catastrophic event that is also an uncovering/revelation, or a means by which truths which were previously unknown are disclosed. As defined by Hebrew Bible scholar John Collins, apocalypticism (particularly in the case of ancient Judaism and Christianity) is a worldview characterized by “(1) the prominence of supernatural beings, angels and demons, and their influence on human affairs and (2) the expectation of a final judgment not only of nations but of individual human beings” (77)—a judgment typically associated with hope for the resurrection of the dead. Apocalypticism also frequently involves a narrative of diametrically opposed powers (such as good/evil or elect/non-elect), a negative view of the current state of the world and a belief/expectation in its imminent end, the use of symbols to convey messages or revelations, and/or faith in a messianic leader.

Apocalypticism and liberatory readings of the New Testament Book of Revelation have historically inspired anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and otherwise anti-oppressive movements and cultures. Contending Modernities contributors such as Philip Gorski and Jason Springs, however, critique the ways that apocalyptic narratives have also driven right-wing populism and ethnoreligious nationalism, such as White evangelical Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories, and Trumpism.

Bartolomé de las Casas

See glossary entry on Valladolid debate.

Christian normativity

Christian normativity involves the positing of Christianity as the privileged norm and dominant worldview in reference to which a society is organized and against which non-Christian traditions are evaluated. Within the field of religious studies, examples of Christian normativity have included—as Contending Modernities contributors have shown—the unfavorable or dismissive treatment of non-Christian traditions in comparison to Christianity, the assumption that concepts derived from Christian traditions (such as “prayer,” “theology,” or what counts as “religious” as opposed to “secular”) apply universally to all contexts, or an inattentiveness to the non-Christian ways of knowing and being that colonial Christian theologies have suppressed.

Related terms include Christian hegemony (the imposition of totalizing Christian frameworks which dominate over, deny, and/or make unimaginable other ways of knowing and being) and Christian supremacy (the creation and maintenance of a hierarchy in which Christian traditions and frameworks are treated as superior to non-Christian ones, particularly in ways that lend support to ethno-religious nationalism). For a discussion of the way Christian normativity has shaped theory and philosophy in the study of religion, see essays by Anthony Paul Smith and Danbe Smith. For a discussion of the role of Christian normativity in international affairs see Atalia Omer’s response to Cecelia Lynch Wrestling with God. For an example of a break from Christian normativity see Elisabeth Becker’s essay on the call to prayer in public spaces in Germany and the Netherlands.

classical Islamic ethical tradition

This tradition names to the scholastic undertaking of Islamic scholars such as Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, Nasir-ad Din Tusi, and Jalal ad-Din Davani who focused on morals and ethics (how human beings ought to behave) and were major contributors to the development of the field of akhlāq (morality/ethics/virtue) in Islamic thought. The period of scholarship that is now understood to comprise the classical Islamic ethical tradition was produced from about the 1050s until 1500 (around the rise of early-modern Islamic Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires). For more on the classical Islamic ethical tradition see the short symposium on Sohaira Siddique’s Law and Politics Under the Abbasids and the symposium on Zahra Ayubi’s Gendered Morality.

colonial library

In Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa, Congolese philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe critiques the Eurocentric aims, modes of organization, and forms of knowledge that were used to establish African universities in the mid-twentieth century. He uses the term colonial library to refer to the body of knowledge which formed the basis of these universities and caused them to be “European at the heart of all subjects matters, foundational principles and aims” (173). The colonial library involves Eurocentric concepts, views of history, and political aims which together serve to uphold “western”/European norms as universal while treating that which is “non-Western” as marginal, as a static object of study for Western thought, and as in need of conversion to Western norms. Contending Modernities contributor Abdulkader Tayob draws from this term to critique the ways that Western scholarly traditions, voices, and concepts have dominated the field of religious studies and to call for the creation of a new, decolonial “library.”


See glossary entry on modernity/coloniality (coloniality/modernity).

comparative religious ethics

Comparative religious ethics is a subfield within religious studies. Like the comparative study of religion, this subfield focuses on critically bringing into conversation the beliefs and practices of more than one religious tradition, frequently with the intention to move towards mutual understanding, collaboration, and enrichment. In comparative religious ethics, this analysis is focused on religious traditions’ moral frameworks, concerns, and principles for guiding human action. As described by Sumner B. Twiss and Bruce Grelle in their edited volume on Explorations in Global Ethics, the subfield is methodologically plural but has frequently involved applications of Western philosophical theories to the analysis of diverse religious traditions, an attention to the historical and cultural contexts informing religious beliefs and practices, critical interrogations of both universalism and moral relativism, and achieving the goal of cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. Contending Modernities contributors such as Irene Oh and Nicholas Andersen have highlighted the challenges to Christian normativity and Eurocentrism within comparative religious ethics. However, they also argue that scholarship within the subfield should do more to engage non-Christian and non-European actors as interlocutors on their own terms (rather than through the terminology and conceptual categories derived from Christianity and Western philosophical traditions) and, as a result, begin to critically rethink the very meanings of terms such as “ethics” and “religion.”  Shannon Dunn and Rosemary Kellison have also grappled with the methodological implications of decolonial theory for comparative religious ethics.

compulsory heterosexuality

The term compulsory heterosexuality comes from Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” and refers to “the societal forces which wrench women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values” (637–38)—that is, to the ways that “opposite sex” desires are societally expected and imposed, particularly upon women. According to Rich, these forces include the deliberate destruction, concealment, or misinterpretation of evidence of lesbian existence; the societal belief that women are inevitably drawn to men (which may be reinforced through areas such as literature, media, cultural practices, and social structures which privilege heterosexual marriage); and social and economic factors which compel women to enter into heterosexual marriages for reasons such as financial security and the avoidance of ostracization. See also heteronormativity. For the role of compulsory heterosexuality in white Christian nationalism see Jason Springs’ series “Zombie Nationalism.”  For the normative ethical implications of compulsory heterosexuality in the classical Islamic tradition, see the symposium on Zahra Ayubi’s Gendered Morality. For recent challenges to heterosexism in Iran see Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s 2023 essay.


A cosmovision is the cosmic worldview of a society, civilization, or community: its conception of the physical and spiritual environment in which people live their lives, organize and conceptualize their networks of relation, and comprehend and interpret reality. The cosmovision that one inhabits informs the ways that one thinks about the world, perceives one’s place and/or humanity’s place (spatially, temporally, relationally, or otherwise) in the world, and imagines possibilities for living, knowing, acting, and being within that world. A society’s cosmovision typically manifests itself through that society’s beliefs, traditions, and customs. In one post, Santiago Slabodsky reflects on the challenges that decolonial theory poses to Euro-Christian cosmovisions.  See also ontology.


This term refers to efforts in scholarship, activism, education, language, art, literature, religion and spirituality, psychology, and elsewhere which strive to combat colonialism and its presence/legacies in forms of government, economic systems, bodies of knowledge/ways of knowing, and ways of being in the world. There are many traditions of decolonial thought—including traditions rooted in African and Afro-Caribbean decolonial thought, Indigenous decolonial thought, and scholarship from the modernity/coloniality group—with areas of contestation and debate within them. Despite their differences, they tend to share common commitments to challenging Eurocentric, colonial logics/systems, and striving towards alternate ways of thinking, living, and being. (See the modernity/coloniality entry for a description of “colonialism” and “coloniality.”). CM’s series on decoloniality features essays on decolonizing continental philosophy of religion, comparative religious ethics, liberation theology, and more.

egalitarian binationalism

Sociologist and political scientist Bashir Bashir defines egalitarian binationalism as “a principle that recognizes and promotes the existence of two national groups with equal rights to self-determination … while insisting that this right ought to not be realized in the form of an exclusive ethnic state.” This definition is specifically focused on the context of Palestine/Israel, and any use of it outside this context would require amendment.


In academic scholarship, particularly in fields such as religious studies, sociology, and anthropology, emic forms of analysis prioritize the terminology and conceptual understandings of a particular community/tradition that is being studied or being engaged as an interlocutor (for instance, by adopting the language and/or frameworks by which the community understands its own beliefs, practices, social formations, etc.). Emic forms of analysis often proceed from goals of respecting a community/tradition, gaining an understanding of beliefs/practices on a community’s own terms, and/or avoiding possible distortions or epistemic violences (particularly in light of the colonial history of academic research in relation to Indigenous and non-Western communities).

In contrast, etic forms of analysis employ theoretical apparatus external to the community/tradition (for instance, by applying academic theories and terms that the community would not necessarily use or accept as descriptors of its own beliefs, practices, social formations, etc.), often for purposes of critique, comparison with other communities/traditions that employ different terms/concepts, or understanding social phenomena through a new lens. The “insider/outsider” problem—or concerns around emic (“insider”) vs etic (“outsider”) forms of analysis, explorations of the possible value and dangers of either approach, and critical questions regarding the positionality of the researcher—remains a complex topic of scholarly discussion and debate. Joshua S. Lupo addresses the insider/outside problem in his response to Khalen Furani’s Redeeming Anthropology as does Natalie Avalos in her reflections on liberation theology and decoloniality.


Epistemology refers to the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of knowledge. Most major philosophers in what is typically called the “western” canon have engaged with the question of epistemology, from Plato to Immanuel Kant, to Simone De Beauvoir to Judith Butler. For Plato knowledge was governed by forms, of which the matter we observed was a mere imperfect reflection; a clock on the wall, for example, is but the pale reflection of the idea or form of the clock, which is eternal. For Kant knowledge was governed by the categories of logic most famously articulated in Aristotle, but these categories were a feature of the mind and not the world. For Butler, knowledge is shaped by the historical and social context in which we find ourselves. For Butler, like Jacques Derrida, knowledge cannot be found outside the discursive context in which we find ourselves.

Much of the history of epistemology has dealt with the degree to which we can be certain about what we know about ourselves, God, and the world around us. For some, constraints on our knowledge are a feature of our sinfulness or imperfection, while for others it is a feature of our biological nature or the limits of rationality. Decolonial theorists have brought to the fore the ways that alternative modes of knowing to that of the western canon have not only been excluded, but violently erased, through European colonial enterprises. CM essays from Amaryah Armstrong, Asad Dandia, and Martin Kavka explore the challenges faced when confronting the limits of particular epistemological regimes.

ethnic studies

Ethnic studies involves the critical interrogation of systems of colonialism, imperialism, and racism and the creation of knowledge about the histories, cultures, and experiences of Black, Indigenous, Latino/a/x/e, and Asian/Asian American communities. The movement for ethnic studies began in 1968 at San Francisco State University in response to issues including the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the United States’s war in Vietnam, persistent racial injustices in America, and the Eurocentric curricula of academic institutions. Black, Indigenous, Latino/a/x/e, and Asian/Asian American college students joined together in the Third World Liberation Front in support of global movements towards freedom and self-determination against colonialism, imperialism, and racism, and they organized a student strike in order to call for classes and academic programs that were relevant for their communities’ experiences and struggles. Today, many universities offer ethnic studies courses and programs as a result of these and continued efforts. Natalie Avalos and Nelson Maldonado-Torres argue for the centrality of ethnic studies to the decolonial project.

ethnoreligious nationalism

Forms of nationalism in which ethnic features of identity (which may include a common language, ancestry or perceived ancestry, and cultural practices) are used to determine national belonging and/or reinforce nationalistic beliefs, and in which “religious identity markers blur or merge with ethnic identity markers” (15). See also nationalism and religious nationalism.


Eurocentrism is a worldview that centers Western/European ways of knowing, living, and being, typically in ways that assume Western/European cultures and histories to be superior to, more important than, and/or temporally prior to and therefore more “developed” than other cultures and histories. Historically, Eurocentrism has supported patterns of Western imperialism and colonialism in realms including politics, economics, religion, and knowledge production (such as in philosophical traditions and educational institutions). As decolonial scholars such as Catherine Walsh, Walter Mignolo, and Contending Modernities contributor Santiago Slabodsky have pointed out, Eurocentrism provides the conditions for its own “colonially sanctioned” modes of dissent, including critiques of Western colonialism. However, these “Eurocentric critiques of Eurocentrism” are internal critiques—that is, critiques of Eurocentrism on its own terms, which challenge “the content of the conversation” rather than the “terms of the conversation” (144)—and differ from decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism that are produced by those on the “underside” of modernity/coloniality.

gender binary

The classification of gender into two distinct and opposite categories: man and woman. The gender binary frequently operates in ways which link biological sex (imagined as stable, clearly-knowable through scientific observation, and distinctly either male or female) to the social category of gender (in which male = man and female = woman) and to the expression/performance of gender in accordance with culturally-determined societal norms (such that a man is expected to behave and dress in conventionally “masculine” ways and a woman is expected to behave and dress in conventionally “feminine” ways), often to the exclusion of intersex, transgender, third gender, and/or gender-nonconforming persons. On the operation of the gender binary in the Ivory Coast see the essay by Ludovic Lado. On the gender binary in the context of Pakistan see Ali Altaf Mian’s essay on Pakistan.


The term heteronormativity was originally popularized by Michael Warner in the edited collection Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (1993). In its current use, the term typically refers to the idea of a gender binary and related cultural norms regarding gender (in which men and women are viewed as the only two genders—and as “opposites”—to the exclusion of intersex, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming persons, among others); the idea of heterosexuality being normal and natural (which causes non-heterosexual identities and people to be portrayed as abnormal, pathological, and/or as less valuable); the upholding of heterosexual, married, nuclear family units as the most natural, moral, and/or preferable social arrangements; and the existence of social structures, cultural practices and representations, and systems of material advantage/disadvantage which privilege those who adhere to the above.

Closely related terms include compulsory heterosexuality, heterosexualism, homophobia (the hatred of or prejudice against homosexuality, or against those who identify as or are perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer), transphobia (the hatred of or prejudice against transness and/or transgender people, or against those who are perceived as not conforming to societal gender expectations), internalized homophobia/transphobia (LGBTQ people’s unconscious adoption or internalization of societal homophobic/transphobic beliefs, which may result in self-hatred and harmful mental health outcomes), and heterosexism (a system of attitudes, bias, discrimination, and prejudice against those who are queer or non-heterosexual, and in favor of heterosexuality as the assumed norm). Each contribution in the  symposium on Adriaan van Klinken’s Kenyan, Christian, Queer addresses the issue of heteronormativity. See also Halah Abdelhadi’s essay on the challenges of queer Palestinians to domininary understandings of sexuality.


As used by María Lugones in her article “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System” (2007), heterosexualism is a worldwide system of power in which heterosexuality and sexual/biological dimorphism (the idea that “biological sex” is stable, binary, and innate) are assumed as normative. The system of heterosexualism involves the violent imposition of hierarchical (patriarchal) gender arrangements, though these gender arrangements operate differently across colonial/racialized and class lines. White women (particularly wealthy or middle-class women) are made into heterosexual “reproducers of ‘the (white) race’ and ‘the (middle or upper) class’” (201), whereas persons from “the dark side” of the colonial divide (that is, persons from contexts that were colonized and racialized as non-White) are subjected to labor exploitation, sexual violence, dehumanization, and the erasure of their Indigenous/traditional social arrangements, and are barred from fully achieving the status of idealized manhood/womanhood. For more on the relationship between sexuality, race, and gender, see Jason A. Springs’s series, “Zombie Nationalism.”


Jasbir Puar coined the term homonationalism in Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2017) in order to describe the ways that nations, including the United States, advance imperialistic agendas by upholding a pro-LGBTQ+ image in contrast to Orientalized others who are imagined as terrorists and as exceptionally homophobic. According to Puar, that which is queer is not “inherently an outlaw to the [presumed-to-be-inherently-heteronormative] nation-state” (336). Rather, many liberal nations incorporate certain queer subjects (even if only in tenuous and instrumentalized ways) in order to promote their own image of inclusiveness, tolerance, and progressiveness and to evaluate other nations (particularly nations imagined as non-modern, “backwards,” or repressive) as having less of a “right to and capacity for national sovereignty” (336), particularly as a justification for imperial interventions and/or military aggression. For more on homonationalism in the US context see Michael Vicente Perez’s reflections on the Pulse nightclub shooting.

liberation theology

The term liberation theology is sometimes used to refer specifically to a tradition of (largely-Catholic) Christian theology that developed in Latin America in the 1960s–70s. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian Catholic theologian and priest who is regarded as one of the major figures of this theological movement, drew from Marxist analysis of economic injustice and Paulo Freire’s work on anti-oppressive pedagogy in order to advance a theology of liberation. Gutiérrez’s work centers God’s “preferential option” for the poor and oppressed, argues for a structural understanding of sin and salvation, and emphasizes that theological reflection must follow from a justice-oriented praxis—a praxis in which all Christians are called to participate.

The term liberation theology is also sometimes used to refer more generally to justice-oriented and anti-oppressive theologies written to address a concrete context of oppression. Examples of theological traditions to which the umbrella term “liberation theologies” may be applied include feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies; Black, Latine, Asian-/American, and Indigenous theologies; queer theologies; ecological theologies of liberation; theology of struggle in the Philippines; and minjung theology in Korea. Although the development of liberation theologies—as specifically named by this term—began as a Christian theological movement, movements towards liberation theology have also arisen within non-Christian traditions. For example, Muslim liberation theologies have involved drawing from the Qur’an as a liberating resource for addressing patriarchy, racism, empire, and interreligious violence. For examples of what it means to advance liberation theology in the context of decoloniality, see the short series on Liberation Theology and Decoloniality.


Gravitating towards, centering around, or focused upon the mother or mothers.

modernity/coloniality (coloniality/modernity)

Some decolonial scholars, including Aníbal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and María Lugones—referred to as scholars from within the modernity/coloniality group—use the term modernity/coloniality (or coloniality/modernity) as a means of emphasizing that modernity and coloniality are “two sides of the same coin.” That is, “western modernity”—which involves a Eurocentric narrative of progress/development, particular ways of knowing rooted in Christian theology and post-Enlightenment philosophy and scientific thinking, and the economic system of global capitalism—would not be possible without historical and ongoing western colonial expansion. This particular logic of coloniality, which these decolonial scholars trace as beginning with the late-fifteenth century European colonization of the Americas, is broader than colonialism (or the presence of an official colonial administration over a given location). Coloniality did not end when places formerly under European/Euro-American rule gained formal independence and/or statehood, but persists in realms including economics, politics, language, religion, knowledge (including in measures for evaluating what counts as a “rational” or legitimate way of knowing), and ways of living in the world. Decoloniality —resistance to coloniality—has existed for as long as modernity/coloniality has existed, and strives to “delink” with modernity/coloniality and reconnect with other ways of thinking, living, and being. An Yountae’s essay is one of many examples of CM pieces in our decoloniality focus that engage with this concept.


Nationalism is one of modernity’s political projects that is co-constitutive with coloniality. Anthony Marx, for example, studies the Inquisition of 1492 as a mechanism for uncovering the proto-modern nation through a logic of socialization. The language of blood purity was integral to the Inquisition which co-occurred with the onset of the western Christian colonial project. See Phil Gorski’s discussion of nationalism in the context of the support of Donald Trump among White Christian evangelicals as well as John Rees’s discussion of nationalism in the context of Russia’s war with Ukraine.


Ontology names a branch of metaphysics concerned with the study of being. The origins of ontology as a formal field of study extends at least to the Greeks and most famously to Aristotle, for whom ontology was the study of those principles of existence which transcend the particularities of our time and place. To study being, then is to identify the fundamental realities that lie beyond our particular context.

In the context of decolonizing religious and philosophical thought, scholars point to the way ontology has been constructed in the European philosophical tradition in a way that obscures different ways of being that lie outside its purview. Jeremy Sorgen points to the challenge Indigenous ontologies pose to Christian/Secular frameworks in the US. Siphiwe Dube, meanwhile, reflects on the challenge of the ontology of Blackness in the context of the struggle against White supremacy around the globe. See also cosmovision.


Postcolonial Palestinian American scholar and literary theorist Edward W. Said describes Orientalism as a western style of thought which presumes a structural divide between the “Occident” (the “west,” typically understood to refer especially to Europe and the United States) and the “Orient” (the “east,” typically understood to encompass Asia and the Middle East). For Said, this style of thought and ideology is primarily about power: the “western” world imagines itself as distinct from and superior to the so-called, exoticized “Orient” and as possessing the knowledge and authority needed to understand and dominate it. Said critiques the “Orient” as a western construction (that is, an invention of western thought which conveys more about European/Euro-American imaginations than it does about the region of the “Orient” itself) with negative (colonial) consequences for real human life. See Brenna Moore’s reflections on the challenges of teaching about Islam in a Christian context in ways that do not reduplicate Orientalism as well as Néstor Medina’s essay that contextualizes Orientalism within the context of decolonial and postcolonial theory.


Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy inaugurated in the early twentieth century by Edmund Husserl (d. 1938). Breaking away from the philosophies of his day, including both psychologism and worldview philosophy, Husserl sought to make philosophy a “rigorous science.” For Husserl, this entailed returning to consciousness and our direct experience of the world. Husserl argued that what was most fundamental to the experience of consciousness was intentionality, namely the idea that consciousness was always directed away from itself towards objects that appeared before us. From this foundation, Husserl sought to reconstruct philosophy as a science of consciousness that described its various functions, from logical reasoning, to experiencing emotion, to expressing values.

Husserl’s work was expanded via the field of “continental philosophy” throughout the twentieth century. His student Martin Heidegger, for example, built upon Husserl’s notion of intentionality but argued that our perceptions of the world were deeply shaped by the histories and cultures we were born into. Emmanuel Levinas, on the other hand, argued that responsibility to the other is a condition for the very possibility of language and thus for the development of history and culture. ”

Later, feminist critics like Luce Irigary and more recently Sara Ahmed, would argue that while phenomenological methods can aid us in better understanding the world, to do so they would need to be expunged of their patriarchal assumptions about it. Philosopher and Black Studies scholar Lewis Gordon extended the bounds of who counts as a phenomenologist and what sorts of studies are held up as exemplary in his work on Frantz Fanon. Nelson Maldonado Torres, meanwhile, has argued for reimaging phenomenology from a decolonial lens starting with what he calls the “decolonial reduction,” which seeks to unearth, not consciousness as the basis of our experience of the world as in Husserl, but the social and political conditions of coloniality that shape the colonized experience. For more information on this topic, see Joshua S. Lupo’s outline of the role of phenomenology in critical studies of religion.

philosophy of religion

Philosophy of religion names the field of inquiry historically focused on philosophical—as opposed to theological—explanations for key theological concepts such as the existence of God, the existence of evil (also known as theodicy), and ethical principles, to name just a few. For example, one philosophical argument for the existence of God is known as the argument from design. In its most basic form, this argument contends that because the world seems to be designed to function in a particular way, there must be a designer who made it that way. This argument dates back, at least, to St. Thomas Aquinas, and is still debated today, especially amongst those who call themselves analytic philosophers of religion.

More recently, scholars called continental philosophers of religion have sought to expand the role of philosophy in understanding and explaining religious communities. As opposed to analytic philosophers, who are primarily interested in philosophical critiques or defenses of classical religious doctrines, continental philosophers, drawing from thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, among others, have sought to better understand religious experience, whether that be in giving an account of the impact of ritual on the community and its self understanding or the role of religion in shaping political life. See also phenomenology. See the series on “Decolonizing Continental Philosophy of Religion” for examples of this approach.


The term pinkwashing refers to the intentional promotion of an LGBTQ-friendly image in order to “reframe the occupation of Palestine in terms of civilizational narratives measured by (sexual) modernity” (337)—that is, in order to present the state of Israel as modern, progressive, inclusive, and “civilized” in contrast to Palestine, which is presented as non-modern, “backwards,” homophobic, and “uncivilized.” State practices of pinkwashing, which Jasbir Puar writes are “made possible within and because of homonationalism (337), frequently operate to justify Israeli state violence, imperialism, and settler colonialism against Palestinians. Pinkwashing draws upon orientalist tropes and obscures the existence of queer Palestinians and queer movements within Palestine, which Contending Modernities contributors such as Halah Abdelhadi and Sa’ed Atshan have discussed.


The term queer, originally meaning “odd” or “strange,” has been used as a slur directed against people who identify as or are perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, otherwise non-heterosexual and/or non-cisgender (cisgender = identifying with the gender assigned at birth), and/or not conforming to societal expectations around gender and sexuality. The rise of LGBTQ+ community formation and activism since the twentieth century has led many to reclaim and self-identify with the term queer as a marker of pride, belonging, self-love, and resistance to heterosexist oppression. The term queer is also used in academic (sub)fields such as queer theory, queer of color critique, and queer theology, which aim to critique power structures of heterosexism and heteronormativity, break taboos regarding discussions of sexuality, emphasize the fluidity and/or performativity of identity categories, and/or deconstruct societal definitions and enforcements of the “normative” (whether related explicitly to LGBTQ+ gender/sexual identities or not).

Although frequently treated as a synonym or umbrella term for LGBT (or LGBTQIA+) identities, the term queer has historically tended to have specific political connotations. While the acronyms specify non-cisgender-heterosexual gender/sexual identification, the term “queer” may additionally imply a position of structural marginality, a praxis of solidarity with other oppressed groups, and/or a commitment to radical, anti-assimilationist, transgressive politics. When used expansively, the term “queer” in this sense may also function as a heuristic term which brings attention to groups of people marginalized by heteronormativity and (colonially-imposed) heterosexualism, regardless of whether or not such people would personally identify as LGBTQ+. See Sa’ed Atshan’s  argument for why queer theory needs to be decolonized and Halah Abdelhadi’s reflections on queer identity in the context of Palestinian liberation.

queer of color critique

Queer of color critique is a specific tradition of queer scholarship with a critical intersectional focus on race, gender, sex(uality), class, and capitalism. Key figures within this tradition include Roderick A. Ferguson, Cathy J. Cohen, E. Patrick Johnson, José Esteban Muñoz, Gayatri Gopinath, and Martin F. Manalansan. “Queer of color critique”—as specifically named as such—first emerged in the 1990s as a critical academic discourse that drew together queer theory, Marxist thought, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and woman of color feminism in response to “a moment of social urgencies produced by the criminalization of communities of color, the expansion of the U.S. military industrial complex, the assault on immigrant communities, and the continued exploitation of racialized labor” (15). Theorists within this tradition of scholarship have engaged with religion from a variety of perspectives. For instance, in his work on “quare” studies, E. Patrick Johnson critiques homophobia within the Black church while also acknowledging the church’s continued role as a “homeplace” and site of refuge for Black queer people in a racist society—and therefore as a space of community that should not (and for many, cannot) be simply abandoned (19). Other scholars have recovered feminist, queer, and/or decolonial resources from religious and spiritual traditions that have been suppressed and demonized by the imposition of colonial Christian theology, such as Indigenous Mesoamerican cosmologies and the African diasporic traditions of Vodou and Santería. Scholars such as Audre Lorde have focused on spirituality, more generally, and its connections to the erotic as a source of creative power in resistance to a racist and heteropatriachal society.

Although works of queer of color critique frequently challenge the inadequacies of White/Eurocentric queer theories in contending with the interrelations among race, sex, class, and colonialism, scholars such as Michael Hames-García have argued against viewing works by QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) as critiques that developed later than and exist only in relation to a presumably-more-foundational body of White queer theory. Rather, the roots of queer of color critique can be traced back to earlier twentieth-century works by theorists such as Audre Lorde, the Combahee River Collective, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Additionally, queer of color critique frequently challenges Eurocentric narratives of the emergence of “[m]odern sexuality … in the in the eighteenth or nineteenth century alongside the emergence of industrial capitalism, liberalism, and the nation-state” (40) by attending to the impact of longer histories of enslavement, racialization, and colonization on the formation of gender and sexual categories. The essays collected in the CM symposium on Kenyan, Christian, Queer by Adriaan van Klinken address the role of queer of color critique in the context of Kenyan LGBTQI resistance to the postcolonial Kenyan state’s policies of discrimination.

religious nationalism

Religious nationalism is a debated term, with some scholars viewing it as a specific form of nationalism (defined as loyalty and devotion to one’s particular nation/people and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of groups who are not seen as belonging within that nation/people), and others viewing it as something that cannot be clearly distinguished from presumably “secular”/non-religious forms of nationalism (since distinctions between the “secular” and the “religious” differ across contexts and involve varying assumptions about how the presence of “religion” can be identified). The term is generally used to highlight the connections between nationalism and religious traditions, describing contexts in which national belonging is perceived to depend upon one’s holding a particular religious identity (for instance, if a particular religion is imagined to be a key part of a nation’s culture) and/or in which nationalistic beliefs are supported or justified by religious ideologies.

In their handbook on religious nationalism, Atalia Omer and Jason A. Springs introduce the term ethnoreligious nationalism to refer to forms of nationalism in which ethnic features of identity (which may include a common language, ancestry or perceived ancestry, and cultural practices) are used to determine national belonging and/or reinforce nationalistic beliefs, and in which “religious identity markers blur or merge with ethnic identity markers” (15). See Jason A. Springs’ short series Zombie Nationalism and Scott Hibbard’s post on Trump’s religious nationalism.

religious pluralism

Religious pluralism refers to a political and/or philosophical view invested in the peaceful coexistence of various religious traditions within society. Some, like John Hick, rely on a relativistic moral vision of religious pluralism, which claims that no tradition has unfettered access to truth and that all traditions are equal in their claims to religious truth. Others, like John Rawls, turn to tolerance—i.e. the idea that one should accept the beliefs one’s neighbor holds without necessarily actively engaging with the beliefs of one’s neighbor—as the key virtue of religious pluralism. Still others, like those invested in covenantal pluralism, argue that the goal of pluralism should not be to collapse all religious claims to truth as coequal, nor to simply tolerate those who hold different beliefs that we do, but to actively pursue mutual understanding and in doing so find ways to live together in spite of sometimes holding irreconcilable differences in belief. For a reflection on pluralism in India see Mohammad Ali’s essay on the dynamics of pluralism among Indian Muslims. For a reflection on the relationship between populism and pluralism, see Angus Ritchie’s reflections on Pope Francis. And for a reflection on pluralism and sectarianism in Europe see Geneviève Zubrzycki’s essay on anti-/philosemitism in Poland.

right-wing populism

Right-wing populism is a political discourse or narrative that is centered around notions of a sovereign people with a popular will. More specifically, it operates in ways that promote unity and homogeneity to the detriment of the rights of minority groups (such as immigrants, religious minorities, and/or people marginalized on the basis of gender or sexuality), who are often scapegoated. Sociologist Philip Gorski defines right-wing populism as resting upon a generic narrative in which a “pure people” are betrayed by a “corrupt elite” who has allied with an “undeserving other,” but retain hope in a “messianic leader” who will restore them. Gorski notes that right-wing populist movements tend to involve a charismatic, authoritarian leader who performs and/or encourages “bad manners” (that is, violations of polite speech and other social conventions, which represent a distancing from the norms of the “corrupt elite” and a closer identification with “ordinary” people and their popular will) and that these movements are frequently connected with religious nationalism.


Secularism names the philosophical, civic, and political project inaugurated in modern Europe that sought to diminish the role of religion in the public sphere. Famously, Max Weber points to the Protestant reformation as laying the foundation for the seeds of secularism. This is because the Protestant reformation reframed religious practice as focused primarily on the inner expression of piety rather than the outward expression of faith, thus limiting the need to express one’s faith through public and/or political action. Others contend that it was the War of Religions that followed which truly inaugurated the move to end the primacy of religion in governing bodies.

Whatever the origin one claims, by the twentieth century the idea that society was becoming increasingly secular had taken hold. This is most succinctly expressed in Peter Berger’s early work on the “secularization thesis” that portended the eventual exit of religion from society entirely. This thesis has been debunked by scholars of religious studies who argue that religious assumptions continue to undergird our political institutions and civic discourse. Talal Asad  has famously demonstrated the Protestant Christian assumptions that remain embedded in much political theory and discourse about religion. Saba Mahmood, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd have applied this theory to anthropology of religion, American constitutional law, and international relations, respectively.  Scholars working in decolonial theory have shown that secularism has continued to operate as a tool of empire for managing and marginalizing Indigenous populations. For an example of secularism as an exclusionary discourse, see Ebrahim Moosa’s essay on French laicité. For a consideration of the role of secularism in Indonesia and in Egypt see Mun’im Sirry’s essay. For a decolonial challenge to the “secularization” of Algerian philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon see essays by Nelson Maldonado-Torres and An Yountae.

settler colonialism

A specific type of colonialism in which colonizers move to and permanently settle within a region that was already inhabited by, displacing and replacing Indigenous populations in the process. Settler colonialism generally involves the establishment of new modes of relating to the land for the benefit of settlers (such as the dismissal of sacred sites/relationships, extraction of resources and/or introduction of foreign agricultural practices, and dividing of lands into private properties), the repression of Indigenous cultures and ways of life, and acts of genocide against Indigenous peoples. Our series, Theories of Land, provides numerous examples of the operation of settler colonialism in the US.

sexual politics

As defined by Jason A. Springs in his analysis of White Christian evangelical nationalism in the United States, “sexual politics” refers to “the ways that gender norms, operations of power related to sexual identities, and policing of sexuality all function to legitimate and perpetuate ideologies, and are used to advance political agendas.” That is, the term focuses on the ways that beliefs and power dynamics regarding gender and sexuality are enforced by political means and/or are mobilized in ways designed to support particular political views and actions. As shown by Springs and other Contending Modernities contributors, a focus on sexual politics can illuminate the relationships among gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and politics. For instance, Brenna Moore discusses the ways that the global rise of right-wing Catholic populist movements has involved the scapegoating of same-sex marriage, feminism, and changing gender norms as part of a narrative of “besieged, traditionalist victim[hood].”

third gender

In her article “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System” (2007), María Lugones discusses the colonial system of heterosexualism, which rests upon a belief in sexual/biological dimorphism: the idea that “biological sex” is stable (imagined as innate, and as existing prior to and acting as the basis of the social category of gender), binary (distinctly “male” or “female”), and easily determinable through scientific observation. See also heterosexualism and gender binary.

The term third gender refers to people who do not fit into these binary categories of “man”/“male” or “woman”/“female.” It applies to contexts in which a particular culture or society has recognized and/or continues to recognize gender formations beyond the gender/sex binary, despite colonial efforts to impose this binary while denying and suppressing other formations. As summarized by Lugones, the term third gender does not mean that there are exactly three genders (that is, “man,” “woman,” and one other). Rather, it critiques the gender binary and its colonial imposition by asserting that there have been and continue to be alternative ways of thinking about gender and sex.

Valladolid debate

In 1550, Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire called for the Council of the Indies (the governing body which oversaw Spanish affairs in the Americas) to gather theologians and jurists at Valladolid to discuss the morality of Spanish conquests in the Americas. The resulting Valladolid debate was the first official moral/theological debate in which Europeans discussed the rights and treatments of Indigenous peoples by European colonizers.

The primary representatives of the two sides of the debate were Bartolomé de las Casas, who argued that the conquests were immoral (and thus jeopardized the salvation of European colonizers and their supporters) and should be stopped, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that the conquests were morally necessary for spreading Christianity. Sepúlveda, drawing from the philosophy of Aristotle, argued that some people were “natural slaves” and irrational, and must therefore be forcibly converted to Christianity and European cultural norms. Las Casas, a Dominican friar drawing primarily from the theology of Thomas Aquinas, asserted that all people are made equally in the image of God, and that therefore the Indigenous peoples possessed reason and an inherent right to freedom. The debates of 1550-1551 did not have a clear resolution, and as the Council of the Indies continued to collect opinions years later, both Sepúlveda and Las Casas claimed to have won. (Bartolomé de las Casas and the Defense of Amerindian Rights: A Brief History with Documents, Introduction, especially pages 18–21.) For CM essays that discuss this debate see Mayra Rivera’s reflections on embodiment and decoloniality as well as Santiago Slabosky’s critique of the Eurocentricity philosophical discourse in the academy.

zombie nationalism

Jason A. Springs coined the term zombie nationalism to describe the “persistently recurring dynamic, pattern, and logic … by which White evangelical ethno-religious nationalism has asserted and reasserted itself across recent decades.” In a Contending Modernities blog series on zombie nationalism, Springs analyzes the political and religious ideologies of White Christian evangelical nationalism in the United States through attention to its distinctive theological commitments, conservative sexual politics, and patterns of resurgence from the 1960s to the present.


Victoria Basug Slabinski
Victoria Basug Slabinski is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Virginia, with a graduate certificate in American studies. Her work draws Christian theology into conversation with decolonial thought and explores constructive Filipino American theologies, focusing especially on questions of memory, ancestrality, narrative, and aesthetics. Her research interests include decolonial and postcolonial thought, Christian liberation theologies and eschatology, gender and sexuality studies, and constructive readings of literature and the arts.
Joshua S. Lupo
Joshua S. Lupo is the Assistant Director of the Contending Modernities research initiative. In this role, he serves as the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Sophia, Soundings, Critical Muslim, Reading Religion, and Religious Studies Review. With CM Co-Director Atalia Omer, he is the co-editor of Broken Solidarities: Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism (Notre Dame Press, 2022) and Religion, Populism, and Modernity: Confronting White Christian Nationalism and Racism  (Notre Dame Press, 2023). His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.