Humanism, Asylum, and Non-Religious Literacy

I must be getting overexcited, my third post today! (A bit like London buses aren’t they!). Anyway, this is done for the website of one of my publisher’s looking at a recent case of a man denied asylum and so facing deportation from the UK back to Pakistan where he has received death threats from:

Posted in Freedom of Religion and Belief (Human Rights), Interreligious Studies, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Culture, Religion and Politics, Religion and Violence, UK | Leave a comment

Countering the Far-Right

A short piece in the RSIS Commentary series I have written on the militant far-right and especially its opposition to Islam. Focusing on the UK, but with a global perspective across Europe and the USA in particular:

Posted in Freedom of Religion and Belief (Human Rights), Interreligious Studies, Religion and Politics, Religion and Violence, UK | Leave a comment

Religious and Non-Religious Dialogue in the Public Sphere: What We may learn from Habermas, Leirvik, and others

Attached here is a link to a paper that came out last year in Interreligious Insight. It was written partly because I needed something like this for my students, and so a pedagogical tool. But also it concerns my continuing thoughts around the religious-atheist dialogue and relationship. I hope you enjoy.

Posted in Freedom of Religion and Belief (Human Rights), Interreligious Studies, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Politics | Leave a comment

Decolonising the Study of Religion (in Relation to the Social and Human Sciences)

Decolonising the Study of Religion (and the Social Sciences and Humanities)

A Context

Over the past two days (7 and 8 March 2018), I have been attending the “Decolonising the Social Sciences in the Era of Internationalised Education” workshop (DSSW) held by the Singapore programme of the University of Liverpool at their base in SIT, Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore.

I should note, though, this paper is not intended in any way as a report on that event nor as fully representing it. I am using it, and thoughts it inspired in me, to talk about problems in my own domain: the study of religions.

The first day was given over to two keynotes:

Professor Syed Farid Alatas who, following his father’s footsteps (Syed Hussein Alatas, author of The Myth of the Lazy Native) as a sociologist concerned with the “colonisation of the mind” amongst other issues, continues the battle. In particular, his work on Ibn Khaldun is seeking an alternative to the Western canon of sociology, and he has written both a book and articles on this.

Professor (Onwu)Biko Agozino meanwhile argued strongly for a number of issues. One of these is committed objectivity, which he sees as countering the claimed Western white objectivity of much social science and sees the scholar-activist as an imperative role in a decolonised scholarship. Also, he has discussed the contributions that Black and Africana thought have made to scholarship and thinkers, but which ae routinely ignored in Western mainstream scholarship. He also discussed criminology which is his field, including the argument for legalising marijuana (not, I should note, in the Singapore context which would be controversial, but with respect especially to the UK which sees apparently almost all black women in custody for this).

The second day was given over to group discussions on two themes:

Firstly, the general issues and problems about the social sciences being colonised. This ranged from areas such as how it arises and is perpetuated, to the fact that as a discipline it is a product of colonial thinking.

Second, what can we do about this? What measures can we take, what action can be taken? How do we decolonise the curriculum, the canon, etc. It looked both more theoretically and practically at the issues.

Across the two days about one hundred and fifty people, hailing from five continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and North America were present), which really helped contribute to the wideness of the debates and discussions.

One idea that emerged was setting up a listserve or similar related to decolonising the social sciences, and also setting up a trans-continental network.

The Study of Religions: The Field(s)

However, I would like to extend the thoughts from here to some thoughts on my own disciplinary areas, which I can list as threefold: religious studies, theological studies, interreligious studies.

First, a bit of definitional discipline drawing because these may mean different things to different people. Also, these definitions are not intended to be absolutes that cover the way these are understood everywhere, but rather simply for the purposes of talking here. (I recognise also that some of the terminology, e.g. secular, is contested and problematic, but I hope my readers will take these as terms as placeholders here to aid understanding.)

Religious Studies (RS): the broadly non-confessional and secular discipline of studying the traditions to which we have ascribed the name religion, but also including today traditions of non-religion. It tends to be multidisciplinary and so is variously historical, textual, philosophical, sociological, etc., and more recently as well has theory from critical, feminist, postcolonial, LGBT, etc. lenses.

Theological Studies (TS): broadly study that academically engages Christian theology and traditions, which may be both more or less confessional (and so merges at one side into Religious Studies, as defined here, and at another into confessional or ecclesial practices of theology). However, it attends to scholarly practices and norms and so is an academic activity.

Interreligious Studies (IRS): a more recent neologism concerned with the way that traditions/ religions are inextricably bound together and interrelated, especially in contemporary and diverse societies. It is inherently interdisciplinary because it recognises that the phenomena we term “religion” cannot be understood from a single standpoint or perspective. It also sees the writing of scholarship and the doing of research as inseparable from the inscription of social relations and formation of power relations within society. As such, it does not recognise an absolute separation of the scholarly domain or practice from such things as activism, theological enterprises, etc. While not essential to its practice therefore many scholars involved are also scholar-activists. It rests in no disciplinary home but has practitioners who identify primarily as sociologists, historians, religious studies scholars, theologians, post-colonial or feminist scholars, and others. I find that it is strongly resisted by traditions of patriarchal and white-supremacist scholarship (not that opponents may be anti-feminist or racist themselves, individually they may even oppose such things, however, they are wedded to the structural norms of scholarship embedded in patriarchal, white, elitist systems, however critical or radical they may imagine this to be). I should also note that some Religious Studies scholars have said to me that they cannot see a distinction between how they understand RS and IRS, so it is partly a strategic term, but for clarity: RS tends to be multidisciplinary, IRS tends to interdisciplinarity; RS tends to treat or study religions in isolation (one is a scholar of Hinduism or Buddhism, etc.), IRS tends to look at the interactions between them; RS tends to see itself as different from TS, IRS tends to see itself as potentially including both as well as folk from other areas; IRS also has a strong focus or interest (critically and analytically) on such things as interreligious dialogue, relations, and encounters and social cohesion.

The Study of Religion and Decolonisation

So a few broad brushstrokes first. When it comes to RS it tends to do quite well on parameters that university administrators look at when talking about diversifying or decolonising curricula: it looks beyond Europe and America, e.g. if you study Hinduism then India is covered, for Buddhism, East, Northeast, South, Central, and Southeast Asia probably get a look in, etc. However, from a more critical standpoint this is hardly decolonising the curricula nor discipline. White, and normally middle-class male, scholars talk about the rest of the world and define how we see it. I assume most readers are familiar with the general issues of orientalism in the curriculum, and also how RS may be seen to grow as part of the apparatus of empire and imperialism in which the world and its “objects of study” are determined, classified, and subjected to regimes of knowledge. Of course, in many fields, the canon is also almost entirely white, male, and dead, and as Alatas mentioned typically from three countries: the UK, USA, and France (though we may want to add Germany at least, but doesn’t change the point).

TS tends to be slightly worse. The typical concern is with what has been mainstream Christianity as seen from the lens of Europe. So, Christianity is defined by Protestant-Catholicism. So Christianity is understood as European and to have spread with colonialism. The canon is also equally white and dead and male. Of course if we go further back it is full of Africans and people from Asia Minor and beyond, however, they are not normally read as part of this. Augustine of Hippo for instance, is not seen as a North African Christian, but as part of the Latin tradition of the Roman Church (to put it crudely); this has some truth of course, the more “indigenous” African Christians were the ones he decided should be killed (again, somewhat crudely, but with at least a strong grain of truth!). In my old university, I did institute a Global Christianity module but such efforts are few and far between (and I understand has disappeared off the curricula since I left). There are, of course, those who do postcolonial theology, intercultural theology, comparative theology, etc. who I suggest are often much more alert to these issues. Indeed, they tend to be more decolonised than in their thinking than RS colleagues because the reading list will include the Christian thinkers of Asia, Africa, Latin America and beyond as partners in dialogue and conversation. It remains, though, in TS a “contextual” issue often generally seen as a minority interest, while things such as Comparative Theology also tend to fail the subaltern.

IRS on the whole is full of people, in my experience, very alert to the postcolonial and decolonial context. Indeed, my awareness and understanding of this has moved on in leaps and bounds because of some of them. In writing this, I am certainly not claiming to be somehow the person at the cutting edge and pushing this forward, and am more than aware of my own lack of engagement with this in many ways. However, the realities of academia mean, again, that it is far from a decolonised field. The work is mainly done in a north-western European and American context, by scholars who are predominantly white and middle-class – it could be my perception but it tends to have a higher (though certainly not yet gender-balanced) proportion of female scholars. (Certainly, when I think about the scholars I admire in the field many are women, and while an older generation of patriarchs are there in the literature, we are also I hope creating a group of matriarchs – not sure they will like that term!)

Why Can’t Academia Decolonise?

Linking back to the DSSW, many issues in social science actually map on quite closely to problems in RS, TS, and IRS. Indeed, a range of wider issues in the humanities in relation to the modern (neo-liberal) “corporate university” could be raised. So without attempting to be comprehensive let’s list some:

A. The academic centres of power are mainly Western and preserve systems and formats of production that reinforce this.

i. Elite universities – where people want to be or study are almost entirely Western (the current author sits at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, which according to the last QS ranking is no. 11 in the world (50-odd according to the Times Higher) and so I am well aware of Asia’s rise, but this is mainly because we are playing a Western game very well).

ii. Journals and publishers – the top ones are all basically Western, with editorial boards that reflect this (it probably isn’t helped when white European scholars in Asia universities like me are on them because it can make them seem to be including a global and international line-up which is far less diverse than it looks – so am I part of the problem?). We may also mention the paywalls which also step people from less wealthy parts of the world getting access because their university can’t afford it.

iii. The canon of writers you need to know and cite to be doing the correct type of work remains the DWEM (dead, white, European, males). Doing postcolonial or decolonial work, in most of the Western elite systems is maybe, at best, a side issue for a few interested individuals. It also means your work won’t get published in some of the places that matter in terms of the elite journals, etc.

B. Standard scholarship is not interested, or actively opposes decolonisation.

i. This partly links from the points above, especially A.iii. Very often the most that could be hoped for is that a token woman or person of colour gets added to the canon. As long as most scholars remain wedded to a system then it is hard to change, and it perpetuates the system itself. To become a scholar you need to be trained through the current system and canons, as such your methods and training will reflect these modes of knowing, and so by the time you get to being somewhere who can change things you may be embedded into a comfort zone of who is referenced and how it is done. Agozino did, however, make a good point about this. Because scholarship is about being original and innovative – it’s what you get a PhD for – there remains the possibility of change because the system encourages people to be critical of existing forms of knowing and thinking.

ii. The west remains the norm. As long as we keep to current practices, whatever scholarship arises from elsewhere remains essential aspects of “local theory”. Only when Western scholarship is “de-centred” can we reach parity. However, as noted powerful systems prevent this, and it is not in the interests of those at the top (or trying to reach the top) to change that top, because others may get their first, your climb may be wasted, etc.).

C. Systems of Dissemination

i. Where are the conferences? As long as the major conferences persist in North America and Europe (and certain countries in each) they remain often inaccessible to scholars from the West/ Global South/ Two-Thirds World/ Developing countries (or however we wish to term it). This is cost, visas, and simple accessibility. However, another issue was raised that organising outside this realm doesn’t always help because as one person noted they found a huge logistical problem because (due to global capital, etc.) there are no direct flights from Africa to South America, so delegates from one to the other would need to take the longer and more expensive route of going via Europe or North America.

ii. Who controls the research funds? Similar to the previous point, about who gets access to these which are often needed for conferences or major research projects. His then affects possibilities for recognition, tenure, hiring, etc.

D. The continuing subalterns.

i. African Studies: Despite the way that Asia features highly on the RS, TS, and IRS agenda, some places such as Africa are simply not so well represented. Where are the courses and books on African religions, etc.? Indeed, a lot of the literature which does exist on what may broadly be termed “Black religion” is primarily about the USA or other places, so people of African descent in the diaspora, ignoring a whole continent. South America is also under-represented, though I am aware of increasing scholarship from and about there, more so than Africa at least. It does remain an issue though, particularly in TS where one continues to hear Anglophone scholars (ok, I am one) continuing to declare Liberation Theology to be dead, but mainly because they don’t speak Spanish or it is no longer new and fashionable enough to be translated into English.

ii. Tribal and indigenous systems: again, vastly underrepresented, because people focus on the “great traditions”, the “world religions”, etc. OK, numerically this makes sense, and for those of us who teach students who may well go on to become teachers we do have to have courses on the “big 5/6” (or whatever) simply to make them employable. Systems again.

iii. Decolonialism and related agendas: I have made this point already, at least implicitly, but worth repeating. It is not the concern of many traditionally trained and elite scholars. Indeed, even critical scholars who critique the tradition and mainstream may not really be on board. Critical studies relies on a primarily white (and male) European canon. I have also seen white scholars from the West citing other white scholars from the West about the need to be postcolonial, or do decolonisation (which often means a way to argue with and criticise other white scholars – indeed, I am going to do this below!). How do we really do decolonisation of the discipline is a question yet to be asked!

So, these are but some the problems. Are there any solutions?

Any Answers?

Certainly a two-day workshop is not going to set the world to rights. However, I would like to mention some things which were mentioned, what others have done, and also a few things I have tried to do:

  • Ibn Khaldun and the Canon: As mentioned, Alatas and others have tried to decolonise the curriculum by using scholarship from outside the white Western world. His method has been to use the Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun as a theorist of sociology. As such, we change the pattern whereby the West is the centre of theory, so we do not see patterns of theory as Western, and the rest of the world simply being the place that this theory is applied. In similar vein to Alatas, I have a paper in progress that looks at the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna as a theorist, specifically in hermeneutics and interpretation, who can help us see things that Western scholarship can’t. Two dangers lurk here, however. One is that this just becomes a local bit of colour to a dominant Western canon. Two, we simply add dominant men from elsewhere (because they were the ones who could write in the main) to a patriarchal cannon. Certainly gender cannot be ignored. Extending from this, as well, is class, because of course it is the elite groups who from the past till today who have most been able to get educated and become “theorists”. All these dynamics needs attention. These are steps rather than a solution.
  • Attention to Africana/ Black Studies: here I have to absolutely say mea culpa. I rarely read, cite, or consider work on Africa compared to my interests in Asia and elsewhere. This as noted is an issue. However, I am very much inspired by some of Agozino’s work – here being in the interdisciplinary IRS realm works because it makes sense for me to add a criminologist and Africana Studies perspective to what I do. However, beyond this, Agozino’s contributions to the DSSW also helped me see how and what Africana/ Black Studies has done and theorised can help many other fields too. Alatas has suggested it as a good model for Malay Studies for one. It sees scholar-activism as essential. It argues such as race-class-gender are interlinked. (This often goes by the term “intersectionality”, but I think that can be a problematic term now for reasons I won’t go into here.) Moreover, while seeking a voice for African scholars past and present, and resurfacing African history and practice as important, it does not reject nor demonise what can be seen as colonial or white scholarship per se. What colonisers and white scholars have said can be valid, but it can also be criticised, especially in as far as it has been orientalist or perpetrated support for systems of oppression.
  • Inclusive practices: do we seek to bring scholars from all places and standpoints into our work? While far from being ideal in what was achieved, when I had the opportunity to edit a major three-volume reference work Controversies in Contemporary Religion, I sought to make it as inclusive as I could. I collected an editorial advisory board which, with myself, represented six continents, and amongst the authors I aimed for gender equality across the board as well as seeking writers and perspectives from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Australasia. I failed. Despite asking quite a number of African scholars I could not find a single one willing or able to write. As such, Africa was represented only on the advisory board, and in writing primarily by a European. I did though with great efforts succeed, more or less, on the gender equality. Yet, it was still a mainly European-American book. This points to some of the structural issues mentioned above and discussed at DSSW. In some parts of the world, teaching expectations or commitments can make publication less important or simply impossible given time constraints. This then impacts how places are perceived vis-à-vis global ranking perceptions, etc.
  • Changing practices: one thing I have not mentioned yet, but was part of the DSSW debate was some problematic terms like “West”, “Europe”, or “North America”. Obviously the European scholarly dominance applies mainly to certain places, which we have briefly mentioned: the UK, France, and Germanic speaking countries are the norms or dominant modes of scholarship. The low countries and Scandinavia are also part of this general dominant field (though within particular fields a pecking order amongst these). Australia and then (lower down) New Zealand are also somewhat neglected parts of the broad West. North America, of course, means primarily the USA and then Canada. Southern and Eastern Europe are not part of the dominant global European model, and certainly in many ways scholars from there are even lower down the scale of dominance than many from Asia or elsewhere. What has this got to do with changing practices? One thing an organisation I belong to has done, ESITIS (the European Society for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies), to try and help change its perception as a North-Eastern European society is to hold its biannual meetings in Turkey, Spain, and Poland (and the next is planned for the Balkans), as such moving from the centre to the periphery of Europe. While we mentioned above that conferences in the “Global South” may have logistical problems, there are still options that may work. When will the AAR/ SBL (American Academy of Religion) hold a meeting in Mexico, for instance?
  • Becoming attentive: as discussed above, I think a lot of scholars really have little idea or even little interest in seeing quite how white and colonial their standpoints are. Even many of those who think of themselves as quite radical or aware are also often embedded in quite problematic modes of thought. I certainly include myself in this. As noted, Black and African Studies have really been somewhat off my radar (as a UK scholar with an interest in Asia, my work of inclusion has often been to bring in voices of women and men from those traditions). I have noted also my failure to get this covered in my Controversies book, though I did perhaps somewhat atone for this with two chapters on Africa in a later book, Contemporary Muslim-Christian Encounters. I am also including related perspectives in a textbook for theory and method I am currently working on and is due out next year (working title: Understanding Religion). Agozino’s work on Africana Studies is also going to get referenced into various things I am currently working on. My point here is simply about the lacunae which we have because we focus, almost of necessity in academic, only on certain topics, themes, or areas. However, we may also discover other gaps in our work. As somebody in IRS, I tended to think I was quite alert to issues in the Jewish-Christian context, however, reading some work by Amy Jill-Levine made me realise that I still had more to learn. Moreover, simply by being in contact with colleagues and friends in Singapore, has further opened my eyes; indeed, a good example of our positionality affecting what we see. In particular, a recent non-academic (though informed by RS scholarship) book I wrote Towards Better Disagreement: Religion and Atheism in Dialogue benefitted enormously thanks to the critical reading by my colleague and friend Imran who, despite me thinking it was relatively inclusive, noting that many would read it as still an essentially Western colonial piece of work because it was mainly from and about Western issues (it still is, I must say – I make it clear that it is written into that context – but I hope now with more awareness and inclusion of people and contexts beyond that). I would note though that I have also been criticised in some review of my work for not talking enough about the UK and the USA (primarily the latter it must be said) – being told that they are my readers and I must relate to them brings back the whole idea about how we need to bring decolonization perspectives in everywhere!

My Beef with Critical Religion

During the DSSW, both Alatas and Agozino mentioned that critical theory and critical scholarship approaches are essential tools in decolonising work. They help to de-mask regimes of power, show the imbrication of what passes as neutral interpretation and the agendas behind it, and show how all description and classification works to privilege or delegitimise certain worldviews of perspectives. Why then do I have a worry about much of the critical scholarship in the study of religion, including what is often termed critical religion, and also the agenda to historicise the term religion itself?

Before going off on that tack, however, I should perhaps make clear that what I am saying here is in no way meant as an attack on any person nor their scholarship per se. My experience of raising some of these issues with some of those associated with these ideas is to either take it as a personal attack, or simply to come back with personal attacks on the moral character, intellectual capacity, integrity and agenda, or whatever of the person raising the criticisms. I am hoping that we can clear the air and simply try and see what is being discussed.

I should also mention that it is not an attack on critical theory either. I use it, I teach it to my students, and it will also underpin what I am doing here. Using critical theory to look at the application and use of critical theory. OK?

Also, this is not about everyone who sees themselves doing work on, or related to, critical religion. It is about some particular trends and ways of thinking within it. As such, more about some authors and their work than others. As I have argued elsewhere, I think myself and others work overlaps and agrees with quite a bit of critical religion scholarship in various ways. So it is not that anything called “critical religion” is bad per se; I am using this as a way to capture something I hope my readers will recognise.

Also, this is simply airing some thoughts that I am developing, and is not a full argument on these lines. For practical institution/ professional reasons I will reserve that for a more scholarly venue (i.e. if I make this an article it can count towards tenure, my yearly review, etc. rather than simply being my blog piece). However, I would like to put these thoughts out there. OK, that’s enough caveats and waffle, so down to business.

What passes for current critical religion (to broadly term a range of stuff often associated with a non-realist approach), relies upon a lineage of thinkers that are almost entirely white, male, dead, and European. This is not in itself bad. As noted, Africana Studies says we can take what is good from even colonial and orientalist scholars. Also, as noted, I will also take stuff from these people. Just to state who we’re thinking about, it’s a lineage that may include (variously): Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Husserl, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Lyotard, Bourdieu, Butler, and others. More particularly, it is many of the later writers who are often associated with trends of thought sometimes termed “postmodern” (a term I don’t want to get into here, and isn’t needed for what follows, but may help some readers as a marker of trends in intellectual thought).

The lines of thought coming from here have been adopted by a range of thinkers who have been critical of the concept “religion” declaring it an imagined part of the scholarly apparatus, an “empty signifier”, merely a part of “culture” that is arbitrarily pared off. I won’t go through the arguments pro and con such a standpoint here, because it is well rehearsed in the literature. Basically, though, the argument goes that Western colonial interests imposed a Christian, or more specifically Protestant, set of norms on other traditions arranging the world and thereby created what we term “religions” today. As such, critical religion supposedly acts as a de-colonising force that criticises Western, Christian hegemonic and colonial scholarship that supposes that “religion” actually exists. Alongside this, it is argued the various “religions” are also Western scholarly creations which have been imagined, so Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, etc. simply didn’t exist before Westerners decided to invent them.

Therefore, part of the task of critical religion today is to de-mask the façade that has Hindus believing that they belong to something called Hinduism, and to teach Buddhists that what they imagine Buddhism to be is simply made up by Westerners and is not their tradition. I imagine that various decolonial scholars will be at the very least starting to raise their eyebrows at this stage. Meanwhile, the more alert critical religion scholars will also be saying: “Hang on, it’s not like that! We’re the good guys here. Its people who want to tell these people they belong to “religions” that Westerners created who are the bad guys.” (Some may say that this brings in a “moral” angle which is not part of critical scholarship, but seeing as critical religion scholars have told me I am morally complicit in oppression for disagreeing with them it is clearly language they feel able to use when it suits their purposes – though maybe not true of all, but hence its use here).

Decolonising the Historicisation of Religion

However, let’s review a few facts in scholarship. (I know, how passé, believing in facts when “real” scholars know everything is just an interpretation – but I may get on to that in a minute: suffice it to note here that feminist scholars and scholars of colour are pretty sure oppression is a “fact” and a “reality”, despite what white male “critical scholars” like to tell them about not understanding the world correctly because there are no facts only interpretations (odd how easy it is to think that when you’re white, male, middle-classed, and privileged?).) First, one of the key elements in the Western creation/ imagination of “religion” has been the phenomenon of Hinduism. Fashionable “post-modern” (remember this is just a lose marker for us) scholarship which argued that Hinduism never existed before the West created it has largely been debunked. Yes, there wasn’t a name for a single system such as it is “imagined” today. However, the structured systems that scholars have described in this way, did exist, and which in indigenous systems of knowledge demarcated themselves from Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam (an excellent summation of some of this is discussed by Will Sweetman in a recent RSP (Religious Studies Project) podcast).

It can provide us with a few pointers here as to the problem:

  • Agency is solely attributed to Westerners/ Western theory/ scholars.
  • Indigenous ways of knowing and thinking are delegitimised or ignored.
  • Asians/ Hindus who bought into being “Hindus”, helped created “Hinduism”, maintained this system were told, and are still told today, that they are entirely subject to some form of false consciousness (they only believe this because of the West).
  • Once again, white Western (and mainly male) scholars are needed to “save” non-white people.

We can look at this again through the wider lens of “religion”. There are forms and ways of knowing in India, China and elsewhere that can legitimately be seen as equating in some ways to what equates to the Western term “religion” – and I do not mean recent neologisms like the Chinese/ Japanese “zongjiao” which is often taken as evidence that they didn’t have a term and so had to create one. It also doesn’t mean that terms like the Arabic dīn or Sanskrit dharma simply means the same as religion – they don’t. However, forms of classification of those traditions we have termed “religions” did exist through various means. In different ways, certainly, but in comparable ways. However, because a certain Western ideology is deemed the only acceptable form of knowledge, this is not acceptable evidence for critical religion. Indigenous knowledge or theory is not deemed to be knowledge or theory. This seems only to exist in the West, as noted.

As such, the critical ways of thinking can be applied in ways that support and maintain white Western patriarchal hegemony. Critical theory is not inherently progressive nor liberative. Indeed, we have seen it recently employed by the alt-right as a tool which shows this. I would put this down to problematic ways of employing it. Indeed, here we come again to the importance of decolonial, postcolonial, feminist, Marxist and other stances, because without the standpoint of feminist, class, and African and other perspectives and studies critical theory readily becomes a tool of systematic oppression and hegemonic repression. Indeed, it is just a tool that must be underpinned by justice and a rejection of suppression – which of course traditional white patriarchal scholar rejects for not being “objective”. (Just as a note, some may argue here that certain non-white or male scholars are sometimes quoted in the deconstruction of religion, or may even be involved with critical religion/ non-realism projects, however, this is entirely not pertinent as I am talking about structural issues as should be clear.)

This, I believe, is also why many in critical theory also reject the concept of the scholar-activist because they remain within a structural system that supports a patriarchal and white hegemonic way of doing scholarship. As noted, many individual scholars may oppose these things. Indeed, the kind of scholars who are drawn to critical studies probably are themselves ant-racist, pro-feminist, pro-LGBT, anti-class discrimination, etc. in their thoughts. But structurally this is not the way their scholarship works.

Now, these are my thoughts on this, and I hope I may be wrong about it. I nevertheless find myself increasingly seeing and experience forms and practices that have brought me to this conclusion. I argue some of these points at length elsewhere in papers which, with luck and perseverance, will hopefully be emerging in the not too distant future. I also suspect that some of those who may see their work criticised here (I haven’t mentioned names but we can probably all think of some folks who may be spoken of), actually agree with me on some of the issues I have raised in this blog. Decolonisation may be a big concern for them too. As such, I hope for productive discussions around the issue, rather than diatribe and rhetoric. Constructive criticism about how we can all see things better is what I hope I am engaging in, and I hope will be the response.

In Conclusion?

This is already kind of crazy long for a blog, so I will keep my thoughts here brief and go for a few bullet points to sum up:

  • Similar concerns for decolonisation arise in the social sciences as in studies in religion.
  • Structural matters in academia mitigate against decolonisation efforts.
  • Why do we keep forgetting Africa (and other stuff)?
  • Some practices by scholars and organisations, as well as aspects of academic practice, may be steps to moves towards decolonisation.
  • Critical theory, while a tool of decolonisation, can also work against decolonisation, which I see exemplified in some in some aspects of critical religion.
  • IRS is cool but needs more decolonisation work.
  • I have left some strands hanging or points unanswered, but hey it only a blog and it’s too long anyway, so don’t beat me up about it.
  • I hope those invested in decolonisation can move forward with constructive criticism where they disagree with each other.


Posted in Decolonisation (and post-colonialism), Deconstructing Religion, Interreligious Studies, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Culture | Leave a comment

Interview on Contemporary Muslim-Christian Relations

Last year in Boston, at the American Academy of Religion annual conference, I was interviewed by one of the Reading Religion team about my recent book Contemporary Muslim-Christian Encounters. You can read the script of the interview here on their site:

Posted in Interreligious Studies, Islam, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Politics, Religion and Violence, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Religion, State, and Society in Singapore: A Partial Bibliography

Bibliography Religion State Society Singapore

This is a list primarily prepared as an aid to my students, but I hope of use more widely. The background to it is below, while it is also in the document which includes the reading list.

Introduction to this List

Compared to some countries, literature on the relationship between religion, society, and the state in Singapore is relatively sparse. This is not, in and of itself, necessarily surprising. Singapore is both a new and small country, more a city state than anything else. Furthermore, as there has historically been no specialisation in the study of religion within its universities, academics with such interests will also be few in number.[1] Religion has also been seen as a somewhat controversial area, and so one that many see as best avoided in discussion, and perhaps also research. Nevertheless, there is a growing literature in this area, some main aspects of which are noted below.

This survey is not intended to be comprehensive nor definitive, and is mainly put together as an aid to my students who work on issues relating to religion in society and want to do research on Singapore. It picks up works on areas that often come up as matters of interest, as well as other works that seem to me to be important in exploring the nexus of religion, state, society, and politics. The focus is on recent and contemporary issues, rather than historical ones.

The list while mainly focused on the nexus with religion also includes some essays which are more explicitly about governance, law, or education in Singapore, but that is because they are useful to understand the context, and also because these issues are often related (one may say conflated, or intimately inseparable as distinct spheres). It also includes some works focusing only on religious practices rather than the wider context of society, state, and politics.

I include a few annotations in notes for some texts.

As already noted, this list is just a jump off point for those who wish to go further in exploring these questions. It no doubt also reflects the biases and blind spots of the compiler, and I welcome suggestions for items missed or expansions to the list.

This initial list was compiled in February 2018. Paul Hedges, SRP, RSIS, NTU, Singapore.

[1] The National University of Singapore (NUS), formerly Singapore University, was founded as a secular institution and like many such modern foundations did not have a place for the study of religion as a distinct discipline. Meanwhile Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which incorporated two previous institutions, was founded as and remains a primarily engineering and science focused institution, though it now has a substantial College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Newer universities, such as Singapore Management University, are again secular with foci elsewhere. But this is not to say that the study of religion does not exist, but it has mainly been very much the case of individual interests of academics in fields such as sociology, Malay studies, philosophy, history, geography, etc. This has come together as a Minor in the Bachelor’s degree programmes at NUS. While the Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP), at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, has been the first research group specifically focused on religion in Singapore’s public universities, but its teaching is only at graduate level and remains a small and new programme, launched only in 2014. Comparative religion is also an area of teaching at the new Yale-NUS liberal arts campus. In addition to the universities, there are some faith based institutes of higher learning, perhaps most notably Trinity Theological College which was founded as an Anglican institute but is now an ecumenical Protestant seminary, and the MUIS Academy of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). Scholars from both, as well as independent scholars and those from other institutions, have interests in the areas reviewed here.


Posted in Freedom of Religion and Belief (Human Rights), Interreligious Studies, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Culture, Religion and Politics, SRP, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So, Is There a Jedi Religion? And Other Musings on Star War: The Last Jedi – What Religious Studies Can Tell Us


Jedis and Religion?

Anyone who has seen the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi (warning: spoilers) may have noticed a very direct statement by Luke referring to what he called “the Jedi religion”. This phrase is perhaps the most explicit statement relating the force and the Jedi Order to “religion”. While what we may term forms of organised religion are largely absent – if by this we mean forms and traditions of worship and devotion to deities and the institutional paraphernalia associated with that – many have seen religious themes as present throughout the films. Certainly, the Jedi order and references to the force have been seen from the earliest films as somewhat akin to religious phenomena.

This is obviously the place for the Religious Studies scholar to stick their nose in and point out that the term “religion” is neither nearly so clear nor simple as might be supposed. This blogpost is not to place to rehearse the dozens of learned books and articles which have debated whether the term “religion” is meaningful at all, but we need to be alert to some problems with the usage of the term.

First off, let’s leave the films aside and look at real life and those people who see themselves as following the Jedi religion around the world today. We simply have very little real idea of numbers of adherents to such a thing, however, there are people studying the ways religions develop from fiction. In recent censuses, in the UK and elsewhere, a fair few people have inserted “Jedi” under the category “religion” when asked to identify their affiliation it seems likely that this is often done as a joke or as a type of non-religious objection to this question. So far, to be best of my knowledge, no countries have officially (legally) recognised it as a religion. However, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere censuses now feature “Jedi Church” or Jediism as a census option, and it may only be time before you can have it officially recognised as your religion. This question relates to one important part of the classification which is the legal/ governmental side of the equation: what is or is not officially regarded as a religion in any state or polity. Generally, this has institutional significance because being recognised as a “religion” comes with tax breaks, rights to propagation, and other benefits. However, it is far from being the only way people seek to identify “religions”. By way of analogy, in many countries tomatoes are classified as vegetables for taxation purposes, but scientists still recognise them as technically being fruit – legal and technical or usage (in this case culinary purposes) may not align.

The kind of issues noted above can leave some to describe “religion” as an “empty signifier” meaning that it is an essentially meaningless term which anybody can ascribe any content they wish to. Indeed, we see disputes as to whether Buddhism and Confucianism are religions or philosophies, whether Christianity is a religion (or the definitive religion) or a relationship (a popular answer for evangelicals), and whether Hinduism is a single religion or rather of a variety of different traditions falsely labelled as a single religion, or perhaps some suggest it is more than a religion being a culture or way of life. While most people, if asked, could typically reel of a list of those things we think of as religions (or are society typically understands as religions) such as Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, etc., etc., it is not quite so simple as noted. There is not a single universally recognised definition of what a religion is, and therefore conversely what it is not.

This brings us back to Luke’s phrase in The Last Jedi, and what he meant by “the Jedi religion”? Clearly it is not about belief in a God, but many things we typically call religions don’t have this. The force seems to operate as what we may term the transmundane or transcendent or supernatural force which is the “real/ divine/ ultimate” in this tradition. There are also the celibate monk-like members of the Jedi Order with rules and codes governing their way of life and a training programme with initiations. Again, this looks a lot like the stuff we typically call religions. They even speak of having “temples”, again another word we associate with religious institutions. Meanwhile Luke is seeking to protect the “scriptures”: the “sacred” texts of the Jedis and which he seems to see as foundational, which again resonates with our association of “religions” as having books which form their basis. However, none of this are simple descriptors of a “religion”. Indeed, the problems with the phrase lead many to assume, as noted, that it is an “empty signifier”, and that simply some “folk” sense of what religion is passes for analytic description. So, if we are not sure what is a religion and what is not should we attach any significance to looks phrases and similarities between what we typically see as “religions” and what we find in the film version of what we are now told is the “Jedi religion”.


This is not the place to discuss the arguments in any detail, but I and other scholars have argued (quite convincingly I think) that those who say “religion” is an entirely meaningless, non-academic term have overplayed their hand. It is not simply an “empty signifier”: we actually get a fair sense of what people mean when they use it. While those things we today call “religions” have been relating together as interrelated spheres of thought throughout history. Put simply if the Jedi had post offices instead of temples it would be pretty weird, while nobody goes into the greengrocers or supermarkets to offer prayers to the deity enshrined in them (although we could argue that we do treat commercialism as an all-powerful belief system, and capitalism certainly does have “religious traits” – but that is an argument for another day and which I explore elsewhere). Further, to say such things are imaginary is to ignore what has been termed the social reality of religions. People belong to (or we could say claim to belong to) particular religions, shape their life in accordance to them (or the teachings, practices, etc. that the tradition they relate to enjoins upon them), etc. Religion is not simply a random “empty signifier” that anyone can fill anyway they like and which is part of only a scholarly imagination (though some have argued this).

Of course, saying the religion is a useful term to refer to social realities in the world doesn’t mean we ignore the power dynamics behind who gets to decide what is or is not a religion, nor the grey areas where we see things which may or may not fit within what we mean by the term (which varies both geographically and historically). Nevertheless, like many other “contested concepts” (on how this term relates to religion, see here) which we struggle to adequately define like philosophy, politics, social justice, environmentalism, etc. claiming it doesn’t exist or means nothing is hardly helpful either. Every word has a history or how it came to be, what it means, and how it has been used (and abused), and the interrelated sets of vocabulary to which it relates.

With this in mind, we can though ask more carefully questions such as why the film makers decided to employ this term within the film: what it will mean to the audience, how it will relate to the rest of the Star Wars universe and mythology, what exactly Luke is referring to by it, etc. It is not that the word has been uttered and we can now identify another “religion”. Rather, we can ask a whole set of questions more clearly and carefully about what is going on when this word is uttered.

I know that, no doubt, other scholars would wish to spin it differently and give different questions. So please don’t take these thoughts as reflective of a “Religious Studies” approach (there is no single approach), but rather one way that one scholar of religion may wish to think about it. (To note, arguments around what the term “religion” means are very heated right now and during 2018 two academic journals Implicit Religion and Exchange are having special issues that arise from a debate on this started when in 2016 I challenged the way Dr Teemu Taira used the term on the Religious Studies Project website – linked above). I would also note that other aspects could be picked up like everyone saying: “may the force be with you”. Is this some form of “blessing”? A desire to be attuned to the universe and its ways? While in the previous episode (The Force Awakens) we also saw Donnie Yen playing Chirrut Imwe as some form of monk-like figure seemingly as again something that seems to us perhaps as a religious order? Meanwhile if we return to the first film, or episode 4, the exchanges between Obi Wan Kenobi and Han Solo and Luke seemed redolent of something perhaps about superstition or some form of transcendent force – raising questions of the relationship of myths, superstition, religion, and such matters. The films are of course saturated with mythological imagery going back to George Lucas’ fascination with Joseph Campbell’s work on this and so stemming in turn from the work of the mid twentieth century scholar of religion Mircea Eliade.

The Last Jedi?

I am not entirely sure we know who that last Jedi is yet either – maybe another surprise or too in store as the series roles on here? So, some thoughts as to what it means:

  1. Luke has declared the Jedi order should end and so as he is the last trained Jedi (I am fairly sure Rey is not fully trained) he is the last Jedi. However, he ends by saying there will be more, and we see Rey of course carrying the flag. While we also see that young groom in the final scenes bringing a broom to his side – so another who can use the force. However, again, he is untrained and we will pick out some other themes here below.
  2. Rey is the last Jedi as the person trained by Luke and seemingly implied by him at the end when he tells Kylo Ren that he is not the last.
  3. Maybe the Jedi Order is ended, but in some new form the Jedi live on? So Luke is the last “master” but Jedi types do linger with the force open to all. Maybe we see a new democratisation of the force? Anyone can use it, no longer simply is it restricted to the Jedi order. This is inherent in Luke’s words that it is everywhere and between everything. However, I do not think there is anything new in this, it always seemed to be the case, the Jedi were simply those attuned to it. There was some weird stuff about blood tests and so making this some kind of genetically programmed thing which people were born with or not, but in theory it is around us all anyway.


As I have suggested it is not clear what the term the “last Jedi” refers to and how this ties into the stated need for the end of the Jedi order and the final prediction that there is another? But should we expect everything to be entirely consistent and tied together. Here, it may help us to think this through a Religious Studies lens. While we often see statements about what “religions believe” or what the “teachings are” (including in the main text books), a focus on what is often termed “Lived Religion” tells us that religions (well, nearly all traditions) are never this neat and tidy. What people say and what they do often don’t match up. Ideals and aspirations are not equivalent to lived practice and on the ground facts. Even if somebody, even a leader, says something must come to an end it doesn’t mean to say that this is followed through in practice. Religions, like all human traditions, are messy things.

In order to help think about the possible end of the Jedi Order/ religion, we can reflect for a while on the other end of the question: beginnings. People often ask when a religion began or who founded it, but these things are never easy and straightforward. To take Christianity as an example (as the world’s largest tradition numerically and one very widely spread people are likely to be familiar with it and so it is a good example) we really cannot define when it started. Jesus was, historically speaking, a Galilean Rabbi who fits into what appears to be a pattern of temple restoration prophets we can associate both with his C1st context but also with the Second Temple Judaism (as it is often termed) which he was part of. (You get a few radical scholars wanting to get popular by claiming Jesus never existed, but this is really not a credible argument.) So, the founder of Christianity was not Jesus, who was a Jew who taught other Jews. Many conspiracy types like to point the finger at Paul and claim he turned Christianity from a tradition focused on Jesus’ teachings to a religion about Jesus. Again, this is not academically credible. First, how does one person transform an entire tradition single-handedly? But, also, contemporary studies which read Paul through a C1st Jewish lens have shown how thoroughly steeped in the Jewish tradition he was. Certainly he had his own take on the tradition, as did many other teachers (if not all of them), but he was a thoroughly Jewish figure and basically like many others finding ways to open up Judaism to non-Jews. We also find moves towards focusing on Jesus in many other sources too, such as the Johannine literature (especially the Gospel according to John). It is also clear that for several centuries Judaism and Christianity were intimately intertwined and it wasn’t till about the fourth century that we actually can clearly see them fully split and differentiated as traditions. Indeed, what we mean by calling them “separate religions” is also a whole issue in and of itself. Now, we have gone a long way from Star Wars here, but it is making a point about what it may mean to call somebody the last member of a tradition – though showing this through questions about where they begin as also a problematic issue.

Traditions rarely suddenly come or go, and so understanding the evolution and history of religions would make us wary about thinking there would be a simple answer to the question of who is the last Jedi.

Bad Commanders: Ethics and Stuff

Going in another direction, why isn’t that commander/ captain guy court-martialled? Oooh, they love a bit of a rogue, so let’s just ignore that he destroys most of the fleet, defies direct orders, and mutinies! Now there is a very interesting blog about how Poe Dameron may be a good tactician, but a very bad strategist and other issues about the command chain in the films. However, that is not where I wish to go. Instead, let us look at some of the ethical questions and moral complexity in the film. So, is Poe a good guy or a bad guy? Maybe he has good intentions, but he also clearly breaks the rules and almost brings total disaster to the rebellion. These may not, though, be the most interesting moral questions in the film.

We certainly see in the film many shades of grey rather than black or white. While parts of the Star Wars film have been very much good guys versus bad guys and the light side against the dark side, perhaps more than before we see much more ambivalence. I think on the whole the debates about moral complexity and nobody being utterly evil match with what we have seen before, so not a betrayal as I think some have suggested. Luke, the Jedi master, being a flawed character who feels homicidal rage (if only for a split second) against his student. (Come on, though, surely everyone who has taught has felt this at some point! – I should add the smiley face emoji here to show it’s a joke I think!) Meanwhile we see the talk about Kylo Ren as conflicted, and we are even led to think he may return to the Jedi ways. Of course, we saw Darth Vader return to the “light” in his death by saving his son and so it is not a completely new course. Now, this does not mean that we see nothing new. Rey’s seeming embrace of her fascination with the dark side, epitomised with the descent into the hole in the island that represents the dark side, is quite different. Until now we have seen Jedi as using only the light side, with the dark side representing the Sith way. Does this point towards something else?


Ethics is certainly not the sole preserve of religious traditions, nor of Religious Studies as a discipline. Nevertheless, in many ways ethics has often been very closely associated with those traditions we call religions. In the monotheisms that originated in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we see an often stark division drawn between good and evil as polar opposites. God is seen as good, and to follow Him (of course God is often seen beyond gender, but is often portrayed as, or spoken about in, masculine ways) is to do good and avoid evil. Nevertheless, this God can also be spoken of as wrathful, violent, and even vengeful. This God, at the very least, has an awe-some side that is terrifying to humans. Or, His justice is portrayed as a source of rightful wrath or terror. There is, though, at least some ambivalence here. In other traditions, however, the polar opposition is not so strong. While still associating goodness with the divine forces, in some of the Hindu family of traditions we see the Goddess, in forms such as the ferocious deity Durga, as a source of both life and death (as, of course, is the Abrahamic deity), and the creator and destroyer. The nature of deity as fierce (though the ferocious side of Durga like many other deities of Asia often represents Her strength and power to overcome and frighten off evil/ demons) is more prevalent than in many contemporary forms of, for instance, Christianity where the loving side of God is given greater weight. Likewise, in traditions like Daoism evil per se is not seen as bad, and the transcendent (the ideal figure of Daoism, often (arguably poorly) translated into English as “immortal”) needs to go beyond all dualities (often associated with the yin-yang polarity) which includes between good and evil. This is not to say that they can do evil or act how they want, but they become attuned to the Way (Dao) and act in accord with Nature.

This very brief overview of some attitudes towards concepts of light and dark, or good and evil, in various traditions is rather simple and brief, but points towards the way that such polarities are dealt with in these traditions. We can think about the way that religions manifest these things, and so ask what motifs are being represented in the Star Wars universe. Indeed, it is notable that Luke suggests that the greatest evil has actually come from the Jedi Order who, at the height of their powers, allowed Palpatine to rise and also trained Darth Vader. So, is the Jedi Order a force for good or evil (supposedly they had kept peace in the galaxy for centuries if not millennia, and so maybe this also needs to play into the equation when we think about these things)? Today, people ask if religion is a force for good or evil in the world, and certainly many atheist critics look to its faults and failings. We can also think about ways that morality plays out in the films in other ways too. How far do we see morality being a simple equation or is it always more complex than things being good or bad: is anyone completely good or evil?

Marxist and Other Turns?

One of the best known quotations from Karl Marx is that “religion is the opium of the people”. He was, though, not wholly critical of religion, but I am invoking a “Marxist turn” in The Last Jedi for another reason. Much of the Star Wars series has focused on princesses and the rather aristocratic Jedi. Alongside this, and played out in this film between Kylo Ren and Rey, is the question of the prestigious Skywalker lineage and family tree. Without this, and rather markedly, Kylo Ren tells Rey that she is nothing in this story! But it is her, the girl from nowhere and of no significant family connections who may be the last Jedi. Again, we see Rose Tico explaining to Finn why she despises the luxury of the casino world they find themselves on. Not exactly class war, but a clear sense that these lowly figures who are not traditional hero types are the ones who are leading the rebellion now. Of course, Star Wars has always emphasised the kid from nowhere, the seeming nobody who becomes a hero – as with Luke who seeks adventure from his drab farming life. This is a typical motif of adventure stories. However, the more explicit class based turn seems marked here. The adventurers don’t meet princesses who need saving, but are disgusted at the luxury fed off the intergalactic arms trade. Very much, we may think, a message for today.


So, what is the connection here to religion and Religious Studies? Well, as with many other academic disciplines Religious Studies can ask questions about power, who controls the narratives, and who gets to tell the stories. Traditionally, of course, this is the dominant high-class males, often the priests/ monks, etc. An emphasis from areas like post-colonial studies, feminist studies, Marxism, race studies, and other angles shows us that religion is often thought differently from other places. While not raised here, one question may be how these underclasses respond to and react to the elite Jedi Order? It is also worth noting, while we are on this, that the rebellion is portrayed as much more diverse than the First Order. The latter is very much white and male. The former is led by women, and has both different ethnicities, and races (in terms of alien species) amongst its members. Indeed, while to some degree our focus in this film is on Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke there is also a very strong theme in which Finn and Rose have their own specific plot line. Again, this seems very much to have a message for our own day and time, and is an issue in the study of religion. The Jedi order, we may note, has always been quite diverse, with different races and ethnicities amongst the council in previous films. If the Force is the spaces between all things and the connection there which is open to all we would certainly expect this. Indeed, the dominance of only one gender, race, or ethnicity would seem to go against this religious aspect of the films and the emphasis upon a Force open in principle to all and being between all beings.

Some Stray Thoughts

I would like to end with a few odd thoughts on parts of the film. One of which is weren’t they meant to kill off Princess Leia? With her death in 2016, I thought she would be written out, and indeed it seemed that this would be the case when she was cast into outer space. Nevertheless, in one of the most spectacular usages of the Force ever seen she brought herself back to the ship. Now, of course if we speak of the Jedi religion and the Force being a part of this was this a religious thing? Was it a miracle? Certainly we don’t see such language, but it is an interesting way in to discussing what we mean by the word “miracle” and what would count as such?

We could also mention the final view of the young groom in the stable when he brought the broom to himself by using the force. A very mundane usage of this power. Seeing as we have spoken of the Jedi religion and the force being a part of this would this be a religious thing? Here, as above, we return to a question we asked early on as to what the term “religion” itself means. Is it about what goes on within temples or special occasions – which would relate it to the “sacred” in its original meaning as something set apart. However, in traditions such as Daoism (and there seems to be a fair bit of stuff here that can relate to Daoism as others have also suggested) the Way is not special or set apart, but simply about being attuned to the way things are. Again, it can make our normal assumptions about what religion is, or what the term may mean problematic. But, as noted, almost every word we use (certainly the more interesting ones, and almost every single word in fact) are not really simple or straightforward. So, either we stop using any words, or we reflect on our usage, what we imply, and what we mean when we speak. Helping us realise that things which may seem simple and straightforward are actually vastly complicated may be one thing that we see when we study religion, and maybe also when we look at The Last Jedi through a Religious Studies lens.


As noted above, and just to reiterate, I have not set out here to say how Religious Studies (as a multidisciplinary area) must or does look at this movie. This is simply the way one student of religion using some tools in the methodological kit has decided to tackle some questions of interest to him. Others may use other tools, give different answers, or ask another set of questions. I hope though that people will find this a useful lens for looking at The Last Jedi.


Posted in Comparative Religion, Deconstructing Religion, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Culture | Leave a comment

Recent Events: Executive Programme and Buddhist College Singapore seminar

Over the last week the Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural societies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (or SRP, RSIS, NTU for short) held its third Executive Programme looking at religion, violence, and peacebuilding. As usual it was a full 5-day intensive course bringing academic knowledge and understanding to practical issues around managing religion in secular and religiously diverse societies. Some pictures from the event can be seen on the SRP Facebook page:

After 5 days there, we also held as well a first seminar with the community jointly with the Buddhist College Singapore on the Saturday. This touched on the way that religions relate in society as well as also exploring religious narratives on violence and peace. While focused on Buddhism we also paid particular attention to Christianity and Islam. again, see the FB page for photos:

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Radicalisation: What’s in a Word?

Radicalisation is one of those buzz words that gets thrown into almost any conversation around terrorism, counter terrorism, and militant extremism in various forms. But is most especially associated with terror associated with Islam. However, like many buzz words it seeks to explain more than it can deliver.

Saying somebody has been “radicalised” is indeed pretty much meaningless and is often a way that politicians or others absolve themselves from blame or media pundits bandy around as a catchall explanation. In this article, I take issue with this abuse of the term, but recognising that as it is so pervasive we cannot abandon it. As such, if used we should recognise that “radicalisation” does not actually refer to anything in and of itself (people are socialised into worldviews we see as “radical”) and names various pathways and trajectories that are far more complex than a single word can really convey.

I also cover some recent debates around pathways into radicalisation between Kepel and Roy (two leading French theorists in the area) and look at the links with various forms of Islam.

I intend to write further and in more depth on this topic in the not so distant future. It seems to me a lot needs to be said to help unpack the jargon and myths around concepts of “radicalisation”.

Anyway, a full copy of the paper can be found here:

Posted in Interreligious Studies, Islam, Religion and Politics, Religion and Violence, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Atheists and Interfaith/ Interreligious Dialogue.

Following up from my last post, I have a new article out looking at the question of whether atheists can/ should be involved in interfaith/ interreligious dialogue. Needs a (free) signup to (but that is well worth it if you haven’t got an account already).

The paper asks what religion and atheism are, and questions our understanding of these categories. It then suggests why there are not reasons for excluding atheists, before moving to what I see as positive reasons for including atheists. It moves therefore to suggesting what I term here “interworldview dialogue” between religion and atheism.

Hope you enjoy:

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