“Dialogue in Asia and the West: Interreligious Relations in a World of Conflict and Violence” 4th SRP Distinguished Lecture and Symposium

This last weekend, the Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP), RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore held its 4th Distinguished Lecture and Symposium. The theme was:

“Dialogue in Asia and the West: Interreligious Relations in a World of Conflict and Violence”

Speakers came from Indonesia, Hong Kong, the UK, and Singapore, and covered a range of themes around this topic. The programme can be found here:


The Distinguished Lecture and Keynote Lectures were by:

Prof Alwi Shihab, the Special Envoy of the President of Indonesia

Prof Gavin Flood, Oxford University and Yale-NUS College

Prof Lai Pan-Chiu, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Local speakers were:

Dr Foong Ming Lee, Buddhist College of Singapore

Mr Gerald Kong, ACCIRD, Catholic Archdiocese

Dr Rajesh Rai, National University of Singapore

Dr Mohamed Hannan Hassan, MUIS Academy

I was convenor of the day’s events.

The lectures by Profs Flood and Lai will hopefully (subject to peer review) be published in a new series of Occasional Papers entitled Interreligious Relations which we are launching next year. The other lectures may be available in other formats in due course.



Posted in Buddhism, Dialogue, Hinduism, Interreligious Studies, Religion and Politics, Religion and Violence, Singapore, SRP | Leave a comment

Some New Books on Comparative Theology

A relatively small and recent sub-field within the wider arena of the theology of religions and systematic theology, and related in various ways to interreligious studies, comparative religion, and other areas, comparative theology is seeing a good number of new books out. In particular a number exploring the rationale, methods, and theory behind its endeavours.

I would like here mention a few recent texts that fit into this pattern.

To begin, most books on comparative theology are generally works that do comparative theology rather than seek to analyse its methods and practices. In this regard the standard introduction has been Francis Clooney’s 2010 book Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders:


However, 2016-2018 has seen a good number of more theory based books emerge. I’ll take these chronologically.

First, edited by Mara Brecht and Reid Locklin is Comparative Theology in the Millennial Classroom: Hybrid Identities, Negotiated Boundaries, which as the title suggests is very much about pedagogy, but also raises some more theoretical issues about this. In particular, though, it raises the question about teaching CT to students who may not have a religious tradition to start with.


Second, Michelle Voss Roberts has edited Comparing Faithfully: Insights for Systematic Theological Reflection. Not so much a theory book, it more or less does what it says on the tin, but raises questions about how CT can feed back to wider theological reflection and give insights beyond simply the specific interreligious boundary crosses it engages with.


The third book from 2016 is not on CT per se, but is an edited volume on Twenty-First Century Theologies of Religions: Retrospection and Future Prospects by Elizabeth Harris, Paul Hedges, and Shantikumar Hettiarachchi. It contains a number of chapters that robustly engage theory in the area.


Fourth, we come to 2017, and a very short text by Paul Hedges, Comparative Theology: A Critical and Methodological Perspective. This is solely devoted to theory and method in CT, and goes beyond Clooney’s 2010 text by not simply focusing on what it does but looking at issues around the subaltern, gender, hermeneutics, and postcolonial critique and critically exploring issues in the way the discipline is practiced and can be understood. As my own text, I guess I can simply say check it out:


Finally, in 2018 an edited text by Francis Clooney and Klaus von Stosch gives us our fifth volume, simply title: How to do Comparative Theology. It provides some methodological reflection, often focused on theological perspectives rather than a critical exploration of it as a discipline, hence somewhat different from my more theoretical perspective on the field.


Each book offers something very different for those interested in CT as a discipline. As such, which books would interest you will vary greatly. For a general user-friendly introduction for students that shows some how-to-do it as well as history and methods then Clooney’s 2010 is still probably the go-to text. For a more critical take, suited more to a research student and scholarly audience, then I’d recommend my 2017 text. For some excellent short examples ranging across different traditions then Voss Roberts is the place to go, and my review of that is here:


The Brecht and Locklin and Clooney and Stosch will probably mostly be of interest to instructors in the former case, and those with a knowledge of the discipline already but looking for an eye to the diversity of the field in the latter case. Some specific issues are picked up in the edited volume by Harris, Hedges, and Hettiarachchi. Overall, though, across these five volumes there is a growing depth and weight to reflection on CT and what it may be used for and what it is. Alongside these some other key texts would be Hugh Nicholson’s work on CT and politics, John Thatamanil’s various writings, Michelle Voss Roberts’ work and of course those by a number of others – who get cited or included in these various books. Further, in 2019 or thereabouts, expect also to see a Brill handbook on CT coming on that should be another serious resource to help give a wider picture of the field.

Posted in Comparative Theology, Decolonisation (and post-colonialism), Interreligious Studies, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Keeping up with news and views on interreligious relations

If you’re not following it, and you’re on FaceBook, the SRP (Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies) programme page provides news on our work, other groups, as well as news items from around the world. You’ll find a link here:


Posted in Interreligious Studies, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Culture, Religion and Politics, Religion and Violence, Singapore, SRP | Leave a comment

Anglicanism and Interfaith Relations

The Anglican Communion widely, or the Church of England and its other constituent churches, have engaged in encounters and relations with other religions almost since its inception. In the Elizabethan period an alliance with, and envoys from, the Ottoman Empire meant Muslims praying in the streets of London was not an uncommon sight. However, when this flirtation with the Ottoman’s ended, serious engagement (in broad terms) occurred first in the context of empire and colonialism and then later in the twenty-first century.

A history of religions approach to Anglican interfaith relations from 1910-C21st can be found in a chapter I did for the 5 volume Oxford History of Anglicanism series, which can be found here:


For an assessment and theological discussion of Anglican engagement with Buddhism specifically, see this article which addresses recent official documents and what may typify an Anglican approach:


A more general survey of interfaith in terms of dialogue and the theology of religions, which locates itself in the Anglican context is undertaken in my book Controversies in Interreligious Dialogue and the Theology of Religions. A brief account is found here:


These sources, especially the first, will also link on to some other useful – and generally contemporary – sources which also discuss this. Especially recommended are the pieces cited in footnote 9.

Note: due to copyright, the chapter is an Open Access draft version, and the book is a draft and partial version. As I have copyright of the second article the link is to a full version.

Posted in Buddhism, Decolonisation (and post-colonialism), Interreligious Studies, Islam, Religion and Atheism/ Secularism, Religion and Culture, Theologies of Religions, UK, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Interreligious Dialogue and Deliberative Democracy: UK and Singapore

Just posting a recent article I have done, the link below is to an Open Access draft version, followed by the published version if you have access.

The paper has quite a long title:

“Can Interreligious Dialogue Provide a New Space for Deliberative Democracy in the Public Sphere? Philosophical Perspectives from the Examples of the UK and Singapore”

The abstract will give you a better idea of the contents:

This paper uses Singapore and the UK as two case studies to explore the concept of deliberative democracy with specific reference to the way that interreligious dialogue is and may be used in the public sphere. The two countries are chosen as representing differently located but broadly secular nations where, nevertheless, religious and interreligious activities have prominence. The differences and similarities of the notion of secular as well as the way that religion and interreligious activity relate to the state are noted. While both countries have promoted interreligious dialogue primarily as a tool for social cohesion it is noted that this activity does not tie easily or neatly into conceptions of deliberative democracy. Employing ideas from Jürgen Habermas and other theorists of deliberation, some central aspects of what deliberation may be in the context of deliberative democracy are explored. It is suggested that interreligious dialogue is far from a simple solution to promote harmonious relations within such a context, but nevertheless it is noted that what is often termed the “dialogue of action” has the potential to improve social cohesion. It is noted that much interreligious dialogue may actually go against some of the principles often sought within deliberative democracy but this is not seen as invalidating the practice within the public sphere.

Open Access draft:


Finished article on publisher website:


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

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