What Are Post-Colonial Theories of Religion?

In religious studies, post-colonial theories of religion focus on how religion has played a role in the experiences of the colonizers and the colonized. Frequently used terms and concepts within this field include colonialism, neocolonialism, empire, hegemony, imperialism, exploitation, resistance, and Eurocentrism.

Post-colonial scholarship emphasizes treating with primacy the perspectives of marginalized persons who in the past and present can be considered colonized or subject to imperial rule. Such people are often those who have historically been removed from sites of cultural, political, and economic power, and who have been ruled from imperial centers. Post-Colonial scholars want to acknowledge the colonial legacies and influences that still yet exist in previously colonized locations, as well as investigate ways in which Western knowledge of cultural others have emerged out of contexts of colonial oppression. They then wish to determine how this knowledge can reproduce foundational, colonial epistemological assumptions. These theorists are aware of the fact that,

“The first Europeans who set sail for new worlds from the late fifteenth century onward were equipped with religious, legal, literary, and folk notions concerning their cultural others, which they applied to the peoples with whom they came into contact. A wide assortment of unrelated peoples, including the heterogeneous indigenous populations of the Americas, Africa, and Australia, were cast in terms derived from figures of the European imagination, filtered through the imperatives of conquest and Empire” (1).

Many of these newly discovered peoples and cultures were often perceived and represented by European theorists as irrational, primitive, savage, and superstitious, and placed on a lower rung of evolutionary development than Europeans. Their texts frequently employ derogatory terminology suggestive of a self-notion of superiority over other persons subject to the dominion of their own countries. Many scholars of religion are therefore aware that the origin of their field of expertise took place in both an intellectual and geopolitical context of conquest, which has led some of them, notably post-colonialist scholars, to advocate for positive liberty, and encourage a respect for local knowledge and practices of indigenous men and women.

It is important to note that post-colonial scholars can also be divided into two categories: the religious and the secular. Secular liberationist scholars are often inspired by the political ideas of figures such as Karl Marx. Marx’s idea that the ruling kept the class of labourers in bondage, and that notion that they need to be liberated is attractive because post-colonial theorists see how certain persons have been and still are exploited for profit, made into machines, and do not benefit from their hard work. This strand of post-colonial thinking and discourse is activistic and its proponents often affirm the value of resistance. They may even embrace violent means of social change were deemed necessary. This is often accompanied by a disdain for religion itself, and scholars are dismissive of it or seek to eliminate it from post-colonial thinking.

The religious post-colonial thinker, moreover, is also liberationist and strongly committed to activism. Mohandas Ghandi (1869-1948) was one proponent of this camp who argued for the “spiritualization of politics” and believed that “the spiritual diffuses all aspects of everyday life, including the political and should form the basis of the way humans live” (2).

The contemporary scholar David Chidester has looked at how colonialism has influenced religion in Southern Africa. In his book Savage Systems (1996), he argues that the category of religion has been one among many means colonial systems have classified and controlled indigenous populations such as the Khoikhoi, Zulu, and Xhosa. Like with Chidester, it is not lost on Gustavo Benavides the power that lies within religion that can be exploited. When referring to European theorists of the colonial period, Benavides explains “That many of these scholars dealt with religion is not surprising, since ‘religion’ is the name given to those practices and presuppositions which, infinitely malleable both by insiders and outsiders, articulate a culture’s, or perhaps just an elite’s, unspoken understanding of itself” (3).

Further prominent historical and contemporary theorists who have contributed significantly to the field of post-colonial theory of religion include Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Talal Asad, and Bruce Lincoln (4).


1. Brickman, Celia. “Primitivity, Race, and Religion in Psychoanalysis.” The Journal of Religion, 82(1): p. 55.

2. Quoted by Robert Young. 2016. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. p. 337. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

3. Benavides, Gustavo. 1995. “Giuseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the Age of Facism.” In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, edited by Donald Lopez. p. 16. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 216-238.


  1. […] The earliest analyses of Yoruba religion came from travelers and missionaries writing about the supposed “animistic”, “pagan”, and “heathen” traditions of African cultures. We have the missionary Richard Henry Stone’s In African Forest and Jungle or Six Years Among The Yorubas (1899) and writings from travelers such as M. A. S. Barber. There was the German explorer and anthropologist Leo Frobenius and the British officer Alfred Ellis, and several Baptist missionaries, all of whom provided descriptions of Yoruba cultural life and refer to Yoruba legends of gods and goddesses. A constant tradition of scholarship continues to dedicate itself to Yoruba culture and religion, especially in light of later developments in new religious movements, Christianity, Islam, and colonialism. […]

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