David Chidester’s Post-Colonial Theory of Religion


David Chidester, formerly Professor of Religion Studies at the University of Cape Town prior to his retirement, is a recognized authority in the field of comparative religion and in particular religion and post-colonial theory (1). His work highlights how inherent within religion has been power dynamics that have caused challenges to social cohesion, especially across colonized peoples and cultures.

Understanding the relationship between colonialism and religion has, in Chidester’s view, significance to the academic study of religion as it will enable scholars to better understand and communicate the cultural, social, and political history of their academic discipline. Chidester’s book Savage Systems (1996) is an investigation of the entanglements of knowledge about religion with colonial military, political, and social forces, notably in the contact between these forces and the colonized cultures and peoples of Southern Africa. Chidester has explored similar ideas in great detail and length elsewhere over the duration of his career (2). A particularly memorable study is his analysis of the dreams of Zulu people of South Africa living in “contact zones” (i.e. spaces in which cultures exist in the presence of intercultural engagements shaped by unequal power relations brought on by colonization and colonial administration) and demonstrates how the dreams of these people were “radically disrupted” under such conditions (3). Indeed for the Zulus this impact was significant as colonialism, says Chidester, became “an integral part of the stuff that indigenous dreams were made of.” Dreams were “texts to be told” integral to Zulu religious practices and performance. In Savage Systems, as well as in Empire of Religion (2014), Chidester critically examines religion studies colonial history by interrogating its terminology such as “primitive” and “savage” used in the works of prominent historical theorists of religion in European imperial centers. Part of this engagement can be found in Chidester’s theory of triple mediation.

Triple Mediation

Triple mediation is a way of articulating the process by which imperial theorists on religion derived indigenous data through colonial “middlemen” (4). Chidester has applied this formula to the Southern African context to elucidate the construction of indigenous religion. As implied, this theory denotes three phases or stages of mediation in the process of the accumulation and construction of theories of religion.

The first phase denotes how Africans “on the colonized periphery were drawn into this process as informants—often as collaborators, sometimes as authors —as they reported on religious innovations, arguments, and contradictions in colonial contexts.” An example of the Zulu informant Mpengula Mbande is relevant as he was used to report arguments about the “Great, Great One” uNkulunkulu (the first ancestor of all people, or the supreme god who created all human beings) to the colonial middlemen.

The second phase of mediation refers to how local European “experts” on the colonized periphery synthesized these religious conflicts and contradictions into a “religious system.” For example, the Anglican missionary Henry Callaway became the leading authority on the Zulu religion, as evidenced in the publishing of his The Religious System of the Amazulu (1868-1870). One of the most important theorists in the historical development of the academic study of religion, Friedrich Max Müller, relied upon colonial middlemen such as Callaway to provide data for examination. Callaway’s account of Zulu religion was crucial to Max Müller’s theory and contributed to his conceptualization of religion being the apprehension of “the Infinite” based upon data on uNkulunkulu.

The third phase of mediation is that data was examined and dissected by metropolitan theorists who had interests in demonstrating their own cultural, religious, and/or ideological superiority. This was mediation between the perceived “primitive” ancestors of humanity, “who could supposedly be viewed in the mirror of the Zulu and other “savages” on the colonized peripheries of empire, and the “civilized” European.” What was essentially construed as a religious system in the colony was taken apart and reassembled in London and manufactured into theory for an emerging academic study of religion. Such data was then used in support of an evolutionary progression from the primitive to the civilized, with Europeans placing themselves on the top of this ladder or on the superior stage of development. In some instances, colonizers claimed to know the colonized better than the colonized knew themselves, which suggests a self-perception as having a higher-order of cognition. A great deal of this process, particularly in Southern Africa, was directed towards containment, drawing boundaries around religions, cultures, and populations.

Significance to Religion Studies

Chidester maintains that this process of mediation raises important questions scholars of religion need to engage. Perhaps now more than ever before scholars realize much theoretical knowledge of religions has come down through colonial incursions, imperial ambitions, and the financial support of governmental or quasi-governmental institutions; Chidester asks,

“What do we do with this information? How might historical inquiry into the colonial contexts of our “primitive” texts affect our understanding of the cultural, social, and political history of the study of religion?” (5)

His insights are not only crucial “for our understanding of the history of the study of religion, as history, but also for our work in the description, interpretation, explanation, and analysis of religion in the present” (6).

Chidester has offered further suggestions for scholars of religion. In his article Worldview Analysis of African Indigenous Churches (1989), he claims that Religion Studies should avoid unreflective generalizations and leaving unexamined power relations. Broad generalizations about worldviews, he suggests, have served the “imperial project” of domination, which is a distinctly dehumanizing enterprise. The imperial project sustains an “us” versus “them” approach where the other is neglected, subjected, dominated, and excluded.


1. UCT Department of Religious Studies. Emeritus Professor David Chidester. Available.

2. Chidester, David. 2018. “David Chidester Publications (1982-2018).” Journal for the Study of Religion 31(2):280-293.

3. Chidester, David. 2008. “Dreaming in the Contact Zone: Zulu Dreams, Visions, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century South Africa.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76(1):27-53.

4. Chidester, David. 2003. “Primitive Texts, Savage Contexts: Contextualizing the Study of Religion in Colonial Situations.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15(3):272-283. p. 275-276.

5. Chidester, David. 2003. Ibid. p. 275.

6. Chidester, David. 2003. Ibid. p. 273.

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