What is Decolonization and the Decolonizing of Religious Studies?

There have been passionate calls for the decolonization of university faculties and knowledge as shown in the recent decolonization movement within South Africa across various university campuses. Here the movement is thought to be particularly relevant in light of the country’s legacy of apartheid (1). It is not only in South Africa that calls for decolonization have been taking place. It has also become of much interest to scholars in European and North American contexts. 

What is Decolonization?

Decolonization can refer to several items, such as the following:

1. Decolonization is about change. It also contains a moral imperative since it is about changes that should be taking place. It is invested in changing how persons think, talk, and act through an engagement with a plurality of voices and perspectives that have historically been marginalized and silenced. As one scholar notes, it is not about ‘finding space’ at the table: it is about changing the room through a large-scale transformation of all levels of the academy (2).

2. Decolonization is recognizing the histories of European colonialism and racism that have structured the contemporary world, especially the academic domain.

3. It is about the decolonization of knowledge. It is not simply adding a few alternative readings to a syllabus, or the odd seminar here and there. Rather, it is to constitute a much wider program of change operative as an ongoing process. It notices how syllabus content has been predominantly white and seeks to challenge the sense of “White entitlement” that sets up the structures of power that allows and controls the inclusion of certain forms of diversity.

4. There is the notion of political decolonization, which is largely distinct from the decolonization of knowledge and focuses on land issues and challenges settler colonialism.

Decolonization has been increasingly put into practice. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London, for instance, has established policy affirming its commitment to decolonization (3). It offers the following major tenets of transformation seeking to address historical and contemporary issues resulting from colonialism:

  • Supporting further recognition and debate about the wide, complex and varied impacts of colonialism, imperialism and racism in shaping our university,
  • Embedding within our policies and practices a deeper understanding that these impacts produce and reproduce injustices and inequalities within education,
  • A stronger commitment to actively make redress for such impacts through ongoing collective dialogue within the university and through our public obligations

This entails challenging elements of Eurocentrism and structural inequalities at all levels of study. It is asking and taking on a range of questions related to decolonization and supporting ongoing conversations about the past, present, and future significance of imperialism and colonialism

Decolonization in Religious Studies

Some scholars have brought to light how the academic study of religion emerged out of European colonialism, particularly that of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The discipline is said to be a product of empire, which means that its questions and concepts within universities reflect this origin. This had led to efforts to decolonize the discipline.

There are two means of decolonizing a discipline, namely in the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms (4). The hard form is more radical than its soft counterpart in that if the discipline of religious studies undergoes successful decolonization, only very little of the discipline would be left. The softer version focuses on diversification. It might iron out the most ostensible signs and tenets of colonialism in the discipline, but it still keeps intact the discipline’s terminology, disciplinary structure, and academic power structures.

There are several ways religious studies and its scholars can attempt to reformat the discipline (5). First, there must be an effort in promoting awareness about where the discipline comes from and how it is connected to its colonial roots. One must focus on how categories of race and racialization are a central component to contemporary discourses on religion.

It is also important to acknowledge how the current curriculum is dominated by White voices, especially the voices of White men. Since it is often these voices that are predominantly considered, the result is neglecting and committing the voices of others. We might consider the fact that a book on the theories of religion authored by Daniel Pals includes ten theorists, all of whom are men and White. Such textbooks are often used for undergraduate students in religious studies, yet neglecting other voices, especially of people of color, is to impoverish the intellectual stimulation of the discipline whose academic conversation can become rather monochrome. Decolonizing religious studies must challenge the dominance of White normativity. Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches in the faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, states the case as follows,

“To decolonise and not just diversify curriculums is to recognise that knowledge is inevitably marked by power relations. In a society still shaped by a long colonial history in which straight white upper-class men are at the top of the social order, most disciplines give disproportionate prominence to the experiences, concerns and achievements of this one group. In my native India, upper-caste Hindu men have long held sway over learning and efforts are being made, in the face of predictable resistance, to dislodge that supremacy” (6).

Further, we must also consider other angles. For example, religious studies is also about Muslim students in, say, Indonesia or Turkey attempting to understand others, such as White Christians in Europe or North America. It is also about applying an intersectional approach to religion that places at its center questions of race, gender, sexualities, and colonial history. These, it is argued, do not exist separately from the category of religion but are part of the colonial matrix of power operating within the institutionalization of higher education (7).

A further way suggested to offer change with regards to teaching religious studies from the vantage point of a lecturer, is to begin teaching from the position of modernity, that is, to teach from the present backwards by looking at the postcolonial present and how that has been created by the forces of the past (8).


What can we say as a matter of reflection on the notion of decolonization?  

It is certainly important to notice that there is much one can agree with regarding the overall decolonial project, especially about the decolonization of knowledge within universities.

Everyone should agree that diversity is good. We ought to include, embrace, and champion various voices, and not privilege one over others. Of course, we should not only accept and thus privilege the voices of White persons. We should desire to include a greater number of voices from persons of color, especially from those whose voices have been traditionally and historically marginalized. Diversity is a step in the right direction and without it, a discipline can open itself to slipping into monotony. But we would rather much want vibrant academic disciplines, not monochromic ones.

As noted above, it is certainly important to acknowledge religious studies’ colonial roots and the related attitudes of some of its important, classical theorists. Several theorists indeed promoted offensive and unacceptable notions. It is difficult to miss the likes of E. B. Tylor and James Frazer referring to non-White, non-European persons and cultures as “savages” and “primitives.” Particularly egregious was the fact that these theorists often presented value-laden evolutionary schemes on which they placed religions and persons according to a hierarchy. Of course, located at the top would be “civilized” European culture whereas on a much lower wrung would be placed the so-called “primitives.” Religious studies and decolonial theorists are correct to point this out by bringing it to our attention.

But that said, one might also wish for a bit more clarity on the matter. For instance, what exactly does overhauling the discipline look like and how would it work in practice?

This is admittedly a big question and answering it is still a work in progress, but perhaps we could narrow it down to the classical theorists. Would decolonization mean that we excise White, male theorists like E. B. Tylor, James Frazer, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and many others from the religious studies syllabus? If the answer is yes, one might counter that excising such theorists would be a mistake. These figures clearly presented significantly formative and influential ideas in the Western intellectual tradition that came to influence later thinkers, even up until today. We would severely impoverish the discipline if we had to eliminate these voices from the syllabus.

One of the concerns we might have with the decolonial project is exemplified in one scholar behind the movement, Malory Nye. This scholar of religious studies, a White male, quoted a feminist, Sara Ahmed, who in her work declared a refusal to quote White men (9). As this feminist stated, “In the book I am writing Living a Feminist Life I thus have a strict and explicit citation policy. I will not and do not cite white men. And you know what: it has been really easy! You should try it! We can rebuild our houses with feminist tools; with de-colonial precision we can bring the house of whiteness down” (10).

Nye quotes this feminist approvingly and even recognizes that if we were to act on her advice it would exclude the voices of White men, including his own! Ahmed lays down a challenge, Nye says, of perhaps writing “a paper, or a book, or a syllabus that has no white men (and, of course, yes I do understand that means the exclusion of my own work too).”

But at this juncture, the confusion and concerns creep in. Is the decolonial project about including marginalized voices of persons of color, or is it intent on deliberately excluding the voices of White men? And which White men? The historical theorists or the White male scholars plying their trade today? Nye argues that decolonization requires “the removal of some of the ‘founding fathers’ from the list,” for example, Emile Durkheim and others whose work “is racist and white supremacist, based on common assumptions of European imperialism…” (11).

The problem with excising offensive voices from a syllabus is that it produces a slippery slope. Indeed many of the voices of historical White theorists in textbooks are offensive, but if offense is the standard we use to root out problematic theorists in our syllabus, then where will the bus stop? This is an important question because in every voice there will be something that offends someone somewhere. How far, one might ask, would we push this standard of exclusion based on offense? First, we might begin by eliminating theorists from the syllabus expressing a colonial mentality, then perhaps we will do the same with the theorists who held sexist views. Perhaps then we will move on to the atheists, then the revolutionaries, and even the theologians, and so on. Where would the bus stop? Rather, we should learn to see the value in historical theorists who held to offensive views. Moreover, their offensive views can be a point of moral engagement by students and scholars in the present. There, in fact, need to be offensive views for us to show how and why they are offensive.

It is difficult to know, at this current time, what to exactly make of this animated, contemporary debate. Where will the discussion take us from here? How will reformatting the discipline look? And who will be the driving force behind such efforts? Much is still yet to be seen. As Nye states, “in the study of religion there never has been any previous effort to decolonize. The study of religion is still looking for decolonization 1.0.”


  1. Heleta, Savo. 2016. “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa.” Transformation in Higher Education 1(1).
  2. Nye, Malory. 2019. “Decolonizing the Study of Religion.” Open Library of Humanities 5(1).
  3. SOAS. 2017. Decolonising SOAS Vision. Available.
  4. Nye, Malory. 2019. Ibid.
  5. Nye, Malory. 2018. Decolonizing the Study of Religion: where to start? Available.
  6. Gopal, Priyamvada. 2017. Yes, we must decolonise: our teaching has to go beyond elite white men. Available.
  7. Lugones, Maria. 2008. “The Coloniality of Gender.” Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise 2(2):1-17.
  8. Nye, Malory. 2019. Ibid.
  9. Nye, Malory. 2018. Ibid.
  10. Ahmed, Sara. 2014. White Men. Available.
  11. Nye, Malory. 2019. Ibid.

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