David Chidester and Postcolonial Theory of Religion: The Foucauldian Influence

Scholar David Chidester, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town, and his book Savage Systems (1996) have been impactful on some thinkers in the study of religion. In Savage Systems, we can see how one might adopt a Foucauldian approach and theme to the study of religions.

It is not difficult to see the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) influence on theorists in several academic disciplines. As Edward Said (1935-2003), the founder of postcolonial studies, noted, postcolonialists are “greatly indebted” to the work of Foucault (1). The most important theme drawn from Foucault’s work is power. And indeed postcolonial theorists are invested in the use of power. Religion, in particular, is considered a “key node for the distribution of power or control over… consciousness” (2). There is interest, for postcolonial theorists, in how power in religions has played a role in the experiences of the colonizers and the colonized. 

Foucault’s work articulates how culture exerts hegemonic power to shape the world through knowledge. It is in “discourses” that we find the exertion of power, notably in schemes of classification, which form the basic framework of our knowledge. Quoting Edward Said (3), scholar of religion Ivan Strenski writes,

“Our taken-for-granted talk of “types,” such as “us” versus “them,” White versus Black, male versus female, primitive versus modern, Orient versus Occident, and so on form their own discourses as well. These “forms of discourse” reveal an “impulse to classify nature and man” by establishing authoritative ways of thinking, talking, and writing” (4).

Foucault sees how classification exerts significant power by shaping the way persons act. We have “scientific” classifications such as criminology, psychiatry, medicine, and so on. To classify someone as schizophrenic, for example, rather than “unhappy” or “troubled” permits and legitimizes control, confinement, institutionalization, and medication that constitute the medical and mental health system. We can see similar exertions of power in the spheres of race and sexual classifications. This is why Foucauldian themes are popular and frequently found in postcolonial and feminist theories of religion. Classification discourses structure the way persons act as they shape what people take the world to be. The world has been structured along various lines (i.e. “real men,” “real women,” “Black men, “White men,” etc.). Religious institutions, like asylums or prisons in Foucault’s work, must also be seen as parts of strategies of power and domination. In religion, one only sees domains of power.

Although Foucault said little, if anything, about religion, this has not deterred later thinkers who find his ideas quite applicable to this area of specialization. Chidester is one such theorist. Influenced by Foucauldian themes, Chidester is interested in how religion has been implicated in regimes of power and how it might have authorized certain hegemonic structures in Southern Africa. Chidester realized that he could apply to the science of the comparative study of religion Foucault’s critique of particular sciences. He hones in on two eighteenth-century German travelers to Southern Africa, Otto Friedrich and Peter Kolb. Kolb interviewed the Hottentot and, while living in Stellenbosch, wrote a book on life in the southern Cape and made an amateur attempt at a comparative study of religion. Chidester realized that Foucault’s theory could apply to the work done by Kolb. One can see in Kolb’s book Foucault’s power/knowledge dynamic.

Kolb organized people under certain categories which made it easier for administrators to exert power over them. Kolb’s classification of certain Hottentot institutions as “religion” rendered it easier for the native peoples to be manipulated by colonial powers. Religion became a strategic instrument which leads Chidester to assert that “the study of religion was entangled in the power relations of frontier conflict, military, conquest and resistance, and imperial expansion… it arises out of a violent history of colonial conquest and domination” (5)

Foucault’s relevance is because he too saw the maliciousness of classification and definition. Foucault encourages us to look into the exercise of power in human relations. Chidester applies this insight to religion which has been argued to itself constitute power structures and forces that control human lives and dictate how they are to be conducted (6).

Chidester also uses the anthropologist Louis Leakey and his categorization of the Mau Mau to make his case. Leakey categorized the Mau Mau as a “religion” but then later changed their classification to a “political” group. In Foucauldian terms, Leakey alters our “knowledge” of the Kikuyu similarly to how classifying certain inmates of eighteenth-century asylums as “insane” did. Chidester argues that Leakey’s changing knowledge about the Kikuyu from religious to political occurred congruently with the Kenyan colonial government exerting its power making adjustments in matters of knowledge.

The result was, Chidester concludes, a “conceptual containment” and “closure.” Leakey attempted to reinforce such closure around the Mau Mau by designating it as a religion. Chidester sees the classifying of the Mau Mau this way as the imposition of coercive political power. As he writes, “This conceptual containment coincided with the literal containment of tens of thousands of Kikuyu in prisons and ‘rehabilitation’ camps” (7).

Many postcolonial theorists of religion tend to be hostile toward religion. Chidester is another theorist who holds to such a perspective. After all, he argues that classifying the Kikuyu as religious was a particularly immoral act because it was responsible for their oppression. 

But should we singularly pick out religion as worthy of condemnation here, as many of the postcolonialists tend to do? Some critics argue not. For instance, Strenski asks the following penetrating question,

“But if we follow Foucault faithfully, would not any classification of the Kikuyu presumably “contain” them cognitively as well? And would that containment by classification not just as plausibly lead to their physical containment too? Why is being classified as “religious” more confining than classifying the Kikuyu as a “political” group, for example? Post-colonialists theorists seem especially bent on discrediting religion, even to the extent of virtually eliminating or ignoring it” (8).

Strenski also criticizes the postcolonialists on their use of the concept of power. He argues that the notion of power, as alleged to be wielded in religions, is too broadly defined and is therefore of no use at all: “the term “power” here includes everything from what one might translate as the “holy power” or brahman, to agency or enablement, and finally to something like brute coercive force. But can so broad a use of a term be of any use at all? I doubt it” (9). This criticism is particularly pertinent when we consider how many postcolonialists want us to jettison the term “religion” from all use. Strenski retorts that they ought to shine the same criticism they make of the term “religion” on “power.”


1. Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon. p. 23

2. Lease, Gary. 1994. “The History of “Religious” Consciousness and the Diffusion of Culture: Strategies for Surviving Dissolution.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 20(3):453-479. p. 459.

3. Said, Edward 1978. Ibid. p. 119.

4. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 220-221

5. Chidester, David. 1996. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. xii.

6. Lease, Gary. 1994. Ibid. p. 474.

7. Chidester, David. 1996. Ibid. p. 256.

8. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 224.

9. Strenski, Ivan. 1998. “Religion, Power, and Final Foucault.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66(2):345-367. p. 347.

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