Proposition: A more ecumenical conception of the future must contend with the question of religion in the public sphere
I do not think it can be doubted that postcolonial thought has displayed a stern reluctance to engage with the question of religion or, more broadly, the language of transcendence. Let us acknowledge, in the first instance, that the very template of ‘religion’ comes from the canon of Western thought; more precisely, ‘religion’ the world over was sought to be remade in the template of Protestant Christianity. The nineteenth century also saw the establishment of an hierarchy of religions; even the notion of world religions, as the work of Tomoko Masuzawa [The Invention of World Religions: Or, how European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (2005)] suggests, served to enforce the idea of European modernity in the guise of pluralism. Though a “religion” such as Hinduism could be accommodated within the Aryan-Semitic divide, it posed distinct problems for many of its adherents, many of whom unwittingly or tacitly accepted the notion of Protestant Christianity as representing the acme of an authentic and proper religion. To become a proper religion, and be viewed as one, having, that is, the notion of a singular savior, a single book, and a clear and unambiguous theology, became the aspiration of many modernizing Hindus as well.
To admit all this is only to say that we must begin with a deep recognition of the limitations attached to the idea of ‘religion’. Moreover, in speaking of religion, one is already severely compromised into using a language that cannot fully describe the various modes in which peoples experience the divine, the transcendent, the notion of the after-life, or, even, the ethical life. But once we are past this admission, the problem persists: it is all but clear that postcolonial theory had almost nothing to say about the place of religion in the public sphere, and that too at a time when the world over religion was making inroads into politics and the everyday life of communities. If there is a larger and entirely legitimate question about how postcolonial thought was positioned in the public sphere, it is in the realm of religion that postcolonial thought proved to be wholly inadequate. This lacuna is most evident in the work of Said himself: insofar as he engaged with the question of religion, he did so by talking about the representations of Muslims in the western world, whether in the media or in works of scholarship. He adverted, as well, to the rise of religious fundamentalism or rather we should say extremism; to the extent that he acknowledged religious belief, it is only the perversion of such religious belief that came to his attention. Said’s critical scholarship is equally an illustration of his steadfast indifference to religious works, theological treatises, the religious life, the nature of religious practices and rituals, or even the philosophy of religion.
This indifference to religion, in Said and many other postcolonial thinkers, can be described in part as stemming from their fear that religion claims dominion over “universal ideas”. The postcolonial scholar has always found it easier to engage with works that fall under the rubric of ‘reason’ (in all its registers, from ethical reason to the brute instrumentalization of reason). Said’s response was to put into place a critical humanism that he hoped would serve, in the manner of religion, as a template to generate competing universal ideas. It is in this rather odd fashion that we can think of Said as a religious thinker. But, more to the point, the consequences on the part of secular and postcolonial scholars of abandoning the public sphere are there to be seen – in, to take three examples, the dramatic rise of Christian evangelicals and their forging of a worldwide network, the ascendancy of the Hindu right and its heady if often inadvertent embrace of what were once colonial conceptions of Hinduism, and the numerous manifestations of violence in Islam. Postcolonial secular scholars never had anything that can remotely be described as an adequate response; and they never even contemplated the possibility that perhaps the greater ethical response from a committed non-believer is to come to the defense of religious belief.
See also the previous posts in this series: