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Race and the Project of Distinction in the Study of Religion

The boundary-crossing stories that encouraged me to reconsider how we define “human” and “religion” in my first book project, Demonic Oceans, also form the impetus for a second project, which I am currently developing. I will mobilize black critical theory—the work of Nahum Chandler, Ashon Crawley, and Sylvia Wynter in particular—to interrogate the production and consolidation of distinctions in the study of religion. Western metaphysics is ripe with efforts to produce and reinforce absolute or pure distinctions: God/world, human/nonhuman, male/female, to name but a few. When we consider the continuous efforts to distinguish religion from secularity, the sacred from the profane, the supernatural from the natural—efforts that have marked and grounded the study of religion since its inception in the nineteenth-century—it becomes clear that the attempt to draw such distinctions has found particularly persistent and foundational force in religious studies. In Race and the Project of Distinction in the Study of Religion, I seek to explore the extent to which distinctions in the study of religion took on an absolute, essentialist, and hierarchical nature and as such, even if inadvertently, relied on, contributed to and reified racialized structures of domination. 

My hypothesis is that late 19th and mid-20th efforts to establish “religion” as a separate, autonomous and unique category and realm of study were partly grounded in and legitimated by a racialized project of distinction. That is, I hypothesize that 1) the attempt to conceptualize “religion” as separate and unique relied on the persistent desire and effort to draw absolute or pure distinctions—sacred/profane, religious/secular, primitive/civilized, to name some of the most important—and that 2) this project of distinction, as I call it, was informed by, reinforced, and contributed to the production, consolidation and legitimation of racial categories and hierarchies. 

Furthering my explorations of the racialized nature of distinctions I began in my PhD dissertation, Race and the Project of Distinction in the Study of Religion seeks to bring some of the interventions of black studies—in particular, the insistence that race and racism emerge in and through the false but persistent idea that one can make categorical distinctions—to bear on the conceptualization of “religion.” In so doing, I also aim to offer, a new perspective on the racialization of “religion,” as scholarship thus far has primarily employed sociological, historical and/or legal perspectives.

This project is currently (June-December 2020) funded by the NWO, as part of Anya Topolski's "Race-Religion Intersection" project (2017-2022)


Justine M. Bakker