The Contemporary Deconstruction of Religion: How Current Scholarship in Religious Studies is Changing Methods and Theories

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Naomi Goldenberg


My paper has 3 goals: 1) to introduce and outline the field of ‘critical religion’; 2) to set out my contribution to this field by explaining how and why religions should be considered ‘vestigial states’; and 3) to suggest ways in which the approach to the topic of religious synthesis in India might be influenced by critical religion in general and vestigial state theory in particular. I argue that ‘religion’ as an ahistorical, eternal, indefinable category –what Roland Barthes called ‘depoliticized’ speech –warrants energetic critique. To this end, I survey a variety of theorists whose work deconstructs ‘religion’ and attendant binaries such as religious/secular and religion/politics. I maintain that religions function as vestigial states within contemporary states. By ‘vestigial states’ I mean practices and institutions originating in particular histories as survivals of former sovereignties. These remnants are tolerated as attenuated jurisdictions within fully functioning states. These vestigial states (religions) are always somewhat problematic because they compete with contemporary states - especially if they challenge the present state’s right to control violence. However, religions also work to ground the governments that authorize them by recalling earlier, mystified forms of sovereignty. Moreover, religions are useful because they can be depicted as less progressive versions of power. Thus do ‘religions’, understood as vestigial states, both disturb and maintain current regimes. I conclude with some speculations on how insights derived from critical religion might impact work on conceptualizing ‘religious synthesis’ in India specifically and ‘interreligious’ interactions more generally in a global context.

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