Religious Studies As The “State Religion” Of Neoliberalism, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

“Neptunus alii per alia, poterunt intellegi qui qualesque sint, quoque eos nomine consuetudo nuncupaverit, hoc eos et venerari et colere debemus.” – Cicero, De Natura Deorum

The very concept of political theology insinuates a transcendental source of value from which the axiomatics of political thought, if not “political science”, can be enunciated. Neoliberalism, as I have argued elsewhere, is eminently a value-system.  As a value-system, it also performs a certain “religious” function. But, at the same time, it also serves as an “apparatus” a la Foucault that manufactures a new kind of subjectivity as well as a new kind of truth that inscribes this value system.  At the same time, our task is not to dwell on what Foucault had in mind.

Instead we must interrogate more closely the character of neoliberal subjectivity itself and how it materializes these value propositions.  There is one such factor in neoliberal subjectivity that Foucault identifies as essential to the “analytic of finitude.”  That factor is what we know as religion.  Within the immense sweep of culture, language, and personal identity religion serves as the decisive inscription of difference. 

As Talal Asad has presciently observed, the genealogy of religion is not about the fabrication of private experiences. The grammar of religion goes hand in hand with the maintenance of state power, because it is the state that inscribes difference.  Religion is a power grid made up of “different ways in which it [has] created and worked through legal institutions, different selves that it shaped and responded to, and different categories of knowledge which it authorized and made available.”[1]   The “separation” of religion from the state is a modernist fiction, Talal argues, only because with the decline of monarchy the invisible power that renders the state coherent is less visible and more diffuse.  “Freedom of religion” merely refers to a plurality of standardized confessions or discursivities that are no longer formally associated with the state apparatus.

But the biopolitical regimen of the modern liberal state requires a more rarefied and remote machinery of legitimation that is neither coercive nor discernible.   Modern state power comes, according to t James Scott, with its capacity to “make a society legible,” insofar as “the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering”.  The process of making legible, Scott contends, began in the seventeenth century with absolute monarchs bent on enhancing their control over their subjects by collecting previously unreported demographic information.  Today it manifests in the deepening alliance between big government and “big data”, between the surveillance state and the sprawling tech monopolies.  The preoccupation with social “legibility”, in turn, requires the elaboration of increasingly “authoritarian” state instrumentalities, leaving in its wake “an incapacitated civil society”[2]

Neoliberalism simultaneously intensifies and conceals the consolidation of state power.  On the one hand, like a clever confidence operator it seeks to assure its mark that they are receiving certain obvious benefits when in reality they are being bilked of whatever they are worth.  Melinda Cooper traces this sort of double-dealing all the way back to the 1960s with the advent of Theodore Schultz’ “human capital theory.”  Schultz’ work, Cooper notes, was largely responsible for passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which gave American students for the first time access to federally subsidized student loans as well as Pell Grants.[3]  

As we see nowadays, generous access to such “capital” for the vast majority has actually come to mean widespread debt peonage.  It has also been linked to a massive and sprawling post-secondary educational industry that even at the institutional level commands an enormous quantity of public and private resources.  Maurizio Lazzarato argues that the octopus-like expansion of higher education and the “neoliberal condition” are torturously entangled with each other.  Neoliberal governmentality, he writes, “has produced a collective capitalist – {as Lenin would put it) – which is not concentrated in finance, but operates throughout business, administration, service industries, political parties, the media, and the university.

This political subjectivation provides capitalists with the same education, the same vision of the economy and society, the same vocabulary, the same methods, in short, the same politics.”[4]  We must ask ourselves rigorously and honestly to what degree the academic study of religion has become a vital cog in the neoliberal wheelworks.  It was during the 1960s in America, when the Johnson Administration set up and placed in operation a sprawling new and all-embracing apparatus of “governmentality” that the academic study of religion as a field exploded. 

The functionalist hermeneutic and classificatory methodology of “religious studies” was born from this impulse to codify and condition the unconditional, which has always been the secret to success for the nascent neoliberal system. The system relies heavily on cognitive regimens enforced through corporate control of the knowledge production process, in particular universities and mainstream media.  Neoliberalism as the next generation of global colonial administration with its covert “civilizing mission” has merely re-engineered for much of the developed and developing world the “Raj” model that was so successful in India in the nineteenth century. 

According to Asad, the interpretative and anthropologic gaze through which this broader managerial – and inherently colonial – paradigm claims an unquestioned quasi-scientific, and thereby objective, validity when in fact it has become a sophisticated subterfuge to erase the authority of interior conscience and motivation.  Subjectivity is dismissed as idiosyncrasy.   These manifold instances of vital and strongly motivating symbolic ecosystems are denied their independence and self-determination.  Instead they are hauled up like diverse multitudes of wriggling sea creatures in the colossal nets of intellectual “inquiry” and distilled unceremoniously into “facts” or “information” about so-called “lived religions”, when in fact their significance has already shriveled to inconsequence under the withering glance of “theory”. 

In short, the representation of religion as some kind of exotic specimen of human belief and behavior must be unmasked for what it is – a neocolonial intervention.  What we term “religion”, according to Asad, is really something that is not amenable to any kind of generalized taxonomy.  Yet any phenomenological perusal that might bring us into immediate encounter with the “truth experience” of any particular engagement with ultimate reality remains impossible on Asad’s grounds.  Nowadays any indication of “religious” reality is ensnared and smothered within the pervasive thralls of the neoliberal knowledge monopoly.  As Asad says, “it was not the mind that moved spontaneously to religious truth, but power that created the conditions for experiencing that truth.”[5]

What was, or is, this “power”?  Asad does not cast any wide theoretical net, nor does he explore the many different historical means by which the truth-experience of religion is irreversibly coded into the “conditions” of the experience itself.  Asad  is thoroughly critical of the doctrinaire anthropologism that has permeated the study of religion over the years.  To that end he has fixed most of his polemical fire on the work of Clifford Geertz, the éminence grise who early on laid out the larger parameters for, and shaped the initial content, for the field. 

Asad challenges Geertz’ assimilation of religious theory to social phenomenology and the sociology of knowledge, specifically the methodology of Austrian philosopher Alfred Schutz, on whom the former’s concept of the symbol profoundly depends.  He argues against the essentialist notion that religious symbols have some kind of transhistorical or transcultural primacy, which somehow find varying modes of expression in whatever socio-linguistic setting they happen to arise.  Asad writes that

…religious symbols—whether one thinks of them in terms of communication or of cognition, of guiding action or of expressing emotion—cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols or of their articulations in and of social life, in which work and power are always crucial. My argument, I must stress, is not just that religious symbols are intimately linked to social life (and so change with it), or that they usually support dominant political power (and occasionally oppose it). It is that different kinds of practice and discourse are intrinsic to the field in which religious representations (like any representation) acquire their identity and their truthfulness.”[6]

Throughout his book Genealogy of Religions Asad presses a twofold claim.  First, he argues that the standard model of “world religions” is nothing but a fancy form of cognitive colonialism that deprives the base religious community from understanding itself as part of its own social life-world.  Second, he offers a brief against what is sometimes called “perennialism” – the idea that there are universally decipherable schemata for communicating “the sacred.”  In a word, Asad contends that religious symbols are in no sense sui generis.  Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes would be perhaps the most well-known example of perennialism.  The theosophical movement, which since its emergence in the late nineteenth century and because of its outsize impact on modern art and New Age modes of thinking, is perhaps the best-known example of perennialist thinking. 

Asad’s position is that the “common sense” of the world instantiated in any given culture is invariably mediated by their semiotic framing systems.  Asad asserts that “the world of common sense is always common to all human beings, and quite distinct from the religious world, which in turn differs from one group to another, as one culture differs from another; but experience of the religious world affects the commonsense world, and so the distinctiveness of the two kinds of world is modified, and the common-sense world comes to differ, from one group to another, as one culture differs from another.”[7]  Asad’s anti-perennialism is also clearly anti-essentialist.  If we are to state it succinctly, we can say that the assumption that there is anything at all which we can label “religion” is dubious.

This wizardly way of coding and recoding symbolic forms to render them somehow religious, or not religious, has been scrutinized at length by Brent Nongbri. A classicist, Nongbri makes a convincing case that there is no such thing as “ancient religion”.  The assumption that everything from Isis-worship in the Roman world to even the multiplicity of texts, spiritual practices, and ceremonial performances that we know as Vedanta or ancient Hinduism are nothing more than retrojections of modernist concepts. 

Nongbri maintains, rather controversially, that the notion of different religions has its origins in the efforts of those Renaissance philosophers steeped in the studia humanitatis to reconcile classical and Christian writers and to remove from the former the stain of heathenry.  Such a reputational makeover, together with the semantic transformations that propelled it forward, were further occasioned through meetings and interactions with aboriginal peoples around the globe, who had no knowledge of Christianity as the age of European exploration and expansion went into full swing.  According to Nongbri, “during the age of European colonial encounters with modern ‘pagans’ and ‘idolaters,’ the entities we now designate as Greek and Roman gods went from being demons in a biblical Christian system to being the central figures of what we now call ‘ancient Greek and Roman religions.’”[8]

In short, Christianity – and we might add Islam in its age of empire also – during the millennium that preceded the Renaissance had created shell categories to account for those who had failed for whatever reason to accept the universal, monotheistic revelation that can be found in both the New Testament and the Qur’an.  Once theological authority was slowly supplanted by, or made to co-exist with, “secular” authority, these shell categories were now populated with positive rather than negative content. 

The taxonomical passion of the Enlightenment, what Foucault termed “the age of the catalogue”[9],  contributed significantly to this reordering of what were now crypto-theological dispensations that ultimately came to be known as “religions.”[10]  And the rage of colonial administrators in the nineteenth century both to differentiate between the deeper cognitive commitments of their subjugated populations and to find a way of providing them with newer, secularized identities came to be the genius of the system as a whole.  Most importantly, this taxonomical approach is perhaps the signal feature of what Mignolo and Walsh describe as the “colonial matrix of power.” 

For Mignolo, classification was a method of revaluation, or devaluation, that allowed knowledge for the first time to be evaluated and turned into a commodity that could be extracted from local sources and refined by large-scale methods of industrial manufacture in order to be acceptable to the new cognitive cosmopolitan, who was first the European aristocracy and later the bourgeois champion of free enterprise. Mignolo writes:

“Knowledge in the colonial matrix of power was a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it was the mediation to the ontology of the world as well as a way of being in the world (subjectivity). On the other hand, as far as knowledge was conceived imperially as true knowledge, it became a commodity to be exported to those whose knowledge was deviant or non-modern according to Christian theology and, later on, secular philosophy and sciences. This combination was successful enough, in terms of the amassing of wealth and power, that by the end of the nineteenth century China and India had to confront the fact that Western men and institutions saw them as (i.e., built knowledge in such a way that they came to be regarded as) lagging behind historically; and history, for the West, was equal to modernity. Consequently, Western knowledge became a commodity of exportation for the modernization of the non-Western world.”[11]

The extraction of knowledge under the aegis of late capitalism (i.e., neoliberalism) coincides, as Byung-Chul Han has emphasized, with the commodification of our own affective positionalities.  According to Han, this process of extraction and commodification occurs in the background.  We are utterly unaware of it.  Han terms the process by which our essential “souls” are parceled out, reified, and ultimately turned into etheric products that we are enticed into “buying back” for our self-gratification or sense of moral responsibility “smart power.” 

Han writes: “smart power cozies up to the psyche rather than disciplining it through coercion or prohibitions. It does not impose silence. Rather, it is constantly calling on us to confide, share and participate: to communicate our opinions, needs, wishes and preferences – to tell all about our lives. Friendly power proves more powerful, as it were, than purely repressive power. It manages not to be seen at all.” It is both productive of and parasitical on human desires.  “It places its stock in voluntary self-organization and self-optimization.”[12]

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver and Senior Editor for the JCRT. His bio and publications can be found here.


[1] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 29.

[2] James Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2020), 5.

[3] Melinda Cooper, “Neoliberalism’s Family Values: Welfare, Human Capital, and Kinship, in Dieter Plewe, Quinn Slobodian, Philip Morowski (eds.), Nine Lives of Neoliberalism (New York: Verso, 2020), 154.

[4] Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2012), 107-8.

[5] Asad, op. cit., 17.

[6] Op. cit., 24.

[7] Op. cit. 23.

[8] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 132.

[9] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 1966),  141.

[10] Following Foucault, Enlightenment historian Devin Vartija shows how this classificatory system produced both the “science” of religion and the classification of social difference in terms of racial rather than theological distinctions.  The reign of the social sciences of the nineteenth century began with the reduction of religion during the eighteenth century to part of the “natural history” of the human race.  “Society serves as the ground of meaning, and religion is necessary insofar as it facilitates the smooth functioning of society.” See Varitja, The Color of Equality: Race and Common Humanity in Enlightenment Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), 161.

[11] Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 13.

[12] Byung-Chul Han, Psycho-Politics: Neoliberalism and Technologies of Power, trans. Erik Butler (London: Verso, 2017), 14.

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