Neoliberalism and Religion

Religious Studies As The “State Religion” Of Neoliberalism, Part 3 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the last of a three-part series. The first can be found here , the second here.

The Metastasis of Modernism

A genealogy of the neoliberalization, together with the desiccation and commodification, of the vast ranges of human subjectivity and social experiences we have reduced to the lone signifier “religion”, can be found in Mignolo’s work.  Mignolo is often chastised for not talking about religion, but for him to do so would be defect to the very discursive regime his entire project aims to unmask and critically scrutinize.  For Mignolo, “religion” is nothing more than one linguistic coding among many that swarm under the sign of “modernity” and are linked intimately with the colonial matrix of power.  It is really a question of what religion actually is, not what we call it, or how we seek to bottle its elixir  by somehow theorizing it in keeping with the protocols of “scientific” research. 

Modernity has replaced metaphysics and ontology with a certain rigorous epistemology, and Mignolo summons us to recognize the unavoidable distinction. Such an approach he dubs one of fostering the “re-existence” of previously denied or discarded subjectivities.  Mignolo remarks that

…reason, the materiality of the world (its ontology) is shaped by epistemology (world sense projected into storytelling and argument [logos])ive coded, in every culture and/or civilization, as knowledge (epistemology). If I am not careful, I can break my nose running into a “standing piece of living wood” (ontology), but a tree is another story—it is a particular name given to the standing piece of living wood that occupies a particular place in human imagination who invented the concept of ‘nature.’ When it comes to democracy, being, art, and religion, the same principle applies, though the circumstances change: they depend on how universes of meaning are built.[1]  

In other words, there is no such thing as “religion” other than a genesis of the real that is somehow susceptible to being swept up in the net of abstraction, iteration, and classification that give full rein to the colonial matrix of discursive power. Reproducing in some viable format this modernist manufacture of the real should be the true task for any venture in authentic critical theory in the neoliberal era.

The venture must be, as Mignolo stresses, the rescue of the ontological from the steely mesh of the epistemic.  The need especially for indigenous people to steer clear of the neoliberal epistemic machinery has been boldly advanced by Tink Tinker.  “We must remember that our past and future have been consistently signified for us.” Shaping the authentic subject of enunciation in this subjectivation process has always required an intervention by those who truly have the last word in representing indigenous lives and livelihoods, not those who have imposed their artificial world-schema on native experience.  It has been a relentless and systemic project ab extra carried out “by missionaries, by anthropologists and other university academics, by government bureaucrats, etc.”[2]

Such a project unfortunately has been the core, unacknowledged mandate of the field of religious studies since its infancy.  South African historian of religions David Chidester has famously and relentlessly documented this trend in his Empire of Religion.  Citing the very statements of German-British scholar Max Müller from the late nineteenth century, who in multiple respects invented the very critical organon for the later development of the field, Chidester notes that the process of naming what is “religious” and what is not performed as the hidden handmaiden of European imperial policy up through the twentieth century. 

Invoking Müller’s slogan “classify and conquer”, Chidester shows how Müller, and those who emulated him, were able to convince colonial administrators to begin assembling, warehousing, and analyzing data about their native subject peoples both as an instrument of domestic intelligence to forestall rebellion as well as to commodify for the purposes of fashionable interest and consumption the inner lives of previously autonomous, and authochthonous, peoples.  “Raw religious materials,” Chidester writes, “which were contained in the reports of travelers, missionaries, and colonial administrators, were extracted, exported, and transformed into intellectual manufactured goods at metropolitan centers of theory production.”[3]  That explanation of course corresponds punctum a puncto to Mignolo’s account of the colonial matrix of power.   Yet it has also persisted – and indeed embedded itself – in what might be called the neoliberal matrix of cognitive hegemony[4]

To understand how such cognitive hegemony works, we must hark back once more to what colonialists in the nineteenth century characterized as their “civilizing mission.”  Even though colonialism visibly was all about rapacious extraction of resources and the meticulous regulation of ethnic, racial, and caste distinctions, in the minds of the colonialists themselves all these well-documented predations were but collateral damage in the righteous campaign to foster European moral and political values in the name of “progress” .

The philosopher Kant’s definition of Enlightenment as release from one’s own self-incurred cultural immaturity became the shibboleth of the colonialists, inasmuch as the colonialists piously viewed their own exploitation of foreign peoples as a necessary form of discipline in “educating” them. The notion of the civilizing mission, according to Michael Mann, had its origins in the French Revolution as the mission civilisatrice with its focus on liberty and equality as a radical new secular catechism.  Napoleon’s imperial wars and, ironically, the successful slave uprisings on the island of Hispaniola that led to the formation of the nation of Haiti, were early manifestations of this unprecedented kind of modernist post-Christian millenarianism.[5]  Present day neoliberalism – specifically progressive neoliberalism – is heir to the mission civilisatrice.  But, more importantly, like any imperial regime it cannot function adequately with some simulacrum of state religion. 

In light of our foregoing analysis, I would argue that the “state religion” of neoliberalism is tantamount to the field of religious studies per se.  Religious studies scholars, routinely cited as “authorities” in the mainstream press whenever some type of religious controversy catches public attention, have learned studiously how to discredit the very phenomenon they claim to be analyzing.  Much of this tendency may be due to the biases of the mainstream press itself, which often selects its “experts” in order to reinforce a predetermined story line. 

A Pew study of the 2008 Presidential election found that news coverage was generally “unfavorable” to both the religions of the candidates and those portions of the electorate supporting them, focusing equally on Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin’s evangelicalism and the long discredit rumor that Obama was a Muslim.  “Often,” the report concludes, “the context was negative”.[6]  But there is also a built-in penchant to minimize the subject itself that scholars of religion rarely acknowledges.  Whereas most high-prestige “scientific” fields such as physics or neuropsychology in the last half century have moved away from reductionistic models of research, religious studies has tended increasingly to ape the crudest versions of the social sciences with their own internalized “classificatory”, crypto-colonial schema that critics such as Chidester and Mignolo have dissected. 

Much of this tendency has always been of a defensive nature. Since it sprung up as a field in the 1960s it has always gone out of its way, often obsessively, to distance itself from the theological disciplines on account of the rigorous strictures in American separating church and state.  Eminent religious scholar Russell McCutcheon writes on his department website that “the academic study of religion is fundamentally an anthropological enterprise. That is, it is primarily concerned with studying people…their beliefs, behaviors, and institutions, rather than assessing ‘the truth’ or ‘truths’ of their various beliefs or behaviors.”[7] 

Of course, one cannot learn anything more about religion simply by studying religious people than one can learn about stars by studying the stars in their eyes.  The very notion of a “secular” approach to the phenomenon of religion is not much different from trying to unravel the mysteries of human love and bonding by examining people’s genitals.  It is also analogous to the difference between politics and political theology.  Even if we dare not call it “theology”, the study of religion requires a theoretical inquiry into the “truth” of the claims that are often made in the name of religion, not to mention politics. In short, there must be a metadiscipline for both politics and religion whereby the relationship between the two can be sorted out. 

The New Imperial “State Religion”

But religious studies has a far more a political role to play than a theoretical one. In many respects religious studies is similar to the political function of Roman religion, which had no “theology” worth naming to underwrite it. The purpose of Roman religion, as Jörg Rüpke notes, was “control” by political elites. “Religion offered a powerful source for legitimizing political decisions; it remained what Georg Simmel called a ‘third authority’”.[8]   Roman religion was extremely intricate, highly differentiated, and thoroughly functionalist in both its symbology and its performances. Strong fixation on a single set of beliefs was regarded with suspicion. Roman religion was also class-ridden.

The more prestigious aspects of “civil religion” were restricted to the ruling elites, while a polytonal hodgepodge of foreign “cults” proliferated among the lower classes and dregs of Roman society.  Rome permitted personal religious devotion and expression to the extent that one did not challenge the inviolable authority of the secular state.  It was the deification of the state in the form of Caesar worship inaugurated during the first century of the common era, combined with the ruthless punishment and suppression of those who refused to participate in the practice, that epitomizes Roman religion. The familiar canard that Rome’s religious pluralism was a paragon of tolerance to be emulated throughout the ages belies this reality. 

As Richard Corradini notes, Augustine in his City of God heavily criticized the religious functionalism of the Roman imperium as a subterfuge to cover up the narcissism, corruption, and increasing dysfunctionality of Roman society after the end of the republic.[9]   According to Ittai Gradel the term “religion” itself in its early Roman context was thoroughly political.  Religio signified an attitude of respect and diligence toward constituted authority, whether divine or human.[10]  Gradel argues that most of what we call “religion” in the Roman sense was known as publica sacra, or sacred public rites where the “numinous” character of religious symbols were systematically and methodically exploited to prevent the increasing tension between subjugated, conquered, or favored groups of people from tearing apart the empire. 

Emperor worship itself, which the first Christians resisted often at the cost of their lives was not, as is often assumed, some weird adaptation by the Caesars of Asian cult practices.  Roman religion revolved around the concept of divus, or supernatural power, which could be wielded by both gods and human beings.  The transition from republic to empire merely concentrated divine authority in the most commanding political figure of the times.

The “Romanization” of religion under the sign of neoliberalism, however, poses a distinctive challenge to the doctrine of sovereignty.   The idea of sovereignty as we know it, has been curated within an endowment of political thinking that is shot through with monopolitical presuppositions, which following Carl Schmitt constitute the heritage of both Near Eastern and Mediterranean monotheism.  The question of sovereignty is also the same as the ontological as well as the moral question of political legitimacy.   In many respects the monopolitical legacy of the Western world, including Islam, can be understood as the offshoot of a radical religious monotheism that doggedly resisted the concentration of political power in any single position or person, which in turn consistently rendered autocracy suspect. It also served to undermine the legitimacy of monarchy, especially the hereditary kind, and transposed the unitary impulse to the people as a whole. 

The vaunted religious pluralism of Rome, however, was a cover for the unconstrained concentration of power in a single individual, largely because political authority in Rome was ultimately vested in the military.  Such authority was dubbed imperium, the same word from which we derive “empire”.  In other words, Roman politics, even with the Republic, was an incessant power struggle in which the most ruthless and the most cunning came to rule  by brute force.  Whoever that might be simply won the title of princeps, or “first citizen”.  We might be so crass as to translate the word as “top dog”. There was no transcendental principle which might decide who should in a neutral or normative sense be allowed to rule.  Auctoritas – social prestige, or the qualification to command = was simply granted to whomever came out on top, and after the solidification of empire it was embellished with the title of divus, or “deity”.  

As Gradel emphasizes, this state of affairs was the inevitable outcome of the intimate association of the sacral in ancient Rome with the ability to vanquish one’s enemies. In the view of Adrastos Omissi “to understand [Roman] imperial power, one must understand usurpation.”  Furthermore, he notes:

From the moment of its creation, Roman imperial power was power usurped. The Roman Republic had been governed by an aristocracy whose members competed with one another for power and prestige within a political system the express function of which was to limit the concentration of power in individual hands. But during the first century BC, as the spoils of conquest poured into Roman coffers, the regulations that governed the Republic began to break down and powerful men fought with one another to rule a Roman state that now spanned the Mediterranean.[11]

Overall there could be no such thing as a “political theology” in ancient Rome, because political power and religion were virtually one and the same thing.  Roman “religion” from the earliest days of the Republic was preoccupied, as were other archaic religious systems such as the Indian Vedas, with the proper performance of rites.   These rites, in turn, were routinely improvised as a means for appeasing the whims of the countless gods and managing the opaque operations of even more incalculable divine forces, all of which was designed to guarantee the well-being of what came to be known as the “eternal city”.  Everything was modelled on an elaborate juggling of innumerable and ever proliferating “subjectivities”, as Clifford Ando suggests, without the benefit of any firm or intelligible metaphysical set of guideposts for bringing order out of both the social and cltosmic chaos.[12] 

The most important religious rite, therefore, was the auspicia, a form of divination that relied on the behavior of birds, especially chickens, in order to predict the results of battles or political decisions.[13]  The Roman religiones functioned necessarily as dependent variables in the maintenance of an abstruse and ill-grounded system of competing and usually violent power imbalances.  The violence of the system was justified through an even more vague ideology of multiplying subjectivities – the identity politics of its day – that could be called upon at any moment both to locate obscure sources of conflict and to prosecute anyone who might be perceived as a threat to the Rube Goldberg configuration itself. 

In other words, the ancient Roman imperium was hardly any different from the progressive neoliberal order of today.  Where religion in the early modern era served to anchor, or to confront, political authority through the doctrine of sovereignty, the raw politics of Rome and contemporary neoliberalism create a sheer veneer of sovereignty that is easily exposed for what it is – the exercise of the power of the state for the benefit of embedded economic and cultural elites.   The Romans termed this ideological sleight of hand virtus, or “virtue”.  We call it “virtue signaling,” but it is by and large one and the same. 

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] On Decoloniality, op. cit., 196.

[2] George E. Tinker, Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 4.

[3] David Chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 64.

[4] To understand how this process works in detail, I would refer the reader to my article “Religious Studies as Neoliberal ‘Triple Mediation’: Toward a Deconstruction of Its “Colonial Difference”.  In that article I explore the arguments of David Chidester, Achille Mbembe, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Mignolo.  I contend that the academic study of religion is prima facie a “colonial” discipline and the paradigm of rational inquiry inherent in these types of scholarly praxis conforms to what Chidester characterizes a “triple mediation” between the imperial subjugation and taxonomization as well as administration of colonized peoples and civilizations.  I write that “the notion that the ‘religious’, in its most enigmatic implications, can somehow be scrubbed down to manipulable ‘datasets’ is one great, grey manifestation of what we might call the neoliberal idee fixe.  Carl Raschke, “Religious Studies as Neoliberal ‘Triple Mediation’: Toward a Deconstruction of its ‘Colonial Difference’”, Religions 10 (2019): 238.

[5] See Michael Mann, “’Torchbearers Upon the Path of Progress’: Britain’s Ideology of a ‘Moral and Material Progress’ in India: An Introductory Essay,” in Harald Fischer-Tiné and Michael Mann, Colonialism as Civilizing Mission : Cultural Ideology in British India ( London: Anthem Press, 2004), 4.

[6] “How the News Media Covered Religion in the General Election”, Pew Research Center (November 20, 2008),  Accessed Sept. 15, 2022.  Some research shows that this bias is strong toward all “unconventional religions”, allowing stereotypes to proliferate.  See Stuart A. Wright, “Media Coverage of Unconventional Religion: Any ‘Good News’ for Minority Faiths?”, Review of Religions Research 39 (1997): 101-15.  See also Kim Knott and Elizabeth Poole, Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: Representation and Change (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[7] Russell McCutcheon, “What is the Academic Study of Religion?”, Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama,  Accessed Sept. 16, 2022.

[8] Jürg Rüpke, “Roman Religion – Religions of Rome”, in Jürg Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religions (Malden MA Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 3-4.

[9] Richard Corradini, “Augustine on the Polymorphism of Roman Identity,” Austrian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Medieval Research, Research Blog, Nov. 1, 2018,  Accessed Sept. 4, 2022.

[10] Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Romsn Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002, 4.

[11] Adrastos Omissi, Emperors and Usurpers in the Later Roman Empire: Civil War, Panegyric, and the Construction of Legitimacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4.  See also Sarolta Takács, The Construction of Authority in Ancient Rome and Byzantium: The Rhetoric of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[12] See Clifford Ando, “Religion and Government in the Roman Empire”, in Annuaire de l’École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), Open Edition Journals (2012): 119-20.  For Ando’s overall analysis of the relationship between religion and politics in Rome see his The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2008).  In addition, for a comparable analysis see Eric Orlin, Temples, Religion, and Politics in the Roman Republic (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 1997).

[13] Siddiq Alis Chishti and Muhammad Ifzal Mehmood, “The Nature and Function of Auspicia in Roman Religion and Roman Political System”,  International Journal of Science and Research (2013): 2697-9.

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