Critical Theory and the Importance of Religious Studies

by Steven Ramey

A common response to critical theory’s critiques of categories related to “religion” is that it undermines the rationale for the academic study of religion. If the categories do not exist, then what is the point of the field? Because people employ the categories strategically, promoting various interests, religious studies becomes more relevant as critical theory facilitates analysis of those strategic applications of the category.

As an example, a Pakistani newspaper reported that, on December 1, a demolition crew destroyed several homes in Karachi, Pakistan, leaving approximately 40 Hindus homeless. The crew also reportedly demolished a temple, and residents placed images from that temple on the rubble in protest. The temple’s destruction, not the loss of homes, was the focus of a BBC News article. The head of the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti shrine in Ajmer, an important Sufi shrine in India, condemned the action as being against Islam, but, according to the Hindustan Times, his condemnation focused on the temple, saying, “Islam does not allow anyone to damage a religious place.” The article says nothing about the homes destroyed. The President of Pakistan ordered an inquiry into the incident, to which a government officer reportedly responded by denying that the temple had been destroyed.

As these responses suggest, those elements of human society that receive the label “religion” can generate stronger emotions that produce attention, special protections, and prohibitions or stronger opposition. The shrine leader declaring the destruction to be outside Islam, the government official denying that a temple was damaged, and residents placing deity images on the rubble each employ the category “religion” as a political act, not in the sense of establishing public policy but in the sense of negotiating competing claims and interests.

Critical theory in religious studies encourages a focus on the political nature of any attempt to determine what the “real” boundaries of religion or a specific religion are. Using critical theory to focus our attention on the strategic use of religion to promote a position or diminish the assertions of others makes religious studies increasingly relevant for contemporary society.


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