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  3. Religion and Spirituality in the Constitution of Public and Private Lives: A Postcolonial Perspective

Religion and Spirituality in the Constitution of Public and Private Lives: A Postcolonial Perspective

Collaborative projects

Religion and Spirituality in the Constitution of Public and Private Lives: A Postcolonial Perspective

Collaborative Project outline by Duncan Brown, KwaZulu Natal University and Ferguson Centre, Open University

The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this document; these views should not be attributed to The Ferguson Centre or any other part of The Open University.


This project is concerned with the place and role of religion and spirituality in modes of individual identification and belief, as well as in the structure and functioning of the public spheres of governance and policy-making, in postcolonial societies, taking as its initial focus South Africa. It engages seriously, in both its areas of investigation and its consideration of new methodologies, with the challenge of accounting for the range and power of religious/spiritual discourses which run through individual and communal identification in such societies, while subjecting such discourses to analysis and argument. It will run in the first instance as a one-year pilot project, with a limited number of participants and a restriction of its scope to South Africa, but will seek to develop wider participation and comparative perspectives with the UK, Asia and the Caribbean during 2007 and 2008.

Religious and spiritual discourses and understandings weave through the public and private spheres of South African life, and those of other postcolonial societies. In contrast to the increasing secularisation of Europe and the West (although there is evidence of right-wing Christian resurgence in the USA and elsewhere), religion and spirituality in Africa, Asia and South America remain integral to individual and collective life, and issues ranging from the most publicly political to the most personally intimate are often discussed, legislated or performed in spiritual or religious terms. South Africa is a particularly interesting case study in that it comprises a large range of Christian denominations, including indigenised African churches, as well as Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, many forms of ‘traditional’ African and Khoisan religious practice, (post)modern paganist movements, and ‘New Age’ spiritualities. The percentages for religious affiliation from the 2001 census are as follows: Christianity 79.6%, 15.1% no religion, 1.5% Islam, 1.2% Hinduism, 0.2% Judaism, 0.3% African traditional, 1.4% undetermined, and 0.6% other faiths (Kane-Berman et al 2004: 28). The statistics indicate that Christianity is the dominant religious affiliation, and certainly it has the broadest reach and presence in personal and public lives. But Islam, Hinduism, and traditional African religions, despite small percentage affiliations, also have public visibility, especially in debates about national policy and legislation, in part because parliamentary representation does not follow the percentages of the national census, with a far higher percentage of Muslim and Hindu affiliates serving as MPs and a lower percentage of Christians than the census figures might suggest. In contrast to the South African figure of 79.6% defining themselves as Christian, by the 1990s only 10% of the population in the United Kingdom comprised churchgoers (Elphick 1997:347), although intriguingly official census figures for religious affiliation in the UK match those of South Africa quite closely.

Religion and spiritual belief appear in the media frequently as having public, and often controversial, influence in debates over ‘moral’ issues ranging from homosexuality and contraception, to corporal and capital punishment; they are also highly visible at times in relation to questions of school and professional dress codes running counter to religious requirements. Yet they are imbricated in all aspects of society, from individual moral choices, clothing, career, family ethics, sexuality, gender roles, social engagement, to choice of abode/living area, and much else. Religion and spiritual belief play important roles in arguments in South Africa of topics as diverse as: whether medical aid schemes will cover the costs of treatments by ‘traditional healers’ (such as izangoma and izinyanga) and whether companies will accept ‘medical certificates’ from such practitioners; the basis for, and limits to, ‘traditional’ leadership; where constitutional law infringes upon cultural or customary rights or codes; how educational institutions should deal with religious and cultural difference, in relation to both classroom practice and curriculum development; on what basis land claims are or may be made; how to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and safer sexual practices; on what basis health policy is framed; what should be legislated as public holidays; what may be published or said, and what the grounds for censorship are; what the broadcasting policies of the national broadcaster should cover; what constitutes marriage and how it should be legislatively defined; on what basis natural resources and the environment should be utilised and/or conserved; what responsibility the state has for social upliftment and poverty relief; what the purpose of the penal code is/should be; what forms of social or cultural affiliation may be allowed, and which are construed as dangerous or harmful; and so on. While many of these are issues which have valency and resonance in European or American societies, they have a particular charge and weight in their often religious articulation in the postcolony.

Conceptual Framework and Methodology

The terms ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ are not used uncritically, and will themselves be the subject of discussion. While ‘religion’ may imply a fairly high degree of organisation, with spiritual principles, canonical texts, dogma and theology, the beliefs and practices of people like !Kung Bushmen or Pintupi Aboriginal peoples, very often referred to as ‘spirituality’, also involve specific systems of action and faith. Further, orthodox Christian denominations such as Catholicism or Anglicanism are frequently criticised by evangelical or charismatic Christians for emphasising the ‘religious’ (church hierarchy, the repetitive use of the liturgy, pre- or proscribed iconography) over a properly ‘spiritual’ relationship with God (focussing in particular on the Holy Spirit). In contrast, the term ‘spiritual’ can be a term of contempt in the language of orthodox churches or religions for belief systems and their adherents which lack the requisite history and organisation to qualify them as serious ‘religions’; or which are perceived to be associated with ‘dark’ forces. There are also many people who would claim spiritual belief – in a variety of manifestations – while balking at any definition of themselves as religious. So the two terms, in both their possibilities and limitations, are integral to the concerns of the project at its inception, though the research work itself may redeploy them, move beyond them, or set them in critical dialogue with each other.

Similarly, the terms ‘private’ and ‘public’ are not used in binarised, unreflective or normative ways. The shifting parameters of what may be construed as ‘public’ or ‘private’; the necessity for rigorous contextualisation in discussion of the terms; their differing valencies in specific religious belief and social systems: these questions and others will be integral to the project’s investigations.

The project does not seek to imply that postcolonial societies are in some way ‘marked’ by their religiosity and/or spirituality. That would be to perpetuate colonial binaries, as well as to ignore other more material markers of postcoloniality: economic underdevelopment; foreign debt; inadequate health care; and the like. Rather, the project tries to direct attention to an important aspect of postcoloniality which has either been ignored, or has been treated inadequately or with hostility, though there are some more recent attempts to work more productively with these questions.

Robert Young points to the difficulty (even faint embarrassment?) experienced by postcolonial scholars in a variety of human/social science disciplines in their engagement with the religious or spiritual. In considering “Gandhi’s apparent absence from the foreground of postcolonial theory”, Young suggests as a reason Gandhi’s “unfashionable adherence to the ‘spiritualization of politics’ – the idea that the spiritual diffuses all aspects of everyday life, including the political, and should form the basis of the way humans live” (2000:337). While there may be other reasons for Gandhi’s ‘apparent absence’ from critical discussion, including his hagiography in popular discourse, I think Young is correct in pointing to a deeper-rooted paradigmatic problem within postcolonial studies:

Gandhi’s anomalous position brings out the extent to which, as a result of its Marxist orientation, an absolute division between the material and the spiritual operates within postcolonial studies, emphasizing the degree to which the field is distinguished by an unmediated secularism, opposed to and consistently excluding the religions that have taken on the political identity of providing alternative value-systems to those of the west – broadly speaking, Islam and Hinduism. Postcolonial theory, despite its espousal of subaltern resistance, scarcely values subaltern resistance that does not operate according to its own secular terms (Chakrabarty 2000). (2001:337-8)

While Young includes only Islam and Hinduism as providing “alternative value-systems to those of the west” there is abundant evidence of other religions, including various forms of indigenised Christianity, expressing ‘subaltern’ concerns. Young’s own study, besides identifying the lacuna, does little itself to move beyond the paradigmatic problems which it identifies.

In its resistance to grand narratives, its dismissal of the centred subject, and its rejection of the transcendental signifier (God/the gods/Spirit/truth), the poststructuralist turn in postcolonial studies has proved itself to be equally inimical to the serious and nuanced study of religious practice and belief; and its celebrations of hybridity, liminality and transgression - while undeniably liberatory in cosmopolitan middle-class contexts - may seem baffling or bizarre in other contexts. Anthropology, religious studies and theology provide useful conceptual and methodological models, though the research question which drives this project seems to demand interdisciplinary investigation. As Young suggests, in postcolonial contexts “the most productive forms of thought [are] those that interact freely across disciplines and cultures in constructive dialogues” (2003: 114).
Where the religious or spiritual do enter debate in postcolonial studies, they are generally – and in relation to Christianity and missionisation almost uniformly – treated in a diagnostic ideological/political way (as a ‘colonisation of consciousness’, a ‘negotiation of modernity’, or in their connection with moral fundamentalism or xenophobic nationalism), which does not do justice to, in fact is often at odds with, the lived realities of identification and belief of those living in the postcolony. This project seeks to move beyond the limitations of these positions by suggesting an important methodological reorientation: rather than subjecting inhabitants of the postcolony to scrutiny in terms of postcolonial theory/studies, how can we allow that theory and its assumptions also to be interrogated by the subjects and ideas which it seeks to explain? More broadly, what does postcolonial study look like from the perspective of the postcolony/South; and what methodological developments would be needed to accomplish this shift of perspective? How do we develop a critical language and framework which avoids the dismissiveness of materialism in its approach to spirituality, while still undertaking studies which are rigorously analytical and critical, but receptive to other modes of identification, identity and being?

The inability to move beyond conventional paradigms can undermine potentially groundbreaking projects in this area. Coleman and Collins’s study,Religion, Identity and Social Change: Perspectives on Global Transformations(2004), finds it rationale precisely in the lack of attention to religion in academic study, and claims that “[i]dentity in relation to religion needs to be treated in a different, more vibrant manner than before and in this regard, this collection is timely” (x). Yet despite its promise the collection itself does not move much beyond a fairly conventional sociology of religion and its well-established frameworks. More challenging in this regard are studies by Philip Jenkins, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Greg Grandin.

In his fascinating, provocative and polemical study, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002), Jenkins boldly redraws the conceptual map on which Christianity is arrayed, producing rich readings of its middle-eastern, African and broadly ‘postcolonial’ or ‘South’ influences, rather than its more recent European history, and pointing to the shift of power in current church authority from the ‘rich North’ to the ‘poorer South’, in particular Africa and Latin America. His approach is richly suggestive, and finds support in the work of many leading theologians, though he seems to push the implications of his argument too far in pointing towards a transnational global Christendom, possibly at (armed) odds with an Islamic counterpart. In his book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000) Chakrabarty - as Young himself acknowledges - has usefully suggested the possibilities of new lines of thinking. Specifically and deliberately eschewing any ‘sociology of religion’ (16), he seeks to move beyond what he describes as the problematics of ‘historicism’ in the postcolonial context, in which the religious and the spiritual are perceived as premodern phases which the colonised must develop beyond in order to enter civility, modernity and citizenship (the ‘not yet’ through which the coloniser refuses the colonised access to power). Chakrabarty writes instead of “the peasant-but-modern political sphere [which] was not bereft of the agency of gods, spirits, and other supernatural beings”, and he points towards understandings of ‘the nation state’, the ‘citizen’ and the ‘public sphere’ in the postcolony (his specific focus is India) in which spiritual affinities co-exist with constitutional rights. Drawing on the work of Guha he says:

Guha’s statement recognized this subject as modern, however, and hence refused to call the peasants’ political behaviour or consciousness ‘prepolitical’. He insisted that instead of being an anachronism in a modernizing colonial world, the peasant was a real contemporary of colonialism, a fundamental part of the modernity that colonial rule brought to [sic] in India. Theirs was not a ‘backward’ consciousness - a mentality left over from the past, a consciousness baffled by modern political and economic institutions and yet resistant to them. Peasants’ readings of the relations of power that they confronted in the world, Guha argued, were by no means unrealistic or backward-looking. (13)

Chakrabarty’s argument is that the historicist and analytical legacy within Western academia has prevailed over the more imaginative, responsive, intuitive engagements with the real, and yet that an accommodation between the two is both possible and necessary. Grandin’s recent study, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (2004), provides a complex and nuanced account of Guatemalan political history in the Cold War, which takes full account of the role of religion and spirituality in identity formation, political organisation and economic subordination/resistance: from Catholicism’s imbrication with both colonial subordination and anti-colonial insurrection (including its often contradictory valency for socialist movements/activists); to the development of a Mayan Marxism, which rooted materialist paradigms in rural community structures and beliefs.

There are other signs of a renewed attention to religion and spirituality in the academy, and in particular in postcolonial studies. Stanley Fish said recently: “When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, class and gender as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion” (2005:17). In South Africa the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research recently arranged a one-day workshop on the subject of religion, and is presently advertising two research fellowships in the area, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is focussing the 2006 NEXUS interdisciplinary conference on Religion and Nation. Whereas the original edition of Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin’s influential book The Postcolonial Studies Reader gave little or no attention to the religious or spiritual, the revised second edition now concludes with a section of essays devoted to this subject.


The project will be explicitly interdisciplinary, with contributors from among the following fields: literary studies; theology; psychology; history; religious studies; anthropology; sociology; law; cultural/media studies; gender studies; African language studies; philosophy; performance studies; and ethnomusicology.

The pilot stage will issue in an edited book and/or a special edition of a journal. The material collected in the process of conducting the research (copies of historical documents, photographs, literary texts, interviews, oral testimonies, stories, artefacts, etc) will be deposited in a suitable archive to which there is public access. The project is also concerned with finding ways to disseminate its material in broader, more popularly-accessible forms, and so approaches will be made to local and national community structures, as well as local and national government departments to explore ways in which ideas can have wider circulation, and perhaps more practical application.

Abdulkader, Tayob. 1995. Islamic Resurgence in South Africa: The Muslim Youth Movement. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press. 
-----------------------. 1999. Islam in South Africa: Mosques, Imams and Sermons. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 
Ashcroft, Bill, et al (eds). 2006. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge.
Bloom, Harold. 1992. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Boer, Roland and Gerald West. 2001 “A Vanishing Mediator? The Presence/Absence of the Bible in Postcolonialism” Semeia 88.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000.Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Chidester, David. 1997. Islam, Hinduism and Judaism in South Africa: An Annotated Bibliography. Greenwoods.
Coleman, Simon and Peter Collins (eds). 2004. Religion, Identity and Social Change: Perspectives on Global Transformations. Aldershot: Ashgate. 
Comaroff, Jean and John. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa: Volume One. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 
De Kock, Leon. 1996. Civilising Barbarians: Missionary Narrative and African Textual Response in Nineteenth-Century South Africa. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
Dube, Musa W. 2000. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.
Elphick, Richard.1997. “The Benevolent Empire and the Social Gospel: Missionaries and South African Christians in the Age of Segregation.Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social and Cultural History. Ed. Richard Elphick and Rodney Davenport. Oxford: James Currey. Cape Town: David Philip. 347-369.
Grandin, Greg. 2004. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Gunner, Liz (ed and transl). 2004 (2002). The Man of Heaven and the Beautiful Ones of God: Isaiah Shembe and the Nazareth Church. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Hofmeyr, J. 1981. Religion in a South African Indian Community. Durban: University of Durban-Westville.
Hofmeyr, J W, et al (eds). 1994 (1991).History of the Church in South Africa: A Document and Source Book. Pretoria: University of South Africa.
Jenkins, Philip. 2002. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kane-Berman, John et al. 2004. South Africa Survey 2003/2004. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations. 
Katz, Richard, et al. 1997. Healing Makes our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Cultural Transformation among the Kalahari Ju’hoansi. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
Kwok, Pui-lan. 2005. Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology. London: SCM Press. 
Segovia, Fernando F. 2000.Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Sugirtharajah, R.S. 1999 (1998). Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. 
----------------------. 2002. Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
----------------------. 2003. Postcolonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology. London: SCM Press. 
The Contributions of South African Religions to the Coming South Africa: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg 15-17 September 1991. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal. 
Young, Robert J C. 2001. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
-----------------------. 2003.Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.