Towards decolonising philosophy of religion by thinking with African cosmo-sense
“Since the turn of the 21st century, increasing calls have been made to diversify philosophy of religion beyond its preoccupation with an abstract monotheism. This has also coincided with a ‘decolonial turn’ gaining momentum across academic disciplines more generally. How, then, should philosophy of religion proceed so that it engages with religions across the world, thus enlarging its scope beyond that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also avoids reproducing Eurocentric epistemologies and colonial relations of power?” asked STIAS fellow Patrice Haynes of the Department of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University.
Haynes’ project, which she hopes with result in a book, aims to show how philosophy of religion might be reconfigured in important ways by thinking with the (routinely neglected) resources of African modes of religious life.
“Specifically, and distinctively, it asks: How might a focus on African indigenous religions inform the decolonisation and deprovincialisation of philosophy of religion?”
“I’m not trying to give an ‘objective’ philosophical account of African indigenous religions but rather bring Western philosophy of religion in conversation with African indigenous religions as a way to begin decolonialising philosophy of religion,” she continued. “It’s about reimagining the world differently, ‘redreaming the world’, to use Ben Okri’s expression. So it’s not just about extending the range of religions to be investigated philosophically but critically examining the very terms ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’, particularly their interrelated histories. Consequently, this study does not simply seek to expand the content of philosophy of religion but to renegotiate the field altogether.”
She explained that philosophy of religion has traditionally been white, Eurocentric and largely about Christianity. It has also dealt with the stock problems – like the nature of God and self, the nature of evil, questions regarding belief, justification and language, ethics and aesthetics, and debates on the rationality of God.
“Most philosophy of religion focuses on the rationality of belief in God. So there is an overemphasis on the intellectual aspects of religion.”
“Generally it has also not engaged with how Christianity and philosophy contributed to the colonial project. We need to ask how philosophy of religion might renegotiate its terms to move beyond the legacy of Christian imperialism and colonial modernity. Thinking with other religions.”
“And what about practices and ritual – why don’t they have a place? And, for example, if there is a widespread belief in so-called witchcraft or animism then let philosophy engage with it.”
In starting to address these issues Haynes focused in her presentation on Mikel Burley’s recent book A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious, Interdisciplinary (2020).
“Burley uses the notion of a ‘hermeneutics of contemplation’, developed by the Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion D. Z. Phillips, in order to rethink philosophy of religion so that it is able to do conceptual justice to a range of religious forms of life in all their rich variety,” she explained. “While appreciative of Burley’s efforts, I question the disinterested nature of a contemplative approach to philosophy of religion on the grounds that it does not do enough to tackle the political character of the field.”
From ‘thinking-about’ to ‘thinking-with’ others
She described her specific problems with this contemplative approach.
“Firstly”, she explains, “because it does not advocate for the truth or morality of a particular form of life or way of understanding, it risks failing to take seriously the political dimensions of doing philosophy. Arguably, it is not only apolitical but politically conservative – not just standing back but actively maintaining the status quo. We need a collaborative effort to think against colonial reason and for another world than this.”
“Secondly, we need epistemic justice as well as conceptual justice – giving attention to the voices of those who have been overlooked as knowers, particularly with respect to religion.”
“Lastly, we need to put into historical context the notion of wonder so that philosophical wonder does not reproduce the colonial gaze in thinking non-European others.”
“Decolonising philosophy of religion is tasked not simply with thinking about indigenous religions but also thinking-with indigenous religions, specifically, with respect to my project, an African cosmo-sense.”
But she admitted that such work is challenging in terms of formulating a clear methodology and finding appropriate sources and resources.
“I am still working on the methodology,” she said. “I don’t just want to use canonical figures in philosophy – the same old thinkers. But I’m finding it hard to know where to find materials.”
She described her time at STIAS as particularly helpful in unpacking this kind of thinking “Interdisciplinarity is the way to do decolonial thinking,” she said. “I’m appreciating the porosity of the boundaries.”
In discussion she also pointed to the need for feminist perspectives. “We have to unpack the power relations within religious traditions – the authority to interpret religious positions rarely includes women. Feminist theology already has more of a focus on religion as it is lived, telling stories and shared experiences across religions.”
She also emphasised the need to tackle academia. “The philosophy of religion is relatively marginalised even in philosophy – moreover, it also tends to stay in its own silo, though there are encouraging signs that this is beginning to change,” she said.
“Furthermore, there are hardly any black philosophers in UK academia,” she added. “We need to ask what we need to do to bring greater diversity to the discipline in British higher education. Hopefully the desire for change from students will help.”
She concluded with a quote from Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegalese poet, politician and philosopher: “I feel the other, I dance the other, therefore I am”.
“Decolonialising philosophy of religion needs to dance the other,” she said.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu