Modern Religion, Modern Race

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Theodore Vial
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Modern Religion, Modern Race, Theodore Vial argues that race is central to the study of religion: “Race and religion are conjoined twins. They are offspring of the modern world. Because they share a mutual genealogy, the category of religion is always a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly under discussion.” (1). Vial argues that scholars of religion miss this point; that race is “one of the major blind spots in the study of religion” (57).

This simple but very powerful starting point provokes many challenges, in particular, (1) how do such discourses work (and carry power) within the contemporary world, and (2) how have histories produced the meanings of categories—such as race and religion—that are taken for granted today. Vial’s work focuses on the latter.

This is a book about how some key figures (white European men) set the framework of a theoretical and philosophical agenda for talking academically about both race and religion. These men are some of the leading figures in what is conventionally called “the (Franco-British) Enlightenment”—Kant, Herder, Schleiermacher, and Müller. As Vial indicates, contemporary theorists of religion continue to draw on ideas from each of these men, often without troubling to unpack the various racialized discourses within their writing on religion. This is “not a trickle-down theory” (14); for Vial the writings of these men are worth exploring because they have been so influential.

Vial starts with Kant, looking in particular at how and why Kant talked about race. Kant is shown to have pursued both a scientific/linnaean approach to classifying natural divisions between humans while also implicating race within the teleology of humanity. For Kant, (the concept of) race is a key element of human progression: it is necessary for his philosophies of science, history, and human freedom, and thus for modernity. 

The remaining chapters play between Schleiermacher, Müller, and Herder. For Vial, Schleiermacher’s contribution to the study of religion should not be reduced to an Eliadean interpretation of religion as deep feeling (the “sensibility and taste for the infinite”). Instead, Schleiermacher’s theory of religion is “necessarily social,” profoundly tied to language and culture, and hence to the concept of race. Vial demonstrates this by looking at Schleiermacher’s discussion of two groups—(“aboriginal”) “New Hollanders/Australians” and Jews. On the former, Schleiermacher used an early English colonialist’s account, describing them as “miserable … ; they led in every aspect a wretched life” (207-208). For Vial, this indicates Schleiermacher’s linking of progress, race, and religion; the indigenous Australians are ranked as being so low on the ladder of progress that there is no room for religion. In this sense, the presence or absence of religion is racialized: those who are racialized as simple and miserable have a religion that matches their social status. This link is the highly uncomfortable assumption underlying Schleiermacher’s theories of religion, the “blind spot” that we should not ignore.

Vial suggests that even if we “find Schleiermacher’s modern construction of religion appealing,” most will probably still be “uncomfortable with his conclusions about Australian and Jewish religions.” But he notes that “ we still use Schleiermacher’s category ‘religion’ when we think about and participate in religious activities. So the question is, if Schleiermacher’s comments on other religions cannot but strike us as racist, and if we continue to assume his model of religion, is our own thinking about religion racialized, even if we are more circumscribed in the language we use?” (224)

Vial’s answer to this rhetorical question is affirmative. And I think he is correct, that his juggling of the work of Schleiermacher and others does bring out this largely ignored and side-lined play on issues of race while talking of religion (and indeed vice versa). 

I am very aware that any review is as much about the book the reviewer would like to have seen written, rather than the one that the author has spent years researching, organizing, and writing. I agree with much of what Vial argues, and the critique that he makes (although I confess that there are many scholars in a far better position than myself to make a judgement on this close analysis of Schleiermacher, Kant, etc.). But there were also issues that I missed from this book that left me feeling frustrated in the choice of focus. 

The sections on Vial’s own theoretical understanding of the broad concepts of race and racialization were good, but they skipped over much of the (very extensive) contemporary literature on this very important issue. W. E. B. Du Bois is present, as is Kwame Anthony Appiah, and there is a brief mention of Paul Gilroy. But these are really skimming the surface of a very deep range of scholarship that I think would have given Vial a much richer set of theoretical tools to address issues of racialization. Figures such as Stuart Hall in Britain and Michael Omi and Howard Winant in North America come to mind here in particular, but again they are just the starting point. And most importantly, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s call for an intersectional approach that considers both race and gender is now twenty years old—alongside the work of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, and many more.

These raise what is for me an even greater blind spot for the study of religion (and indeed for the academy): that is, the seemingly invisible issue of whiteness, which is at the heart of the racial and religious teleology of the enlightenment that Vial is unpacking. Again there is some serious theory that could help us explore these issues of the constructions of race and religion through the lens of questioning and seeking to unpack the role of whiteness within how the discipline and the academy have come to talk about religion (such as work by Barnor Hesse and Kehinde Andrews). For me, talking of race requires us to talk about how those people who consider themselves white racialize themselves and subsequently racialize others as Others. Although he does not address whiteness directly, Vial does give us a very clear indication of where some of those bodies are buried (hint: they are in plain sight).

In short, in Modern Religion, Modern Race Vial makes a very important contribution to debates on how the study of religion needs to explore its past, and in particular the often ignored overlap between categories of race and religion. For those interested in seeing how white male Enlightenment thinkers helped to create such a mess, this book needs to be read and taught widely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Malory Nye teaches at the University of Glasgow and the University of Stirling.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Theodore Vial teaches modern western religious thought. He is the author of Schleiermacher: A Guide for the Perplexed (2013), Liturgy Wars: Ritual Theory and Protestant Reform in Nineteenth-Century Zurich ( 2004); and co-editor of Ethical Monotheism, Past and Present: Essays in Honor of Wendell S. Dietrich (2001). Vial received his B.A. from Brown University and both M.A. and Ph. D. from The University of Chicago.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.