Religious Affects

Animality, Evolution, and Power

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Donovan Schaefer
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , November
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The field of religious studies is littered with the false coins of anthropocentrism, which stubbornly remain in circulation notwithstanding scholars’ embrace of affect theory. Bringing together insights from the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences, Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects argues that the affective turn is nothing less than the animalization of theory. The book opens and closes with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees in the Kakombe Valley, asking whether these creatures can be said to dance, and if their behavior is religious. The point is not only that we resemble animals, but also that they behave like us. Animals are not, in the spirit of Charles Darwin, the radical others that followers of Abrahamic religions often suggest they are.

Schaefer’s theoretically dense book does not rehearse debates between creationists and staunch defenders of evolutionary theory. Instead, he refreshingly brings together theories that rarely interact beyond a superficial level, such as post-adaptionist evolutionary biology, continental philosophy building on Spinoza and Nietzsche, feminist and queer theory, and the work of scholars of religion who developed the material religion approach in the past two decades. He takes material religion studies further by addressing why affect theory undermines the so-called linguistic fallacy, the misunderstanding that religion is “merely a byproduct of language” (9). Granted, many scholars already know that religion cannot be reduced to beliefs, and that religious studies must reach beyond the study of discourses alone. Schaefer, however, introduces key concepts that help us understand why affects are fundamental to religions rather than merely demonstrating in what ways this is the case.

First, Schaefer does not describe nature as unmoving, as producing timeless affects, but also does not succumb to a simplistic understanding of evolution as a hyperfluid-anything-goes. The nuanced concept of “intransigence” is developed to formulate the biological condition of possibility for religious affects: “Intransigent structures are susceptible to reconfiguration without being so flexible as to lack consistency...these forms are shared among bodies in ways that step across local cultural histories” (37). Our ancient biological histories—our animality—are inescapable to us. These are “the reefs that subsist below the level of rational control, linguistic sedimentation, or affective flux but nonetheless shape our encounters with power” (41).

Secondly, we are governed by “compulsion”: our bodies cannot be simply turned on and off by sovereign selves. Here, Schaefer makes an important contribution to understanding how intransigent feelings, driven by desires that cannot be easily contained, co-constitute struggles for power, xenophobia, and racism in the present. For instance, in an analysis of the documentary film Jesus Camp, Schaefer animalizes the Protestant religion and whiteness, rather than de-animalizing the (Muslim) others that are objects of hatred for fundamentalist religious groups. He argues that racism is an unavoidable concept to understand such politics of exclusion. To put it bluntly, that is because racism is not only a matter of ideology, which it is, but also “primatology”: “Racism is a pre-linguistic or paralinguistic component of animality” (123).

In contrast, in the Netherlands it has been suggested that new forms of religious intolerance are better understood as culturalist exclusion, which do not necessarily entail phenotypical forms of racism. Schaefer’s work reveals just how anthropocentric the idea of culturalism can be, when it ignores the powerful animalist affective dimensions that are part and parcel of racism. Racism is better understood as the combined effect of intransigent feelings and compulsions, which enable diverse and cross-cultural forms of violent, ideological exclusion. These religio-racist affects are most visible in frontier zones, or social boundaries where different humans encounter each other. From this perspective, it makes sense that anxieties about European Islam center around material religion, including ritual slaughter, sounds out of place such as the amplified call to prayer, debates about kissing, shaking hands, looking at each other, and eating together.

Finally, Religious Affects defends the fundamental contingency of the human-animal condition. The book offers a much stranger glimpse into life than rationalist evolutionary theorists, who tend to reduce natural change to a rational calculus of survival. Schaefer alternatively conceptualizes religious affects as a somewhat odd, biological accident, a product of evolutionary landscapes that do not exhibit linear development, “being itself is a junkyard, a sedimented landscape of accidents. Animality, the heterogenous multiplicity of bodies, is a disorganized archive of the ongoing play of differences in the creation of species” (155). Religion, but also language itself, cannot be therefore reduced to single or clearly defined social functions. Instead, Schaefer theorizes religion as an awkard, accidental dance.

Reading Religious Affects brought me back to one of many scenes in the history of art, which glorify men at the expense of animal others. A beautiful fresco of Spinello Aretino, in Florence’s San Miniato al Monte, shows Saint Benedict in the act of driving away a demon. The contrast between the saint and the demon could not be greater: Benedict is dressed in white and decorated by a golden halo, while the demon’s nakedness is covered only by his black hair. The saint is in full control, gesturing sternly towards the demon, which is depicted in wild movement, turning in horror to face holy admonishment. The demon then flees into a nature landscape of hills and trees, where beings with claws and batwings presumably belong, in contrast with Benedict and his followers who are distinguished by their church building.

Religious Affects reads like stepping outside of the Florentine church, itself built on a hill teeming with life, to see the city landscape as the nature-culture assemblage that it in fact is, and to refuse the black and white distinction between humans and animals that has dominated theology and religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pooyan Tamimi Arab is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donovan O. Schaefer is Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.


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.