Subject Area

Religion, Humanities, Theology/Religious Education


Over the past thirty to forty years, the academic study of religion has brought the category of religion into crisis, unveiling its Christian architecture and its formation as a settler-colonial category of European expansion. While the proliferation of research on the genealogy of religion has opened new and important vantages for study, we remain conflicted about what is at stake. In this dissertation, I argue that the modern-colonial construction of religion is organized by a racial-theological operation that categorically separates people into humans, subhumans, and nonhumans, by which the social, economic, and political inequalities of racial capitalism have been made to seem natural and inevitable. The dissertation brings Black Studies and decolonial theory to bear on critical genealogies of religion, and argues modern discourses of race and religion are rooted in anti-blackness and settler-colonialism. I aim to specify the practice of racial distinction as the force or movement that opens religion’s discursive economy.

Chapter one reviews the state of contemporary criticism of religion, and situates critique of religion in the material crises of the twentieth century. In chapter two, I engage the work of Caribbean theorist Sylvia Wynter to historicize the argument, and show how modern politics became possible by secularizing the theological distinctions or oppositions of medieval Christendom into the biological enemies or failures of the human species itself. I deploy this framework in chapter three by reading together the work of Lindon Barrett with David Chidester’s Savage Systems, and argue that the human is a structure of value in relation to that which can generate value but not be valued in itself. Chapter four engages Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, and turns the argument towards the subjugation of the European peasants in the witch-hunts, as a constitutive relation of settler-colonialism. Finally, chapter five explores the work of Charles Long on the history of religions, with the work of black feminists M. NourbeSe Philip, and Hortense Spillers, to interrogate religion as a modern category around the themes of freedom and racial slavery. In this chapter, I aim more directly at the religious logic of whiteness, especially as whiteness is structured by a grammar of captivity. The conclusion offers constructive reflections on the implications of the argument, and argues a way forward is to study religion in relation to what survives or escapes the installation of the human.

This dissertation is a critique of dominant Christianity and the racial-(post)colonial world made as Western European Christendom secularized itself. But it is a critique that is launched in relation to contemporary theories and methodologies in religious studies. In this way, the project suggests a way of reading contemporary religious studies criticism as moving towards, but being unable to name, the problem of the human as that which houses the current crisis of religion and its resolutions. As a transmutation of the Christian subject, the human names the form of life - global in scope - that (re)produces itself as the proper mode of the human through the sociopolitical hierarchical differentiation of the human from the not-quite-human and the nonhuman (Alexander Weheliye).

Degree Date

Winter 12-15-2018

Document Type


Degree Name



Religious Studies


Joerg Rieger

Second Advisor

J. Kameron Carter

Third Advisor

Jill DeTemple

Fourth Advisor

Harold J. Recinos

Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License