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Book: On the Subject of Religion

Chapter: Response: Religious Studies: A Pawn in the Culture Wars

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.41084


Although Alles’ paper focuses on private money for the study of religion, public funding is shaped by political ideologies that are primarily influenced by private interests. Public funding for higher education has steeply declined in recent years. In California, it’s been dwindling for decades, making a sharp about face from its 1960 Master Plan that created a framework for a tuition-free higher education system for all eligible high school students. We have to ask, what happened? What kinds of social struggles were taking place that might turn us away from such fortuitous initiatives? The positive structural shifts that began in the 1960s and 70s coincided with what have been described as the culture wars, such as the rise of the moral majority and fiscal conservatism in response to the civil rights movement and the radical possibilities of social equity. Alles notes that private interests invested in research on science, technology, defense, even agriculture. However, both state and private interests funded the social sciences, which served their often overlapping and contingent form of what anthropologist David Nugent calls “commercial empire” (Nugent 2010). The U.S. and other European powers used knowledge production as a complement to imperialist projects in order to understand how to manage its colonies and the peoples within them (Smith 2002). Religious Studies contributed to these ends through its own deeply racialized assumptions about the nature of religious traditions, producing stratifications that we still live with today (Masuzawa 2005) While the reflexive turn in the social sciences and the postmodern turn in the humanities challenged the universalist discourses that served imperial goals, these strides have been stigmatized by political factions in the last several decades as radical leftist thought. I contend that the field has gotten caught in the crosshairs of these culture wars and it doesn’t know it because it has failed to explore the structural mechanisms of our present social conditions, such as white supremacy, settler colonialism, and racialization in more critical ways that other disciplines, such as Anthropology, Sociology, Cultural Studies, and English have. In fact, it may unwittingly act as a pawn in these culture wars.

Chapter Contributors

  • Natalie Avalos ( - navalos) 'University of Colorado Boulder '