The Relevance of Research: Religions as Vestigial States

[By Naomi Goldenberg]

My work at present is focused on developing the hypothesis that religions can be productively thought of as vestigial states.  I consider this to be one way of de-essentializing, demystifying and deconstructing the category of religion.  In general, the concept directs theory along two trajectories:  one is the analysis of particular histories in which ‘religions’ are formed or solidified in distinction to ‘states’; another is a focus on classifications which current governments use to delineate spheres of power.  I understand that if the term vestigial state has any resonance, that it will be as a temporary, partial and provisional tool for building theory in critical religion.

My work draws on James Crawford’s discussion of what defines a state in the latest edition of The Creation of States In International Law (Oxford: 2006).  Although not without its critics, Crawford’s articulation of the contingencies attached to the idea of a ‘state’ remains an important touchstone in international law. I also refer to texts by Max Weber and Louis Althusser to make my argument that the control of violence is a basic tipping point between what I want to call a vestigial state and a fully empowered government.

Vestigial states tend to behave as once and future states.  They are always somewhat restive and are generally eager to take on whatever social, cultural and/or managerial functions the recognized state cedes to them.  For example, presently in contemporary nation states, categories of custom and law pertaining to the ‘family’ are considered proper spheres for ‘religious’ authority.  In contrast, economic policies and most forms of violence are currently placed outside of religious control.  Nevertheless, in some jurisdictions ‘domestic’ violence done in the name of religious practice is tolerated at times.  In general, whenever religions, i.e. vestigial states, claim rights in regard to police or military action, they risk being delegitimated in relation to the category of religion.  Thus, in regard to Islam, for example, terms such as ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamist’ are invented to cordon off appropriate forms of Islam from those that contemporary nation-states consider inappropriate. I argue that Islam is in the process of being turned into a ‘religion’ – i. e. of being made ‘vestigial’ – within some contemporary nation states at the same time that it functions non-vestigially in other parts of the world.  Debates about Islam illustrate how ‘religion’ as a discursive category is employed as a means of control in Western democracies.

My hope is that scholars who specialize in particular historical periods and geographical regions might find the concept of vestigial state to be useful in a range of contexts.  Currently, I have a particular interest in the shrewd initiative by the Dalai Lama to separate his ‘political’ functions from his ‘religious’ ones by encouraging the democratic election of a political leader of the Tibetan people.  Thus is Tibetan Buddhism being constructed to conform ever more coherently with the category of ‘religion’ as a way of limiting the powers of future Dalai Lamas whom China will try to name and control.  In my terms, the Dalai Lama is defining himself as a leader of a vestigial state in order to create a separate sphere of ‘political’ leadership that might escape Chinese influence.

The hypothesis that  religions be thought of as vestigial states works well when applied to Jewish history in a manner consonant with the work of Daniel Boyarin in Border Lines:  The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Un. of Pa.:  2004) and Seth Schwartz in Imperialism and Jewish Society 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton: 2001).  Boyarin argues that ‘Judaism’ as a religion is created over the centuries in dialogues with Christian theologians.  I argue that such discursive production is perhaps secondary to the machinations of state powers that had to deal with Jews as a conquered ethnic group within their jurisdictions.  Schwartz’ hypothesis that the village evolves as a ‘religious community’ within a state supports my argument that ‘religions’ arise as ways of granting attenuated powers to displaced governments.

Groups aspiring to have the status of ‘religions’ often use narratives that identify with former sovereignties both real and/or semi-fictional. Contemporary forms of Wicca, for example, posit an ancient history in which governments were organized according to the principles Wiccans now follow.  Thus, Wiccans might be seen as imagining their covens as vestigial embodiments of previous sovereign governments.

The nostalgic reference to a former deity or deities as a means of supporting current governmental power is a common theme in Western history and literature.  I draw on my background as a classicist to highlight this trope in the Theogony of Hesiod in regard to how the reign of the Titans is cited when the Olympians triumph over them.  I also mention Athena’s treatment of the Furies in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.  In both cases, although the term ‘religion’ is somewhat of an anachronism in ancient Greece, the succession of sovereignties is nevertheless marked by relegating former ruling orders to the status of a cult, i.e, a vestigial state.

Examples of the ritual citation of religious vocabulary as a way of authorizing so-called secular governments abound.  President Eisenhower’s move in 1954 to add the words “under God” to the US pledge of allegiance is one instance of how religion is conjured as a type of previous sovereignty on which present powers are based.

Conceptualizing religions as vestigial states has value for clarifying matters pertaining to supposed qualitative differences between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ law.  According to my reasoning, such a distinction is more productively thought of as occurring between two forms of ‘states’ with markedly similar processes involving contingency, debate and compromise.


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