The breadth of Critical Religion: critiquing self-regulating markets and other divinities

By Timothy Fitzgerald
November 9, 2012

The launch of the new Critical Religion Association website, building on the work of the CR Research Group at the University of Stirling raises the question of the nature and breadth of ‘critical religion’.

The first issue to mention is relevance: that ‘critical religion’ is not only concerned with ‘religion’ as a category, or with religious studies as a discipline. We are equally concerned with other leading categories such as ‘politics’, ‘economics’, ‘political economy’, and the ‘nonreligious secular’.

In fact one element of our position is that these apparently separate categories are really parts of a system of representations which have no meaning in themselves, but rely on an under-lying binary construction with the religion-secular dichotomy as its constitutional expression.

What we have developed is a theory, a method and an attitude towards the critical deconstruction of modern categories. We therefore claim relevance for interdisciplinary work throughout the arts, humanities and social sciences. This is because we are questioning the ideological components in the disciplinary structures of the academy as a whole, and the ways these act for the maintenance of liberal mythology more widely.

When someone says or writes that they are studying ‘politics’, for example, we have our own line of questions about what this could mean. The questions are rather similar to the ones we would ask if someone claimed to be studying ‘religion’ (or economics). This approach converges well with – but goes constructively further than – much critical and postcolonial theory. Yet it makes unwelcome reading (judging by some of the reactions which have been encountered) for those who are deeply invested already in the established disciplinary structures, and feel that their careers might be damaged if they question the basic assumptions which their discipline works with.

We have sympathy with academics in that position, but the logic of argument raises problems with the arbitrariness of many over-lapping domains. It suggests that the divisions which keep academics corralled in separate departments, journals, conferences, and professional organisations share at least one rarely acknowledged purpose, which is to stop us noticing each other’s work.

Specialisation, say between ‘religion’, ‘economics’ and ‘politics’, reifies segments as though each had an independent reality of its own, related by only by externalities, rather than by an organic encompassment of all analytical parts in the whole. We are thus encouraged to proceed in a way reminiscent of the Indian fable of the blind persons each holding one part of an elephant. The one holding the trunk or the tail or the hoof or the ear will imagine the whole in terms of that part. This presumably (and to stretch the metaphor) is what is meant by ‘the elephant in the room’, when all one has is the trunk or the tail or the ear or some other part of the joined-up anatomy of the organic whole in one’s hands.

A term like politics is sufficiently ubiquitous to appear as an intuitive reality of everyday life. Through the eyes of politics specialists, just about everything will seem political. To me the category looks like an ideological place-holder for whatever the dominant interests require from its deployment. By looking at the historical processes whereby the modern categories religion and politics were invented through mutual exclusion since the late 17th century, we can see how an illusion of positive knowledge arises. The emergence of political economy as a secular science complicates but adds additional force to our account.

We would therefore welcome contributions from colleagues in politics, or economics, or any other discipline such as International Relations to explore this. We are not looking for some kind of illusory feel-good victory, but for dialectical innovation through shared work with any colleague in any discipline who understands (but does not necessarily agree with) our paradigm.

Self-regulating markets and other Divinities

One feature of our own standpoint is that markets are the mystified objects of a faith-system not essentially different from what are typically classified as ‘religious’ beliefs. We agree with the position of activists in the global pressure group On the Commons, that the emergence of the myth of political economy as the ‘really real’ is a grave and present danger to global survival. The concept of self-regulating markets may be as incomprehensible to us as the Holy Trinity appears to have been to Isaac Newton and John Locke – both apparently anti-Trinitarians – even though to believers in both cases such doctrinal formulations have been inherited or adopted as the real truth.

The theology of liberation through the self-regulating market – a theology represented (without a trace of irony) as the science of economics – requires for its self-realisation the methodical (or unmethodical) destruction of what Karl Polanyi referred to as the ‘social substance’. Polanyi published his book The Great Transformation in 1944, the same year as another important book, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, which had such an influence on Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the IMF and so on. Neo-liberal readings of this and other works published by the Austrian school (see, for example the excellent Ludwig von Mises webpage) can be connected historically and theoretically to Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, whose activities have been described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine.

These books represent two powerful but very different readings of the historical emergence of liberal economic ideology. The central difference being that Hayek (unlike Polanyi) thinks markets are spontaneously emergent forces of nature which were ‘discovered’ by Richard Cantillon or Adam Smith sometime in the early 18th or even late 17th century. Polanyi instead narrates the often violent processes (very close to what Marxists mean by primitive accumulation) whereby powerful people passed laws which created artificial markets through dispossession of the means of subsistence.

These processes continue today on a vast scale – some readers may have visited a country like India and witnessed its truly shocking disparities of wealth, and the huge social dislocations which have been occurring there as a result of the globalising mischief of market dogma and the ideological illusions that self-maximisers and self-regulating markets are the natural, rational, unavoidable and unstoppable conditions for progress and liberty.

A central aim of the Critical Religion Association is to identify and interrogate the globalising discursive mechanism behind the production of this naturalised orthodoxy.


© Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Languages, Cultures and Religions at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.

This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the Critical Religion Association (CRA), developed out of the University of Stirling Critical Religion Research Group. CRA is bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: (@CriticoReligio).

Critical Religion articles and news on Ekklesia:

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.