Sociology of religion and critical posthumanities: blurring the boundaries of and in knowledge production

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After presenting my paper on the relationship between the sociology of religion and philosophical posthumanism at the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion study group conference last year, I received stimulating feedback, especially on the final point I stressed — that it is important to adopt a critical and reflexive approach; to build a responsible relationship and an adequate methodology in which both researcher and participants are understood as parts of a dynamic, mutually affective research bond.

A cross-fertilisation between the sociology of religion and philosophical posthumanism primarily revolves around this point, which has been recently highlighted in both fields (Ferrando 2020; Woodhead et al 2021). The result could be a critical framework aimed at expanding the theoretical background and orienting empirical research in fields such as religion and new media or digital and virtual technologies and artificial intelligence; the relationship with all kinds of non-human others; and lived and material religion.

The term posthuman is often used with very different meanings, mainly indicating two approaches: various strands of posthumanism and transhumanism. The two have a common interest in the relationship between humans and their environment, particularly with technology. Transhumanism focuses on human enhancement and pushing the boundaries of biological limits with a human-centric view. Posthumanism instead builds upon three ‘posts’: post-humanism, as a radical critique of humanism’s generalised and universalised idea of Man and as the recognition of the plurality of the human experience; post-anthropocentrism, as a non-hierarchical ontology aimed at decentering the Anthropos thought as not fundamentally different or superior to non-human animals and things; and post-dualism as an overcoming of the rigid understanding of identity based on a closed notion of the self, materialised in symbolic dichotomies (Ferrando 2019). The fundamental critique to anthropocentric humanism is meant to highlight how the Man in humanism has never been a neutral category but one linked to power and privilege, excluding all the forms of otherness.

The end goal of this critical approach is ultimately to lead to radical changes in knowledge-production processes. This affects both the individuation of the sites for knowledge as well as the mechanism of agency attribution and recognition. In this context, the emerging field of critical posthumanities seeks to explore changes in society and culture by rethinking — theoretically, methodologically and ethically — research and researchers’ role in the dynamics of knowledge production. An interdisciplinary conceptual platform aiming to cover a larger spectrum than the humanities and “a supra-disciplinary, rhizomic field of contemporary knowledge production” (Braidotti 2018: 52) that must address how “the idea of the humanities” is entangled with a “humanist and speciesist structure of subjectivisation” (Wolfe 2003: 8) and thus “Human and Social sciences, [as] the most anthropocentric fields of scholarly research” built on the notion “of the Human as a transcendental category” (Braidotti 2016: 100).

Thinking about the role of binary oppositions in framing, interpreting and researching society is a crucial point for understanding the potentialities of a relation between sociology of religion and posthumanism. The overcoming of any kind of dualism is constitutive of the kind of subjectivities philosophical posthumanism entails. By considering the humans as “immanent — embodied and embedded — relational entities” (Ferrando 2019: xii), philosophical posthumanism challenges the modern notion of the subject and theorises a radical reconstruction of human/non-human interactions as relational and mutually affecting.

In the introduction to the Routledge International Handbook of Religion in Global Society, the potentialities of this “posthuman or nonhuman cultural turn” emerge from rethinking categories such as religion/secular and religion/nonreligion: the recognition that acknowledging “a wider distribution of agency to non-human objects and entities…[and decentering ] the human, combined with a turn to everyday lived religiosity” is strategic in order “to take more seriously the reported beliefs and experiences of many religious people” (Woodhead et al 2021: 14).

Paul-François Tremlett’s Towards a New Theory of Religion and Social Change also provides a good example from the field of religious studies. Its aim is to develop a theory of religion and social change that “decenters the human subject” and considers religious change as an assemblage of forces and elements in a constant flux.

Criticalities may emerge. Commenting on Tremlett’s book, Titus Hjelm asked “how far can we ‘dehumanise’ the study of religion so that we are still left with tools to say something relevant” (Hjelm 2021), emphasising how this is a genuine question more than a provocative one. The field is still in formation. What the critical posthumanities framework can bring into theoretical reflections and in empirical research in the sociology of religion is a new impetus in using, shaping, deconstructing and reconstructing that tool that is the Posthumanist Subject. If philosophical posthumanism is postanthropocentric and aims at decentring the subject, that is the Anthropos thought as superior, but at the same time is also post-humanist in the sense that it highlights how the Man in humanism is not a neutral category, then the ‘nonhuman others’ are all those nonhumans, inhumans, but also humans, who in different ways have not been recognised as fully Human.

Dr Ilaria Biano is a postdoctoral researcher in the fields of intellectual history and religious studies. Her main research topics deal with secularisation; postsecularism; political secularism; non/religion and secularities in (popular)culture; and posthumanities. A monograph on the legacy of Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion will be published in 2022.

WORKS REFERENCED

Braidotti, R. (2016) Can the Humanities Become Posthuman? A Conversation. Relations June 2016, 97–101, reprinted in S. Oppermann and S. Iovino (eds) (2018), Environmental Humanities. Voices from the Anthropocene. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Braidotti, R. (2018) A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities. Theory, Culture & Society 36(6), 31–61.

Bräunlein, P. J. (2016). Thinking Religion Through Things. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 28(4–5), 365–399.

Ferrando, F. (2019). Philosophical Posthumanism. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Francesca F. (2020) Leveling the Posthuman Playing Field, Theology and Science 18:1, 1–6.

Hjelm, T. (2021) Rethinking Rethinking. The Religious Studies Project, 12 February. Retrieved 21 November 2021 from https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/response/rethinking-rethinking/

Tremlett, P.,(2020). Towards a New Theory of Religion and Social Change: Sovereignties and Disruptions. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wolfe, Cary (2003). Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Woodhead, L., Gauthier, F., Cornelio, J., Martikainen, T. (2021). Introduction: religion in global societies. In J. Cornelio, F. Gauthier, T. Martikainen, L. Woodhead (eds) Routledge International Handbook of Religion in Global Society 1–15.New York: Routledge.

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The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/

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The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/

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