Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

“Classify and conquer”

Friedrich Max Müller, indigenous religious traditions, and imperial comparative religion

David Chidester

Let us take the old saying, Divide et impera, and translate it somewhat freely by “Classify and conquer. ”

Friedrich Max Müller

As many historians have recognized, nineteenth-century science was frequently entangled with the requirements of empire. In a recent study of the geologist Robert Murchison, Robert A. Stafford has argued that the “mediation provided by natural science gave Europeans intellectual as well as actual authority over colonial environments by classifying and ultimately containing their awesome dimensions. This new level of control, linked with the technology representing its practical application, also conferred prestige on the metropolitan power as a civilizing force, helping legitimate imperial rule vis-à-vis subject races, domestic masses, and rival great powers. ” In its practical effects, imperial science was an important element in Europe’s “grid of cultural, political, economic, and military domination” (Stafford 1989:223). Like the natural sciences, the human sciences could also reinforce imperial authority, particularly through the power of representation. During the nineteenth century, the construction of an “English” or “British” national identity depended heavily upon the “colonization” of others through the process of representing them. As Philip Dodd has noted, “a great deal of the power of the dominant version of Englishness during the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century lay in its ability to represent both itself to others and those others to themselves” (Dodd 1986:2; see also Hind 1984; Chrisman 1990; Said 1993). Arguably, these imperial sciences were inherently ambiguous, because they contained not only an implicit sense of global power, but also the pervasive anxiety of powerlessness in the face of perceived degeneration at home and resistance to imperial authority abroad (Pick 1989:237). Nevertheless, natural and human sciences during the nineteenth century were clearly engaged in the imperial project of maintaining, extending, and reinforcing empire.

In Britain, during the second half of the nineteenth century, comparative religion emerged as an important imperial enterprise, at the nexus of science and representation, that promised to extend the global scope of knowledge and power within the British Empire. This science of comparative religion addressed not only internal debates within a European tradition, but also the intellectual and practical dilemmas posed by increased exposure to “exotic” or “savage” forms of religious life from all over the world, but particularly those beliefs and practices encountered in the colonized regions of “exotic” India and “savage” South Africa. In developing this science of imperial comparative religion, the production of theory - the process of turning raw religious materials into intellectual

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