What do we mean when we talk about “religion”? And how do we distinguish “religion” from “superstition” or “witchcraft”? Most importantly, who gets to decide what counts as a religion and what is a superstition – or a crime?
In the early modern period (1500-1800), European travelers and writers began to categorize the world’s religions. The examination of religions was, itself, intimately connected to colonialism. As European nations expanded, scholars sought to classify the world’s religions and to place them in a hierarchy, with Christianity at the top. For decades, scholars of religion have recognized that the modern category of religion grew, in part, out of the dynamics of imperialism. Still, many non-European religions – particularly those that were practiced under slavery – have been excluded from the history of religion and the history of Christianity. This is because those practices were not recognized as “religions” by European authorities. Black religious practices, in particular, were often regarded as dangerous, rather than religious, and black religious leaders were frequently blamed for slave rebellions and criminalized. My research suggests that we cannot understand modern religion without examining slave rebellion, and we cannot understand criminalization without considering the ways in which religious practice has been policed by those in power.