“Intimations of unknown worlds”: Decolonization and the Religious Existence of Land

Written for presentation at the “Decoloniality And Disintegration Of Western Cognitive Empire – Rethinking Sovereignty And Territoriality In The 21st Centuryconference on April 16th, 2021.


I am going to be talking about three interrelated concepts today: religion, the world, and place. For reasons I will soon make explicit, I focus on Andean thought following European colonization of the Americas. By Andean I mean both the land of the Andes mountain range as well as a way of thought. Andean thought consists of the many traditions and ways of knowing that have originated from the inhabitants of the Andes expressed in many languages, and my focus is on the languages of Quechua and Aymara. My effort in this paper is to outline the difficulties in thinking through the idea of a religious place. The larger purpose of this presentation is to think through a Decolonial framework in order to open up questions and points of access for thinking the relation between the local and the global by way of the concept of world. This presentation will work towards a Decolonial thinking of religious place by progressing through three parts: 1) an outline of European modernity’s epistemic categories, 2) a Decolonial analysis of these categories, and 3) a rethinking of the relation between religion and place. My preliminary thesis is that thinking depends on its coordinates in the world, so thinking beyond Eurocentrism and monotheism means rethinking how our thought coordinates and is coordinated. Andean thought has grappled with this question since the advent of colonialism, and I believe much of it remains to be thought through.

Part One: The Modern Categories of Religion, World, and Place

A common thread across critiques and analyses of European modernity is the recognition of how the concept of the construct is central to its epistemology. By epistemology, I mean the ways in which we think of and organize knowledge. In developing this point regarding modernity and the construct, I draw from the work of American philosopher David R. Lachterman and his 1989 book The Ethics of Geometry. Lachterman bases his understanding of ethics on its ancient Greek origins in Aristotle’s ethos. For Aristotle, ethos refers to the ways available to beings for acting in the world, with each other, and with their own selves. Lachterman identifies a difference in ethics between the treatment of geometry by ancient Greek mathematician Euclid and French philosopher René Descartes: in the case of Euclid and the ancient Greeks, the geometric figure is intelligible by the nature of the figure itself, and in the case of Descartes and modern Europeans, the geometric figure is intelligible by way of strategies and tactics that bring the figure into visibility. This distinction is crucial for Lachterman, for as he points out, a “distinction in the manner of knowing entails a difference in the mode of being.”

Lachterman’s study is valuable, though not unique, because it centers mathematics. Mathematics, along with physics, is often held up as an example of a pure scientific knowledge that exceeds any social or cultural meaning. There is good reason to doubt that there is such a thing as a “pure” knowing, or at least a pure mathematics. Purity here refers to a knowledge that transcends its conditions, whether social, historical, or material. As American philosopher Sandra Harding observes, it is plausible to to think that the possibility of pure mathematics is a myth for two reasons: 1) no conceptual system can provide the justificatory grounds for itself, and 2) the plausibility of what seem like impossible mathematical concepts are socially negotiated to make sense of them. Lachterman focuses on math in order to challenge the continuity of the history of mathematics across ancient and modern mathematics and genealogically locate the emergence of modernity. The ethical orientation of this modernity entails being carried along from the recognition of the constructivity of mathematics to “self-deification.” We move from a paradigm where the mind is nature’s mirror to a paradigm that takes the mind as the producer or source of nature.

What does it mean to say that the constructivity of mathematics leads to self-deification? Self-deification means that gods are no longer superhuman as they were for the ancient Greeks, nor is God still a transcendent horizon against which our material world is understood by. By this understanding of modernity, there is no post-modernity, for the idea that everything is a construct is much older than the late 1900s and implicates those philosophers known as rationalists, idealists, materialists, and empiricists alike. At the center of modernity is the idea that the mind constructs the world, and this includes the categories by which we understand ourselves and the world.

How is this paradigm of constructivity reflected in the way we go about the world? I set an alarm to wake up in time to begin work and drink coffee. I work in order to live, and I live in order to do this and that. I think in terms of productive goals, and I recognize that nothing is particularly sacred beyond my own personal views. The Argentinian philosopher Rodolfo Kusch might say that we operate with an instrumental rationality organized around our subjective willing. In his 1970 Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América, Kusch writes that our sense of freely willing this or that action is mediated “by the idea of a humanity that progresses in a cumulative sense, multiplying freedoms and objects, and always polishing the rational attitudes.” We understand according to given categories that are governed by a scientific order by which we measure the rationality of our actions.

The modern paradigm of constructivity entails a change in our religious ethos as well. It may be more accurate to instead say that religion emerges as a category of modernity. It is useful here to refer to the distinction between descriptive and redescriptive accounts often used in anthropology: descriptive accounts aim to describe social phenomena in the same language used by the people it describes, while redescriptive accounts freely uses any categorization system to describe phenomena whether or not the people it describes use such language. It is common to describe many spiritual practices of peoples as religious, but it would be inaccurate to say that many spiritual practices would have self-identified as “religious.”

It is common for aspects of Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, to come to stand in for religion as a whole. This has lead to generalizing the concept of religion in a way similar to mathematics: just as it is assumed people have universally developed systems of arithmetic, so it is assumed that people have universally developed a kind of internal spirituality and desire to be saved. While it may be more common, if not universal, that peoples have developed cosmologies, a cosmology is not equivalent to a religion. I draw on the French philosopher Rémi Brague in order to define cosmology as “an account of the world in which a reflection on the nature of the world as a world must be expressed.” Ultimately, religion strikes me as a word to be skeptical of, but it is important to describe how it functions as a category of knowledge in modern epistemology.

As the Saudi Arabian anthropologist Talal Asad suggests, modern religion is determined primarily by the concept of the secular. The secular is typically understood as the non-religious, but Asad suggests that secularism is primarily an “enactment by which a political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion.” This process differs from “premodern” kinds of mediation navigate local identities without orienting itself at transcendence.

The key aspect of modern religion with regard to secularism is the way in which it legitimates certain peoples and practices while denying others. This point is clear in the distinction that modern liberal democracies make between the public and the private: the respected or majority religion and its practices form part of the fabric of public life, and minority religions are defined by their inability to respect the secular distinction by keeping their practices to themselves. A clear example of this is the ubiquitous nature of the Bible in the American state, as well as the Christian verbiage found on American currency.

Part Two: Modernity/Coloniality and Epistemology

For the most part, I have narrated Western modernity’s own self-perception. Modern categories of knowledge are objective organizations of kinds of knowledge. These categories are not confined to the regional or local, but apply to, as well as arise out of, the global. I mean that they apply to the global in the sense that secularity or mathematics are not considered to be culturally-specific and untranslatable words, but intend to describe phenomena that are not specific to a particular locale. I mean that they arise out of the global in the sense that modern categories of knowledge emerge along with the global economy and worldwide capitalism.

The Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano asserts that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same event that begins with the colonization of the Americas. For Quijano, coloniality and colonialism are distinct concepts: colonialism names the explicit political order, and coloniality refers to the enduring structuring of knowledge captured in the concept of modernity/rationality. Modernity/rationality is an epistemological paradigm of knowledge defined by knowledge as something produced out of a subject-object relation. Knowledge and power work in tandem to exert and legitimate colonial exploitation that is enacted not only through disappropriation but epistemically as well.

The coloniality of power names the global imposition of a paradigm of knowledge that was historically accomplished by European colonization. From 1492 onwards, things come to be known in relation to European, as that Europe is the center and the rest of the world is defined in relation to it. This paradigm may be referred to as Eurocentricity, for it names the way in which our coordinates of existence are defined in relation to our distance or proximity to Europe, ideally and materially.

The social category of race emerges out of European colonialism and undergirds the coloniality of power. Social identities are produced out of the meeting, exploitation, and domination of peoples such that one’s external appearance is treated as a manifestation of their interiority. The coloniality of power bases itself, but is not exhausted, off the racial classification of people. This consolidation of power under the paradigm of European modernity/rationality and the economic rationality of capitalism organizes the world and its contents, promoting and maintaining itself economically, forcefully, and epistemologically. Quijano and other’s interventions in naming this system form the Decolonial critique of modernity. By Decolonial, I am referring here to a strain of Latin American and North American thought focused on interrogating the relation between colonialism and epistemology predominantly out of the Latin American context, and I do not mean to suggest Quijano is the first to observe this process nor that he stands in for anti-colonial, post-colonial, and de-colonial thinkers as a whole. 

Part Three: Places and the World

The problem I want to trace the absence of a world by which we coordinate ourselves or else orient ourselves by. In his 1993 book The Sense of the World, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes that “[t]here is no longer any world: no longer a mundus, a cosmos, a composed and complete order (from) within which one might find a place,” and in his 2002 follow-up The Creation of the World, or Globalization, he writes that the struggle of putting into play a world “is a struggle of the West against itself, of capital against itself.” Nancy either does not consider or is not interested in the struggle to think about the world that has occurred beyond what is considered Western, and this is a shame as the Global South has been confronted with this problem since 1492. In this respect, I find language from the “Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle” by the EZLN, the Zapatistas, more meaningful: “We want a world in which many worlds fit.”

The particular issue I bring the question of the world to bear on is religious place. I have outlined an understanding, or lack thereof, of religion in order to ask how it is that we can think of the objects that the category of religion determines beyond its category. Keeping in mind the coloniality of power and modernity/rationality, how do we proceed to read texts that we can at least hesitatingly say belong to religious tradition?

In order to ground this question, I submit the Huarochirí Manuscript as an example. In the introductory essay to the English translation, the American anthropologist Frank Salomon writes that the Huarochirí manuscript “alone of all colonial sources records a prehispanic religious tradition of the Andes in an Andean language.” At the outset, I note that it is already a significant determination of the text to say that it is a religious text, yet it remains difficult without that word to discuss all the objects in that text that seem religious or else lack the language to be described otherwise.

The Huarochirí manuscript is the product of the presumed narration of what could be called origin myths and legends to Father Francisco de Avila in 1608. As Salomon notes in an article discussing huacas, a Quechuan word that roughly translates as “shrine,” the manuscript is written in the colonial Quechua language of the time that was “influenced by the Church’s labors toward making the former “Language of the Inca” into an evangelical interlingua,” and so they were “not necessarily disconnected from the largely Aristotelian and Augustinian philosophic discussion that lies in the background of Peruvian evangelization.” From what is known of the manuscript, it can be said that it is a compendium of testimonies from various villages on the western Andean heights overlooking Lima along with likely editorializing by the Quechuan who gathered the stories. 

The challenges in reading this manuscript as a path to understanding the Andean world then, are not only in the translation from oral traditions to written Quechua followed by translation into Spanish and English, but also recognizing the metaphysics underlying the language as regards the Aristotelean and Christian inheritances, and finally the challenge of the hermeneutics of the text itself. Talal Asad presents this problem with regard to the Bible and the release of a book in the 20th century called The Bible Designed to Be Read as Literature. The format of this book makes the Bible “look” literary: the double columns and numbered verses are removed, and the text looks like any other fiction novel. This example serves to bring attention to issues of form and context: in what way does the frame and category predetermine the way that we read a given thing? Does the fact that the book is called the Huarochirí Manuscript mean that we shouldn’t read it like a bible, or would the problem be changed at all if the Manuscript were read as a Bible?

Like many early indigenous texts cataloged, created, or preserved by Spanish colonists, the Huarochirí manuscript references places in the world. It must be recognized that places are not necessarily or exclusively that which is defined by a set of coordinates that indicate the location of something on the globe, and the phenomenon of huacas illuminates this point. Huacas are a Quechuan word variously translated as shrines, holy sites, spirits, and sacred environments. For Andean thought, huacas are not static objects but pass through states in varying speeds. The narrative of Chaupi Ñamca concerns a huaca that freezes into a stone with five arms who, according to the manuscript, is hidden when the Spaniards arrive. This story also gives an example of a crucial point: Andean ways of being did not disappear when the Spanish arrived, such that their arrival is incorporated into their stories.

In the narrative of Chaupi Ñamca, a huaca named Rucana Coto, which means finger-shaped mountain in Quechua and Aymara, appears and satisfies Chaupi Ñamca with their “big cock.” This leads Chaupi Ñamca to declare that only this being “alone among all the other huacas” is a real one, so they turn to stone and stay forever in Mama, or a village called San Pedro. If it is contingently granted that the Huarochirí Manuscript and the oral tradition it is based on is a religious, or at minimum definitively cosmological, knowledge, it follows that villages and mountains are not simply sociological or geographical objects, but something more.

In the 1973 book God is Red, Standing Rock Sioux tribe member and Law professor Vine Deloria Jr. writes that “[m]any Christians will vehemently argue that the places at which religious experiences take place are of no consequence,” for God is “everywhere at all times.” This idea discounts the way that religion occurs in specific places and lends itself well to the privileging of economic rationality above all else. If the religious sense of a place is mere superstition or delusion the land may be dispensed with according to the law of the secular state or the needs of the market. 

This problem conceals a second problem: it is not only a question of whether or not modern epistemology should accord religion a privileged place, but of the very order of epistemology itself. While modern settler-colonial states may feel comfortable in distinguishing between the religious and the secular, modern critiques have made clear that the categories are anything but stable even within their Western ambit of monotheism or atheism. This local debate occludes the larger problem of the ground of our categories of knowledge, for what counts as a place, as alive, as divine, and indeed what counts at all is by no means given, nor is it ultimately the purview of scientific rationality. While the critique of modernity/rationality has been ongoing since its inception, relatively little has been done in thinking out of the other ways of thought it has attempted to silence if not destroy.


There are two problems I have attempted to present here: 1) the ways in which land is more than land, and one path to recognizing this is understanding 2) the ordering of our categories of knowledge that give meaning to our concepts of knowing, dispensing, and living. To inquire into colonized forms of religion and life is not the same as inquiring out from them. It is also not simply a matter of restitution, for it would be reductive to assume that moving from a global model to a local one dispenses with the question of how we are to conceive of this world and locate ourselves within it. However, decolonization of land and mind is a necessary step towards thinking the world, and as right-wing Christianity continues to grow in power across the world, it is necessary to grapple with religion beyond the ambit of scientific atheism and cultural Christianity.