- Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief
Of all the just-so stories told about modernity, one of the most enduring recounts how modernity got to be modern by giving up religion for secularism. Ironically, no one milks this story for more rhetorical effect than those critics who seek to undermine the legitimacy of one or another pillar of modernity—reason, say, or the state, or the commodity—by showing it to be rooted in fundamentally religious modes of belief and hence to be inimical to some truer kind of progress. A further irony is that such iconoclastic secularism also, in its turn, can be exposed as itself a belief system—as itself an ideology. When the snake of critique thus devours its own tail, it leaves behind a series of intriguing questions. How can one describe modern religion, if not as modernity’s evanescent antitype? If the secular state has not been modernizing religion out of existence, what has its historical relation to religion been? What new vision of the histories of subject formation and subjective experience might we achieve were we to plot the genealogy of modernity together with that of religion? Without being so facile as to dismiss altogether the project of secularism, the scholars now posing such questions recognize that if religion sometimes seems to threaten the production of new knowledge, its very persistence shows it to be an ongoing and inventive mode of knowledge production in its own right.
It is hard to imagine a more meticulous introduction to these pressing questions than Gauri Viswanathan’s study of the cultural politics of religious conversion under the British Empire. For Viswanathan, religion must be understood as a practice that continually renegotiates the relations of subjects to the social field. Religious conversion, then—whether the Oxford academic John Henry Newman’s embrace of Catholicism, or the adoption of Buddhist tenets by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a champion of the untouchables—must be understood not simply as a reactionary gesture but as a demonstration of political agency. The common denominator of these cases and of the many others that Viswanathan treats is their inevitable involvement with the classificatory imperative of the modern state. Viswanathan illuminates how subjects who convert manage thereby to manipulate and baffle state discourse in quite unexpected ways.
The familiar strains of the Victorian era’s liberal rhetoric of tolerance ring quite differently when Viswanathan replays them in concert with the noise generated by such activity. She articulates the relatively familiar position that the modern state, when it adopts a policy of tolerance, homogenizes and denatures the religions that it thus recognizes as equivalent. But the way in which the state reduces the meaning of religious belief forms only part of the dynamic that she analyzes. She also shows how subjects, when they convert, assert a mobility of affiliation and an intensity of belief that exceeds the norms implied by liberal pluralism. Converts thus doubly challenge the state’s classificatory apparatus, forcing it to account for their new affiliations and for the strength of their views. It is along such lines that Viswanathan convincingly presents conversion as “a deconstructive activity central to modernity itself” (76).
Just to have articulated this complex but crucial problematic represents an achievement; that Viswanathan so comprehensively historicizes it is all the more impressive. While she hews closely to the theme of conversion, her study encompasses broad historical and geographical grounds. The modern nation-state on which she focuses is the British Empire in England and India over the long nineteenth century. (She omits any significant discussion of Ireland, which might have seemed a crucial site for her given her interests.) She also incisively discusses how the politics of religious belonging remain very much at the crux of current struggles regarding [End Page 183] right-wing Hindu Nationalist initiatives and the shaping of a Uniform Code of civil law for India. She discerningly compares and contrasts how the dynamics of conversion change from context to context, in the process touching on the varieties...