An understanding of power, in its many forms, is an important part of the study of religion and culture. In this podcast on ‘Religion, Power and Ideology’ I give an outline of Michel Foucault’s understanding of the concept of power. In particular, ‘power is everywhere because it comes from everywhere’.
One instance of power and religion is the idea of an ideology – religion as a means by which power relations (and inequalities based on such power relations) are naturalised and legitimated. Religion is not the only form of ideology, but I raise the important question to ask in any study of religion: ‘where is the money?’.
We are now going to talk about religion and power.
To start with, let’s put some meaning into the idea of power:
The French writer, Michel Foucault wrote in 1981 the following comments on power:
‘By power, I do not mean ‘Power’ as a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of the citizens of a given state … [nor] a general system of domination exerted by one group over another
‘… It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them
‘… Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.’
(Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 1981: 92)
Let’s note a couple of points from this long quote:
1. Power is a multiplicity of force relations. It is not a simple, single thing that resides in an institution at the top (a monarch, president or government.
Indeed, it is very easy to think of power in terms of politics — the thing that politicians fight to control and wield. In many ways, the idea of this type of power is most obviously shown in dramas such as The Game of Thrones. People seek power (over others) and so plot, scheme, and kill to take that power and use it (and of course are in turn schemed against and killed by others who take the power they had).
But this is the type of power that Foucault rejects in the quote. Power exists as a multiplicity of forces, and indeed manifests itself in ceaseless struggles.
2. And secondly, equally importantly, power is everywhere and comes from everywhere.
People live within power, we practice power on a greater or lesser level in all our actions — even those we think of as ‘harmless’ or ‘neutral’.
Everything we do, every part of culture, is about power — in some way or other.
Power is about relationships between people, how such relationships are expressed, developed, controlled, and manipulated. Most often, power is not only within the relationships — it is what makes the relationships. It is how people express themselves and relate to others.
Everyone is political, in everything that people do.
The power of thrones, wars, and kings, queens, or presidents is simply one form of power — at a high and very intense level.
If we accept this argument, then the next question is where does religion fit into it?
There are numerous answers to this. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) is the view of the nineteenth-century writer Karl Marx on religion. His quote is often used in this respect, when he claimed that religion is the
‘sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world .. . It [religion] is the opium of the people’ (Marx and Engels 1957: 37)
What he meant by this, quite simply, is that religion is way of feeling better about being exploited. In a world where one class (business owners, capitalists, the ruling class) exploit the working classes, then religion is nothing more than a means by which that exploitation is made easier by those who suffer.
Like an opium narcotic, religion takes us to another — hopefully happier — place.
About the Religion Bites Podcast
Religion Bites is a podcast by Malory Nye, an academic and writer based in Perth, Scotland.
The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.