Most public outrage over appropriation has been in response to unauthorized borrowings from racial minorities. But what about cases of religious appropriation that do not raise the alarm?
Cultural appropriation has successfully made the move from academic jargon to weapon of mainstream progressive outrage. Curries, rap music, and hoop earrings: we see cultural appropriation everywhere and we are quick to condemn it. But I am not sure this is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. I agree that acts of appropriation by those of privilege—whether privilege based on race, gender, or class—can contribute to the continual discrimination and disenfranchisement of already vulnerable people. However, specific cases of cultural appropriation are implicated in different histories of discrimination and thus cause different sorts and degrees of harm or offense. When one term names all unauthorized borrowings, it ends up hiding more than it elucidates.
Stealing Your Religion explores “religious appropriation”—when non-believers adopt religious practices, material objects, or beliefs—as an entry point into a conversation about the ethics of cultural appropriation more broadly. I begin with a simple observation: most public outrage over appropriation has been in response to unauthorized borrowings from racial minorities. But what about cases of religious appropriation that do not raise the alarm? Are these less egregious, or just differently so? When is appropriation exploitation, corruption, or tokenism, and when is it dialogue, integration, and inclusion? And where do we draw the line? To answer these questions, I explore the ways religions “own” the content of their beliefs, practices, and motifs, types of harm or offense caused by religious appropriation, and the benefits to a non-believer who borrows from a religion not their own.