What is the nature of secularization? How distant are we from the magical world of the past? Perhaps, we are not as far as many people think. In the fascinating new book, The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India (Oxford University Press, 2012), we witness some of the discursive practices formulating the Christian myth of disenchantment. Robert Yelle, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Memphis, aims to pull up some of the religious roots of secularism by highlighting the Christian dimensions of colonialism. He achieves this through an examination of colonial British attitudes toward Hinduism and delineates several Protestant projects that assert an ideal monotheism. British colonial discourse in India was integrally tied to religious reform and located false belief in linguistic diversity. Verbal idolatry was specifically addressed through efforts of codification and transliteration.
Overall, Yelle’s work on British critiques of South Asian mythological, ritual, linguistic, and legal traditions offer new insights on modernity, secularization, religious literalism, and colonialism. We also discussed The Language of Disenchantment is reflective of Yelle’s interest in semiotics, which he addressed more explicitly in another new book, Semiotics of Religion: Signs of the Sacred in History (Bloomsbury, 2013). In our conversation we discussed Orientalism, Modernity, Hindu mythology, literary versus oral cultures, Max Muller, magical dimension of ritual, Christian critiques of Jewish law, scripturalism, mantras, and print culture.