Sex, Religion, and Discourse: An Interview with Judith Butler

One of my academic joys is interviewing people I find particularly interesting (see most of my posts here). This time I am honored to present a recent interview I did with Judith Butler.

Image from The European Graduate School

Image from The European Graduate School

Many wonder how gender performance relates to chromosomes, phenotypes, genitalia, and other scientific “evidence” for innate sexual differences. How do you respond to those who scorn the mentality behind Luce Irigaray’s notion that E=MC2 is a “sexed equation”?

JB:  It might be important to distinguish provisionally between performance and performativity, even though I think the two are interconnected.  When we think about debates within scientific paradigms concerned with the criteria for sex-determination, we can see that different standards apply at different times.  So those who believe that chromosomal structure should be the basis are often challenged by those who seek recourse to hormones instead.  And others think that sex should be determined by primary sexual characteristics, and so using some version of anatomy as the basis.  Yet others suggest that we would be better off understanding sex determination proves difficult to generalize on any of these bases because of exceptions, gradations, and a continuum of differences that cannot be reduced to a binary scheme.  So when any of these scientific paradigms are activated in moments where sex is determined or assigned, we can see that theory takes form as an action – that is what I would call performativity.  One might say the theory “acts” at the moment in which medical, health, or legal authorities assign sex.  I cannot speak for the Irigarayan view, but I presume that others can.

Those of us who do work relating to feminism and religion often wonder how one can do scholarship in these areas without assuming these categories are somehow “more” than mere constructs. What would you say to someone who thinks these categories refer to distinctions that occur in the “real world”?

JB:  well, it is probably important to realize that “mere constructs” act in very powerful ways in the world, shaping our experience and our thought.  So one might argue, as many have, that “race” itself is a construct, but that does not keep it from being a quite powerful force in our daily lives. If it does not have a solid basis in biology, it still has a solid basis in social reality, and that, in turn, tends to enter into both scientific and extra-scientific ways of organizing and understanding the world.  Let’s remember that scientific hypotheses are very often the place where cultural prejudices enter.  In any case, those forms of stratification function in daily life, and usually in highly injurious ways.  So that is one reason why we want to know the history of such notions, how they emerged, and when and where they got ratified as both scientific and social knowledge. For then we can ask what kinds of interventions in the history of the category are possible in order to more effectively oppose racism.  It would be great if we could simply say that race is a category that serves racism, that race is a social construct, and that as constructed, we can deny it.  But, in fact, if we deny it on such grounds, we become “race-blind” which then leaves us without the critical analysis that can help us oppose its injurious operations.  So these are not “mere constructs” but very effective ones.

As someone interested in how discourse is shaped, and how it shapes us, how do you understand “religious violence”? Is it a constructed myth, a lived reality, or some mixture of the two?

JB: Well, it all depends on who is using such a term, and for what reason. If the term is meant to imply that religion leads to violence more easily than secularism,  then we can certainly come up with a host of examples that would show how religion can operate to mitigate violence, and how wars have been waged in the name of “secular” states, especially against religious minorities.  But even that kind of rejoinder suggests that there is absolute difference between religion and the secular domain, a thesis that has been ably contested by many people including Janet Jakobsen, Anne Pellegrini, Talal Asad, William Connolly, Saba Mahmood.  I think that the term “religious violence” is sometimes meant to describe the violence that emerges from “religious fanaticism” but is there, implicit in that argument, a view that religion has a potentially violent fanatic potential that non-religious positions lack?  Was the United States acting from religious grounds in its wars against Vietnam, the Taliban, or Afghanistan?  It was a war against religious communities perceived as fanatical, but was there nothing fanatical about our own acts of military aggression?  When irrationality and fanaticism are projected onto the religious Other, that gives those who are doing the projecting the chance to regard their own actions as “rational” or “civilizational” even though they are quite murderous, and include collateral damage – that ultimate euphemism for the practice of killing innocent civilians.  Of course, there are violent religious groups, but is it their religion that makes them violence, or their politics?  We still have a long way to go in sorting out these matters.

In light of our limits of self-knowledge and personal transparency, in what ways do you see feminist critiques of patriarchal religion as problematic? What ways do you see the discourse surrounding feminism and religion as noble, virtuous, and enabling?

JB:  I am not sure I am the one to answer these important questions. Of course, there are many religions, including my own, that have strong patriarchal bias.  Judaism actively celebrates the patriarchs, but many feminists have found ways to re-read or read against the patriarchal grain.  They have found women in the bible and sought to retell biblical stories from their perspective or in ways that figure them prominently.  Those are not my practices, but I understand and respect them. Perhaps what is most important is to understand that traditions have to be repeated in ritual and retold in story form in order to continue to remain alive as tradition.  When we speak about living traditions, we are speaking about traditions that, to stay alive, have to adapt to new historical challenges, and find ways of speaking to people where they live now.  So traditions can, and must, be revised to stay alive, which means not only responding to feminist challenges, but affirming feminism as a way of affirming some of the values you mention, dignity and equality – and perhaps even the affirmation of life.

Biography from The European Graduate SchoolJudith Butler, Ph.D., Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School EGS, attended Bennington College and then Yale University, where she received her B.A., and her Ph.D. in philosophy in 1984. Her first training in philosophy took place at the synagogue in her hometown of Cleveland. She taught at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins universities before becoming Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Original post on Secularite, here.

Kile Jones holds a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University, and is a current Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University.  He also holds a Certificate in Science and Religion from the Boston Theological Institute.  Mr. Jones has been published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, World Futures, Human Affairs, and the Secular Web.  He is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Claremont Journal of Religion (, and is the Founder/Director of Interview an Atheist at Church Day (

Categories: Academy, Activism, Belief, civil rights, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, Human Rights, Identity Construction, Judaism, LGBTQ, Politics, Postcolonialism, Power relations, Sexual Ethics, Social Justice, Violence, Women's Rights

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5 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this marvellous interview with the wonderful Judith Butler – really appreciate you sharing this with us – what inspiring opportunities you have. Great questions giving space for rich answers.


  2. Kile, It was great to read an ORAL interview with Judith Butler. Some of her writing is difficult to parse — but worth the effort — so it was good to hear her perspectives in a vocabulary that was easier to understand. Thanks.


  3. Thanks to JB, for this simple truth, “race is a category that serves racism.” And you know we could insert all kinds of terms into that formula, how about “gender is a category that serves sexism.” Where would that lead intellectually, emotionally? I have been working with a coach who is a committed feminist, and yet she says I am “dragging around adversary where there is no adversary.” For the first time that makes sense to me, it’s true.


  4. MERCI infiniment!
    Here, in France, we have influencial catholic groups who are speaking very loud, making “amalgames” to devalue “gender studies” they call “théorie du genre”!
    Miserere nobis!


  5. Gloria Anzaldúa also powerfully disrupts the notion of a separation between the secular and religious in her work. I offer a discussion of this in the book SPIRITUAL MESTIZAJE: RELIGION, GENDER, RACE AND NATION IN CONTEMPORARY CHICANA NARRATIVE (Duke 2011).


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