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Religion and International Relations Theory

Date:28 November 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Religion and International Relations Theory
Religion and International Relations Theory

On Tuesday 26 November 2013, NGIZ Noord and the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Groningen co-hosted an evening devoted to a discussion of dominant approaches to religion in the study of International Relations. Today’s post is a short summary of some of the ideas touched on during the lecture by CRCPD Director Erin Wilson and the discussion which followed.

The inability of any International Relations theory to predict that an event like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was even possible, coupled with the surprise and shock of scholars, policymakers and the general public in the West in response to the attacks, signalled that something was amiss in the way that International Relations scholars approached global politics in general and the question of religion in particular (1). Scholarly reactions to 9/11 have been mixed, with some arguing that the world changed irrevocably (2), while others claimed the world was no different (3). Perhaps one of the most enduring effects of the attacks has been the questions raised about the role of religion. What 9/11 emphasized, possibly more than any other event in recent history, was that religion continues to be a powerful force in global politics (4), yet one whose influence is only partially understood by scholars and practitioners alike.

Since then, there has been growing recognition amongst International Relations scholars of the existence of a ‘secularist bias’ within the field (and, arguably, in public and political discourses within the West more generally). This bias in many ways explains why, for much of the history of International Relations, scholars failed to even consider the place of religion within global politics (5). Other more recent works have emphasized how this bias contributes to inaccurate and incomplete understandings of the role religion plays in a variety of political contexts, including in the so-called secular West (6). These critiques have highlighted important shortcomings of the secularist model of analysis dominant within International Relations and have contributed to expanding approaches to the question of religion and its influence on politics. Yet despite their significant contribution to the study of religion in International Relations, problems persist among the majority of efforts to critique secularism and engage with the question of religion and politics. Many of these shortcomings stem from the fact that, until the last decade or so, most attempts to discuss religion within International Relations paid little attention to the role of religion in the politics of Western states and its impact on their policies and actions in global politics. Given the dominance of a number of Western states in global politics, coupled with the historical emergence of the international states-system out of the European states-system (7), ignoring or overlooking religion in the politics of Western states arguably hindered efforts to understand the role of religion in International Relations and global politics more generally. As such, efforts to explore the role of religion in Western politics are timely (8).

Notwithstanding the importance of these studies that examine religion and politics in the West, four main shortcomings remain. Firstly, many studies of religion and politics in the West display a lack of critical self-reflection. Their focus is often on the increasing importance of Islam in European states (9), or on the role of religion in US politics, which is presented as somewhat of an anomaly in comparison to the rest of the West (10). There are few scholars who consider that perhaps religion may be a significant component of dominant contemporary Western culture and politics in spite of (or perhaps because of) its nominal secularism. In part, this predominant lack of critical self-reflection is a remnant from the heyday of secularization theory, when religion was considered to be dying out and not relevant for understanding politics in developed, secularized states such as those in the West.

Yet equally, this lack of critical self-reflection is part of a broader second shortcoming evident in many critiques of secularism within International Relations. The prevailing focus of these critiques is on contemporary political contexts and actors. The role of history and historical memory in the West, of ‘collectively held subconscious ideas,’ (11) or deeply embedded assumptions about the nature of political reality and the influence of religion on these collectively held subconscious ideas are rarely identified and problematized. Further, critiques of secularism and forays into religion and politics within International Relations seem plagued by a third shortcoming, a narrow, limited definition of religion that seems to focus heavily on its institutional, individual and irrational dimensions, giving an incomplete picture of the different ways in which religion can and does influence politics and public life. This limited definition, I suggest, is a result of dualistic thinking inherent in prevailing forms of secularism. A final weakness of many of the critiques of secularism and studies of religion and politics in International Relations is that they do not offer an alternate understanding of religion that moves beyond secularism’s limited view. The critique of the secularist bias has served to highlight that secularism within International Relations and global politics is primarily a product of the Western experience, both in terms of the emergence of a secular states-system at the global level and the very nature of secularism itself (12). Yet while the Western origins of this secularist bias have been noted, they have rarely been problematized. How did the secularist bias emerge in the West to begin with? What impact has this bias had on how we understand religion in the context of the West? What are the implications of this understanding for our appreciation of religion’s influence on Western and global politics more broadly? How can we address the limitations of the secularist bias and move towards a more nuanced, comprehensive understanding of religion and politics in the West and globally?

Having destabilized the seemingly natural logic of secularism within International Relations, as recent critiques of secularism have so ably done, there is a need to present and suggest ‘other ways of talking about and enacting the relations between “religion” and “secularism” (13). It is not enough simply to note that a bias exists, that religion has been excluded and subordinated in enquiries about global politics. This performs the important task of highlighting what International Relations does not do, but does not provide a way forward. The critique of secularism says that our understanding of religion has been obscured by the secularist bias, but it offers little with regard to how religion might be reconceptualized so that its influence on global politics might be better perceived.

Building on the important and sophisticated critiques of secularism that have been produced in the decade since 9/11, I suggest that dominant understandings of religion in International Relations have been restricted by dualistic thinking that rests at the very heart of the secular worldview. I argue that dominant conceptions of secularism have catalysed the emergence of an understanding of religion based on three dichotomies – institutional/ideational, individual/communal and irrational/rational. Through the influence of secular dualism, one element of each dichotomy is subordinated to the other. This process has resulted in a definition of religion as institutional, individual and irrational that dominates much International Relations scholarship, especially research focused on the West. Further, I suggest that the dualism inherent in mainstream secularism in International Relations contributes to limiting understanding of religion’s relationship with politics as well as the definition of religion itself. I offer relational dialogism as an alternative framework for understanding religion and its relationship with politics, a framework that attempts to overcome the limiting effects of mainstream secularism’s dualistic logic.

Although the problem of the secularist bias is widespread within International Relations, I focus particularly on the effect that this bias has had on perceptions of religion’s role within the politics and societies of Western states. Secularism itself is a very ‘Western’ phenomenon (14). While significant effort has gone into developing a more nuanced understanding of the role religion plays in the politics of non-Western states, attempts to explore religion’s impact on politics in the West continue to be hindered by assumptions of secularism and a limited understanding of religion itself. Definitions of the West are highly contested within International Relations, being influenced by a variety of factors and emphasizing different, sometimes contradictory, experiences (15).

While frequently spoken of as a holistic singular cultural unit, the West is not homogeneous (16). The West is highly complex, incorporating numerous cultures and states that are often in conflict with one another. It is as much (and perhaps more) a rhetorical invention as it is a geographic and political entity (17). Often defined as a civilization (18), the West also consists of a social imaginary or collective subconscious. The collective subconscious informs the way individuals and groups within the West think and act, influencing what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, legitimate and acceptable, though again, often with significant variations across communities and nation states within the West. I focus specifically on the definition of the West as ‘secular’ and the historical, cultural, economic (insofar as the ‘West’ is generally considered ‘developed’) and political contexts in which this definition has emerged. My understanding of the West therefore encompasses Europe, the United Kingdom, former British colonies – such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada – and the United States of America. It is the Western experience of secularism that has been most influential on International Relations approaches to the question of religion
(19), thus the focus on the West is historically pertinent as well as relevant to current political contexts. In turn, the Western experience of secularism is intimately connected with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Within this broader historical, cultural and political context, the book explores how dualistic thinking within secularism has contributed to the prominence of a limited understanding of religion in International Relations as primarily institutional, individual and irrational. Combined with the dualistic division of society into public and private realms, defining religion by these three characteristics serves to position religion within the private realm, permanently separated from politics (20), and thus of little relevance to International Relations analysis, particularly with regard to ‘secular’ Western states.

The dominance of this definition in International Relations has meant that analysis of religion has often focused on the role of religious institutions, the beliefs of individuals in key positions of power, the decline in practice of religion by individuals within society as an indication of secularization, and religion’s influence on conflict and violence. Influence of religious ideas and doctrines, imagery and narratives, religion’s role in shaping community identities and an acknowledgement of religion’s more rational components, particularly in Western contexts, have generally been overlooked or downplayed within International Relations scholarship.

The limited definition of religion also ignores the historical relationship that exists between religion and politics, particularly within the context of the West. Religious ideas, actors and events had important influence on the development of concepts and norms that underpin modern Western and international politics, including the rule of law, sovereignty, democracy, freedom and secularism itself. Further, as scholars in religious studies have long acknowledged, religion is not a static entity with fixed, unchanging characteristics. Rather, what we understand as “religion” is constantly shifting and changing, both in theory and in practice. Neither is religion permanently separated from politics through the public/private divide as is generally assumed, implicitly or explicitly, in much International Relations scholarship. It exists in a dynamic, fluid relational dialogue with various aspects of politics. This view of religion calls into question ideas of a decline and resurgence of religion. Thinking about religion in this way suggests that religion has always been present in politics and the public realm, its influence manifesting and being interpreted in different ways. Conceiving religion’s relationship with politics in this way requires moving beyond the dualistic division of society into public and private realms, instead viewing all aspects of society as constantly interacting, influencing and shaping one another.

In order to address the influence of dualism on International Relations approaches to religion, I propose an alternative framework that circumvents the mainstream secularist bias. Combining insights from Julia Kristeva’s dialogism and Raia Prokhovnik’s relational critique of dualism (21), relational dialogism offers one way for overcoming many of the limitations placed on religion by secular dualism. It also provides one model of analysis that can be applied to questions regarding religion and global politics. Relational dialogism focuses particularly on drawing out the influence of religious ideas, imagery, values and narratives around community and identity, as these elements have been traditionally excluded by the dominant approach of secular dualism to religion. It emphasises that religion influences politics in multiple ways through values, norms, identity and narratives told about the US, Europe and the West more broadly, as well as stories told about other states and the international community as a whole. Religion and politics are not separated by the public/private divide, but interact and influence one another. In these ways, relational dialogism contributes to the important work of questioning the dominance of secular logic in International Relations and also offers one possible way of reconceptualizing religion in order to subvert the secularist bias and gain a more nuanced, comprehensive appraisal of the role of religion in global politics.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. The above is a modified excerpt from the Introduction of her book, After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. To download the introduction in full, or order a copy of the book, visit

(1) D. Philpott, “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations” World Politics  vol. 55, no.1 (2002), pp66-95

(2) G. John Ikenberry, “American Grand Strategy in an Age of Terror” Survival vol. 43, no. 4 (2001), p19

(3) M. Cox, “Empire’s Back in Town: Or America’s Imperial Temptation – Again” Millennium vol. 32, no.1 (2003), p 3; C. Gray, “World Politics as Usual After September 11” in Ken Booth and Tim Dunne (eds). Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order. (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan 2002)

(4) Philpott, op cit

(5) J. Fox, Religion, Civilization and Civil War: 1945 Through the New Millennium. (Lanham: Lexington Books 2004); J. Fox, “Religion as an Overlooked Element of International Relations” International Studies Review, vol. 3 no. 3 (2001), pp53-73

(6) E.S. Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); L.N. Leustean and J. T. S. Madeley, “Religion, Politics and Law in the European Union: An Introduction” Religion State and Society, vol. 37, no. 1 (2009), pp3-18

(7) M. Wight, Systems of States: Edited and with an introduction by Hedley Bull. (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1977), p47, 119

(8) See, for example, Hurd op cit 2008 as well as recent issues of Social Research (Vol. 76, Issue 4 2009) and Religion, State and Society(Vol. 37, Issue 1 2009)

(9) L. Aneschi, J. Camilleri and F. Petito, “Introduction – Europe, the United States and the Islamic World: Conceptualising a Triangular Relationship” International Politics, vol. 46, no. 5 (2009), pp505-16; M. Barbato and F. Kratochwil, “Towards a Postsecular Political Order?” European Political Science Review vol. 1, no. 3 (2009), pp317-40; B. Challand, “From Hammer and Sickle to Star and Crescent: The Question of Religion for European Identity and a Political Europe” Religion, State and Society, vol. 37, no. 1(2009), pp65-80; Hurd op cit2008

(10) M. Beeson, “With God on their side: Religion and American Foreign Policy” in L. Elliott (ed.) Religion, Faith and Global Politics: ANU Keynotes. (Canberra: Department of International Relations RSPAS, Australian National University 2006), pp4-11; P. L. Berger, “Against the Current” Prospect March 1997, pp32-6; G. S. Paul, “The Secular Revolution of the West: It’s Passed America by – so far” Free Inquiryvol. 22, no. 3(2002), pp28-35; for an alternate view, see J.T.S. Madeley, “Unequally Yoked: The Antinomies of Church-State Separation in Europe and the USA” European Political Science, vol. 8, no. 3 (2009), pp273-88

(11) J. Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means, (London and Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996), p211

(12) Hurd, op cit; P.N. L. Jones, Secularising the Veil: A Study of Legal and Cultural Issues Arising from the Wearing of the Islamic Headscarf in the ‘affaire du foulard’ in France. PhD. Dissertation. University of Queensland. Available at Accessed 8 January 2007

(13) A. Pellegrini, “Religion, Secularism and a Democratic Politics of ‘As If’” Social Research, vol. 76, no. 4 (2009), p1345

(14) Hurd, op cit

(15) J. Ifverson. “Who are the Westerners?” International Politics, vol. 45 (2008), pp236-53

(16) A. T. Kuru, “Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies Toward Religion” World Politics, vol. 59, no. 4 (2007), pp574-5

(17) C. GoGwilt, The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)

(18) Galtung op cit, S. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs vol. 72, no. 3 (1993), pp22-49; Ifverson op cit

(19) J. Fox op cit 2001, p57

(20) M. C. Hallward, “Situating the ‘Secular’: Negotiating the Boundary Between Religion and Politics” International Political Sociology vol. 2, no. 1 (2008), p3

(21) J. Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel” in T. Moi (ed), The Kristeva Reader. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); R. Prokhovnik, Rational Woman: A Feminist Critique of Dichotomy, (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2003)


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