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date: 22 September 2023

Religion in International Relationsfree

Religion in International Relationsfree

  • Tanya B. SchwarzTanya B. SchwarzDepartment of Political Science, University of California, Irvine
  •  and Cecelia LynchCecelia LynchDepartment of Political Science, University of California, Irvine


Though religion was never absent from international relations, since the Iranian Revolution, the end of the Cold War, and the events of 9/11, the international community has taken a renewed interest in it. Questions center on the role of religion in peace and conflict, the compatibility of religious law and norms with different systems of government, and the influence of religious actors on a wide range of issues. A reliance on Enlightenment assumptions, which link “the religious” to the irrational, magical, or emotive, led many to deem religion inappropriate for the public sphere and a key factor leading to conflict. On the other hand, the same assumptions led to an association of “the secular” with reason, proper forms of government, and peace. Multiple scholars challenged such a dichotomous framework, arguing that “the religious” and “the secular” cannot be meaningfully separated, or that, at the very least, the origins of the category of “religion” must be examined in order to study acts and practices deemed religious in the 21st century.

Scholarship that wishes to avoid broad generalizations and problematic assumptions about religion should move beyond Enlightenment assumptions and approaches that treat diverse religious communities, acts, and ideas as inherently “good” or “problematic.” To do so, scholars should reflexively engage with religion, paying attention to their own ontological assumptions and the consequences of those assumptions for analyses of religion and politics. In addition, scholars must situate the practices, principles, and identities of religious individuals and communities within broader historical and geographical contexts in order to understand the critical factors informing their ethical frameworks. There are several approaches that are attentive to interpretation, practice, and ethics, including neo-Weberianism, positive ethics, securitization theory, and a relational dialogical approach. These approaches provide alternatives to essentialized notions of religion and shed light on why and how religious actors choose some possible courses of action over others.


  • World Politics


What is the role of religion in international politics? Scholars often point to the historical importance of religion in international relations vis-à-vis the Crusades, the Islamic caliphate, the Sōhei Buddhist “warrior monks,” and other events and communities. However, due to the prevalence of the secularization thesis and related Enlightenment assumptions, scholars in political science, and international relations in particular, largely ignored religion in contemporary political matters. The break-up of the Soviet Union led international relations scholars to turn away from the ideological contestations between capitalism and communism and look to the role of other salient factors in international relations, including that of religion. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis (1993, 1996, taken from Bernard Lewis, 2001) and the events of September 11, 2001 only reinforced and strengthened interest in the relationship between religion and international relations. However, the growing interest in the subject of religion and international relations is often connected to assumptions that link the religious with the magical, emotive, or barbaric—leading to specific assumptions about the propensity of religious ideologies to contribute to conflict. Such assumptions view religion as anachronistic and antimodern at best, and dangerous at worst. Despite the trend of treating religion as inherently problematic, in recent years a number of scholars, members of civil society, and government agencies and actors have argued that religion can contribute to peace processes and broader projects of good in the world. These latter perspectives emphasize the prophets, projects, and principles of peace that are significant components of many religious traditions, and/or they focus on the instrumental “goods” that emanate from specific religious attitudes and convictions. These two perspectives on religion—one portraying religion as inherently problematic, and the other as inherently good—are evident in many studies employing both quantitative and qualitative/interpretive methods. Such approaches, though engaging with religious doctrine and religious actors in a seemingly opposing manner, often continue to treat religion as a monolithic, stable, and easily identifiable category of analysis that incorporates a wide and complex array of religious actors, institutions, beliefs, doctrines, and practices within specific and strict boundaries.

These perspectives, however, are increasingly complicated by others, including the view that religion can have both positive and negative aspects, that it needs to be studied in context, and/or the view that insists that “religion” has to be understood primarily in relation to its putative opposite, “secularism.” The latter two approaches are indicative of scholarship that understands religion as historically situated and politically embedded. Many scholars who subscribe to these perspectives also assert that a complete separation of the religious from the secular is extremely difficult if not impossible, necessitating an investigation into how the religious and the secular are mutually constituted.

Given the renewed interest in the role of religion in international relations, and the problems associated with treating religion as a clearly defined variable that is informed by Enlightenment assumptions, how should scholars of religion and international relations proceed? Essentialist approaches to the study of religion and politics often view religion through the lens of doctrine—ascribing causal force to particular dogmas and norms. In this article we argue that scholarship on religion and politics benefits by moving beyond approaches that treat religion, and given religious traditions, as discrete and reified categories of analysis. Valuable challenges to the idea that religion is a primal and anachronistic identity are both quantitative and qualitative. For example, Jonathan Fox (2004) challenges the assumption that religion inherently produces violence by creating a data set that demonstrates a weak relationship between “religion” (on its own) and domestic conflict; while Robert Pape (2005), relying on a database he created compiling every suicide attack in the world from 1980 to 2003, finds that suicide bombers are motivated more by territorial objectives than by religion. Ager and Ager (2011), conversely, use qualitative methods to describe how refugees and other vulnerable populations of one religion (e.g., Islam) can at times receive spiritual as well as material benefits from adherents of either the same or another religion (e.g., Christianity), challenging assumptions that religious groups cannot engage peacefully with one another. While this scholarship opened important debates, it risks being unable to account for the tensions within religious traditions, the hybridity of both religious and secular beliefs and practices, and the ethical interpretations that evolve and sometimes change radically with given historical circumstances.

As a result, scholars should approach the study of religion with reflexivity and an attention to ethics. First, scholars must be attentive to their own ontologies of religion—i.e., how religion is defined and the analytical and normative assumptions that go along with such definitions. Second, scholars should examine how religious actors navigate complex ethical schemes that are influenced by historical, political, economic, geographical, and other factors, in order to understand how and why they choose particular courses of action over others. Several approaches are attentive to ethics and interpretation, including neo-Weberianism, positive ethics, a relational dialogical approach, and securitization theory. These approaches place the primary focus on process and practice, rather than on overly selective assumptions about doctrines, sacred texts, and rituals.

This article first summarizes some of the primary ways that scholars engage with issues of religion and international relations. Next, it highlights how Enlightenment assumptions inform modern-day conceptualizations of religion and secularism and shows the ways that such approaches can promote problematic assumptions and lead to a monolithic view of religion, linking it with either conflict or peace. Then it outlines alternative approaches to the study of religious actors that focus on the ethical frameworks on which such actors rely, situating those ethics within broader contextual—including political and economic—factors. Finally, the article concludes by suggesting several paths forward for analyzing religions and secularisms of various kinds and by detailing conceptual and substantive issues that continue to be debated through studies employing different types of methods and approaches.

The Reemergence of Religion in the Study of International Relations

Though religion was never entirely absent from the study of international relations, a renewed and strengthened focus on religious actors, movements, and traditions emerged following the end of the Cold War. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, scholars stopped looking at capitalist and Marxist ideological differences to explain political and social tensions and turned their focus to religious, ethnic, and cultural differences. Conflicts that broke out in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and elsewhere were seen almost exclusively as conflicts between different and incommensurable religious identities, even where peoples of different religions had intermarried and lived together peacefully for years. During this period, both religion and ethnicity (e.g., in Rwanda) tended to be reified in academic analyses. Yet, some scholars, including Peter Berger (1999), began to put the onus of problematic characterizations of religion on the assumptions underlying academic scholarship itself. Specifically, Berger and others who were original proponents of “the secularization thesis,” which related modernization and progress to processes of secularization, now argued that religion was no longer in decline globally and that the role of religion in international politics needed to be studied. At the same time, scholars like John Esposito (1999) pointed out that fear of Islam, in particular, was replacing fear of the Soviet Union in the kind of foreign policy analyses that followed Huntington’s (1993, 1996) model. As a result, the academic focus on the role of religion in international relations grew and intensified, while, at the same time, policymakers and practitioners also began to pay serious attention to the influence of religion in global affairs.

The reemergence of the study of religion in international relations prompted a wide range of discussions, questions, and debates about the role of religion in politics and approaches for studying religion. However, such scholarship often relies on assumptions that portray religion as a social element that inherently leads to tensions or outright conflict, or that religion is somehow irrational and thus inappropriate for the public sphere. Scholars like Samuel Huntington (1993, 1996) provide the most glaring example of linking religion to conflict. His “clash of civilizations” thesis asserted that religion not only matters in international relations, but that, at the time of his writing and in the future, it would continue to be one of the driving forces of conflict. In particular, Huntington (1993, p. 29) argued that global “civilizations” would compete over specific cultural and religious values.

Numerous scholars largely discredited Huntington’s thesis, pointing out that its assertions were oversimplified, erroneous, or even racist. Scholars from a range of perspectives and approaches (Berger, 1999; Rudolph & Piscatori, 1997) provided their own empirically grounded studies of the role of religion in international relations and global politics, and attempted to take more nuanced and context-specific approaches in their work. Others, specifically in a special issue on religion published in Millennium (Chan et. al., 2000; also published as a volume edited by Petito and Hatzopoulos in 2003), connected the previous neglect of religion to Enlightenment and secularist assumptions (see also Lynch, 2000b; Thomas, 2000).

However, the events of September 11, 2001, again brought forth perspectives of religion (primarily Islam) and violence that aligned closely with Huntington’s “clash.” Questions about whether or not Islam promotes violence became commonplace fixtures in academia as well as on popular media and news outlets (Molloy, 2015). These questions then reinforced other concerns about the compatibility of religion with democracy and the proper place of religion in public life and the public sphere (Casanova, 1994; Mendieta & VanAntwerpen, 2011; Stepan, 2000). Skepticism about religion also pervaded scholarship on global studies outside of the political science discipline of international relations. For instance, in development studies, religion has been “split off” and “not trusted” (Hovland, 2008, p. 180), a problematic move that scholar/practitioners like Katherine Marshall (2013) actively challenge.

Though the essentialization of religion is disputed in international relations, assumptions about the inherent dangers or benefits of religion persist. Such assumptions continue to gain traction in academia and elsewhere due to a particular Enlightenment narrative that not only feeds common perceptions about religion, but also other related values and principles (e.g., secularism, liberalism, freedom) that are perceived to be central to modern life. Before alternative approaches to the study of religion can be addressed, the problematic aspects of this Enlightenment narrative should be explored.

The Enlightenment Narrative and Assumptions about Religion

The idea that religion is inherently inappropriate for the public sphere or that religion inevitably leads to tensions and violence is a byproduct of Enlightenment assumptions, which derive from a particular narrative of European secularization that allegedly provides the best model for state development, and relations among states, in the rest of the world. The European secularization narrative is loosely formulated as follows. In the 16th century, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation ushered in a new period of religious contestation resulting in a “crisis of pluralism” (Philpott, 2001, pp. 100–101) that led to several very long and bloody wars. The international elites (all based in Europe) began to formulate and adhere to what Scott Thomas (2005, p. 33) calls the “Westphalian presumption,” which holds that “religious and cultural pluralism cannot be accommodated in international public life.” In other words, to prevent the possibility of future international religious wars, world leaders began to conceive of religion as a matter internal to the sovereign state. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg and the subsequent 1648 Peace of Westphalia provided the solution to the crisis of religious pluralism by introducing a “secularized conception of politics, a new wide separation of temporal and spiritual authority” (Philpott, 2001, pp. 100–101) that “favored territorialization under princes to alternative forms of political organizations” (Nexon, 2009, p. 179). As a result of these treaties, Western European governments severely limited the traditional authoritative role of the papacy (Nexon, 2009, p. 101) and transferred church properties to state monarchs (Casanova, 1994, pp. 12–14; see also Hall, 1999, p. 54).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as a result of the Westphalian presumption, European scholars began to introduce and focus on the use of rationality, reason, and scientific knowledge to counter past processes of knowledge production linked with the monarchy and the Church. Intellectual elites increasingly criticized religion and its role in public life. Enlightenment thinkers viewed religion as primitive and antithetical to modern scientific methods and rationality (Casanova, 1994, pp. 30–32). According to the narrative of European secularization, secularist ideals grew immensely in this period, pushing religion further into the private sphere; and, from this point forward, religion was no longer an influential factor in international politics. Now it either masked other “real” motives or was a reflection of older and more primitive irrational beliefs and behaviors that needed to be constrained to the private sphere. This idea of a separation between legitimate secularism and illegitimate religion became even more ensconced in international discourses during and after the French and American revolutions, when the dominant narrative emerged that “strong religious commitments enacted in the public sphere were problematic for democratic growth” (Lynch, 2014, p. 278).

As José Casanova (2008, p. 64) points out, the genealogical narrative that ties the introduction of the modern nation-state system to the secularization of the international community is problematic at best. Daniel Philpott and Casanova tell us that Westphalia did not usher in a new era in which states separated matters of religion and politics, as often assumed, though they differ on whether religion ceased to be casus belli. Philpott (2001, p. 89) asserts that it did, while Casanova (2008, p. 65) highlights the violence of the ensuing “confessional state.” They agree, however, that through the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (literally “whose realm, his religion”), European leaders established the system of confessional states, in which religion was tied to specific territories. Religious matters remained salient in domestic political affairs, as is evidenced in the “ethno-religious cleansing” of large groups of religious minorities in Spain and elsewhere (Casanova, 2008, p. 65). As a result of these domestic issues as well as the push to colonize Latin America, much of Asia, and, later, Africa, religious influences continued to have important implications for international affairs.

Scott Thomas takes a slightly different view than either Philpott or Casanova in his assessment of the development of the European state system, arguing that modern scholars erroneously applied a contemporary notion of religion, which tends to focus on individual beliefs and doctrines, to societies that had not yet adopted this concept. Thomas (2000, p. 820) writes that “what was being safeguarded and defended in the ‘wars of religion’ was a sacred notion of the community,” rather than a modern-day conception of what we have come to think of as religion.1

Karl Löwith (1949) also challenged the secularization narrative, arguing that notions of progress were simply secularized versions of Christian eschatology. However, Hans Blumenberg (1983) disagreed with Löwith, contending that progress and eschatology are substantively different, in that the former focuses on internal mechanisms of change and the latter requires an external force of change (Wallace, 1981, p. 69). Furthermore, Blumenberg argued that in the Enlightenment era, humanity entered into a new epoch of “self-assertion.” According to Blumenberg, ideas of progress grew out of this epoch—drawing on Christian discourses, but not necessarily mirroring them.

According to Casanova (2008, p. 65), “despite its obvious historical inaccuracy, this common narrative of European secularization is not only frequently repeated by European elites but appears to be deeply entrenched in the collective memory of ordinary peoples across all European societies,” as well as in academic circles. The narrative of European secularization, along with the emergence of seemingly secular peace in post-World War II Western Europe, contributed to the formation of the secularization thesis and its introduction into the discipline of international relations (as well as the broader international elite community). For several decades, the secularization thesis seemed to be validated by the fact that the more progressive nation-states (primarily within Western Europe) appeared to be in various stages of shedding explicit religious influences in public life. Beyond Europe, leaders of important states that had become independent in the early or mid-20th century, including Egypt and India, forged nonconfessional governmental systems that intentionally diminished the power of religious actors and practices. Observing these events, although remaining rooted in a strong Europeanist mindset, early secularization theorists of the 1950s and 1960s articulated and repeated the refrain that secularization was a necessary prerequisite for modernization.

The Iranian and Polish revolutions in the late 1970s and late 1980s, respectively, provided convincing initial counterevidence to this theory. Numerous additional conflicts that broke out after the end of the Cold War caused the secularization thesis to be reworked (Bhargava, 2009; Casanova, 1994; Norris & Inglehart, 2011; Philpott, 2007; Toft, Philpott, & Shah, 2011) or largely disregarded (Berger, 1999; Casanova, 2006; Davie, 1999). And while the end of the Cold War provided the background for Huntington’s “clash” thesis, it was soon challenged by new conceptualizations, including the idea that “multiple modernities” based on different forms of religious affiliation are possible (Eisenstadt, 2000). These ideas further challenged both secularization assumptions and Huntingtonian fears. The constructivist international relations emphasis on identity as constitutive of material factors also enabled the turn to religion.2 Scholarly attention to religion continued to increase, and within a few years after the events of 9/11, due to the perceived rise of “religiously related conflict” (Thomas, 2005, p. 9) and the proclamation of the U.S. “War on Terror,” the study of religion—employing a range of quantitative, qualitative, and interpretive methods—was firmly ensconced in international relations and the broader academic community.

The renewed interest in the role of religion in political and social life, as well as contemporary challenges to the secularization thesis, have, at the same time, resulted in a skepticism about the secular and the emergence of new trends in “postsecular” frameworks and ways of theorizing religion. Drawing from debates between Jürgen Habermas and others (e.g., Butler, Calhoun, Taylor, and West in Mendieta & VanAntwerpen, 2011), scholars extended the concept into political science. As Mavelli and Petito (2012, p. 931) assert, “the postsecular” is “prompted by the idea that values such as democracy, freedom, equality, inclusion, and justice may not necessarily be best pursued within an exclusively immanent secular framework,” because the secular itself can be “a site of isolation, domination, violence and exclusion.” Thus, scholars are now trying to allow for the possibility of religion in the public sphere, while continuing to grapple with lingering assumptions about the inherently problematic nature of religion in public life.

Despite the reexamination of the secularization thesis, vestiges of the secular Enlightenment narrative remain vis-à-vis the perceived irrational, magical, or emotive qualities of religion and the inherent rationality of the secular—thus placing the religious and the secular in two different normative and analytical camps. Though critical scholars of religion (Asad, 1993, 2003; Casanova 1994; Fitzgerald, 2011; Hurd, 2008; Mahmood, 2005; Taylor, 2007) problematized the religious/secular binary and historicized the ontology of religion (arguing, for instance, that modern-day conceptions of the religious and the secular have a particular genealogical history beginning in the 13th century), discourses related to the role of religion in international relations often continue to rely on assumptions that essentialize religion—treating complex and context-dependent sets of practices, identities, and actors as an overarching, stable concept.

For instance, assumptions about religious exclusivism—i.e., “the position that one’s own belief system holds the only possible ‘truth’” (Lynch, 2000b, p. 745)—led some scholars (Bradley, 2005, p. 342; Thaut, 2009, p. 326) to suggest that faith-based aid and development organizations are prone to proselytize to recipient communities despite international norms that discourage such behavior. Similar assumptions about exclusivist religious perspectives informed studies on religion and conflict, suggesting that “conflicts with religious dynamics will be more difficult to settle … since they create a perception that the issues at stake cannot be divided” (Svensson, 2007, p. 933; see also Hassner, 2003). Thus, while many scholars are approaching the role of religion in international relations through the lens of history and context, the perspectives that portray religion as inherently problematic and potentially dangerous continue to persist.

Though the dominant assumptions about religion continue to rely on Enlightenment presuppositions, we should also note that the essentializing of religion runs both ways, as some scholars and policymakers portray religion as something that is inherently good or beneficial for certain sectors of international relations. Increasingly scholars and policymakers argue that “religion is an underappreciated force for peace that should have a significant role in society” (Powers, 2010, p. 319). Scholars like Gerard Powers (2010) and practitioners like Katherine Marshall (2013) have been at the forefront of calling for the increasing participation of faith-based actors in peace building. They argue that faith-based actors are uniquely placed to engage in the peace-building process due to (a) the connections they developed from their long-standing presence in local communities, (b) their ability to engender the trust and participation of local actors, and (c) their incorporation of spiritual as well as material forms of assistance, which many recipient populations welcome. Though most scholars and practitioners who tout the benefits of religion in peace building acknowledge the role that religion can have in violence and other problematic scenarios, such instances are sometimes portrayed as a perversion of “legitimate” interpretations of religion (Schwarz, 2016, pp. 161–164). These characterizations often suggest that religion is “essentially” good and beneficial.

Many scholars have noted that these two ways of conceptualizing religion and religious ethics—as inherently problematic, or inherently beneficial—tend to be overly simplistic (especially Appleby, 1999; also Lynch, 2000b, 2011a; Petito & Hatzopoulos, 2003; Thomas, 2000; Wilson, 2012). Scott Appleby famously refers to the resulting dichotomy as “The Ambivalence of the Sacred” in his 1999 book of the same name, while already suggesting the more complex nature of the phenomena involved. Atalia Omer (2015, p. 4) asserts the necessity of avoiding “the idea that a supposedly ‘authentic’ religion … is and can do good,” which “gives rise to the same kind of essentialism and ahistoricity that characterize ‘the clash of civilizations’.” Both approaches—that view religion as either inherently negative or positive—entail essentializing moves that need to be challenged (Hurd, 2015). The next section discusses in more detail the problems with essentialization and reification of religion, followed by new approaches articulated by scholars to cope with the conceptual, methodological, normative, and pragmatic difficulties that reification produces.

What’s Wrong with Essentializing Religion in Political Science?

Assuming that religion is inherently magical, emotive, dogmatic, or anything “inherent” at all is essentializing and dehistoricizing a varied, context-dependent, and amorphous set of practices, social relations, texts, and actors. While theologians engage in the hermeneutic analysis of sacred texts, frequently debating among themselves which is the most accurate representation or interpretation of a given religious tradition (i.e., the method of “apologetics”), social scientists generally focus instead on how and/or why political, economic, and social events and processes interact with religious traditions. The distinction between disciplines should not be considered absolute, but it is important to highlight when dissecting problematic oversimplifications of religion that tend to resurface in some social science research. Assigning a fixed and essential ontology to religion results in several analytical and normative problems in political science.

First, essentializing religion often leads the scholar to miss the range of roles a particular act, idea, or actor might play in international relations. For instance, scholars might treat religious identity as the most important form of identity (over other ethnic, racial, gender, national, or other identities). Such privileging of religious identity—in scholarship, as well as in legal and political institutional contexts—can actually lead to more entrenched divisions among certain communities. As Campbell (1998) noted in Bosnia, Lynch (2011b) in the war on terror, and Hurd (2015) in the context of debates about religious freedom, privileging religion as “the” primordial identity misses the complexity of sociopolitical interactions and creates the possibility of “fortifying the lines of division” in religious terms (Hurd, 2015, p. 111). Instead, “religious identity … may overtake other identities, compete with them, or take a back seat to them (and this hierarchy of relationships may change over time). Religious identity may also be interpreted through other identities” (e.g., nationalism, ethnic exceptionalism, etc.; Lynch, 2011b, pp. 110–111).

Second, essentializing religion can privilege certain kinds of being over others. One example concerns whether or not religion can be reduced to “belief.” While common definitions of religion in international relations often include a reference to practice or ritual, many scholars often designate belief as the central defining characteristic of religion. This is problematic because focusing on religion as belief, “writes out of the picture alternative spaces and practices … in which religion is lived as ethics, culture, and even politics, but without necessarily belief” (Hurd, 2012; also see Cadge, Levitt, & Smilde, 2011; Connolly, 1999; and Mahmood, 2005). Thus, those studies that define religion as belief are leaving out other important aspects of religious adherence. While relating “belief” to situated and interpreted action by religious adherents can provide a way out of this problem (Lynch, 2000a), a significant and problematic trend is to focus almost exclusively on belief, as seen most clearly in international religious freedom laws. This jurisprudence, which tends to allow more freedom for belief than practice, results in “privileging one, typically Protestant understanding of religion over others” (Yelle, 2011, pp. 33–34).

Essentializing religion also often contributes to a secularist bias, wherein scholars are effectively blinded to the ways that secular phenomena can have similar problematic effects as religious phenomena. For example, scholars often focus on the ethical problems associated with religious proselytism, especially in aid and development settings, but neglect the similar negative effects that neoliberal market-based solutions can have in those same environments (Lynch & Schwarz, 2016). Moreover, a secularist bias can lead a scholar to neglect how putatively “secular” ideas, policies, and processes can shape theologies of aid (Lynch, 2011a), such as when some Christian and Muslim aid organizations employ discourses of neoliberalism to advocate particular concepts or programs (see also Petersen, 2016). Similarly, Mona Kanwal Sheikh (2014, p. 266) points out that so-called “nonreligious” principles of secularism and freedom, like some interpretations of religious doctrine, can “provide vehicles of social mobilization, give legitimacy to and moral justification for violence, demonize opponents and cast a conflict in transhistorical terms,” through the call to defend one’s country, for example.

Finally, essentializing religion dehistoricizes the concept and the scholar’s own role in the production of knowledge vis-à-vis religion. Timothy Fitzgerald (2011, pp. 233 and 240) argues that by relying on analytical categorizations of the religious, the secular, and the political, international relations scholars are reinforcing the normative categories that constituted common notions of modernity, and are thus engaging “in an ideological project” that often results in “domination and exploitation.” By essentializing religion and separating it from secularism or politics, scholars are using their authority to construct or reinforce conceptions of religion (as well as secularism, modernity, liberalism, and other concepts that are central to modern political life), which has real effects in areas of security, law, and other policy areas, “while simultaneously claiming to be exempt from this process of production” (Hurd, 2008, p. 16; also Wilson, 2012).3

Assigning inherent characteristics to religion often neglects the range of roles that so-called religious actors, practices, and ideas can play in social life, often resulting in skewed or erroneous claims about the salience of religious actors, traditions, beliefs, and practices in conflict or peace. In order to avoid oversimplification and dehistoricization, scholars should reexamine the ontology of religion in international relations and approach the study of religious actors and action through the lens of reflexivity and ethics, as well as through new developments in securitization approaches.

Alternative Approaches to the Study of Religion in International Relations

Focusing on religious ethics-in-action moves analyses beyond Enlightenment and other essentializing assumptions about the inherent nature of religion to better understandings of why religious global actors choose specific courses of action over others. To do this, scholars should both reexamine their own conceptions about what counts as religious and situate specific principles, practices, and identities within broader contexts, in order to understand how religious actors navigate ethical choices. Several approaches, including the securitization approach and the neo-Weberian approach, among others, can provide paths forward for accomplishing these goals.

Scholars must first reexamine and reevaluate their ontologies of religion (i.e., how they define religion and the assumptions that go along with those definitions). What counts as “religious” differs across time and space and scholars are notoriously unable to pin down a concrete definition of religion. As Max Weber (1991, p. 1) asserted in his classic tome, Sociology of Religion, “To define religion, to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this” (also quoted in Lynch, 2009, p. 383). Thus, when examining so-called religious actors or phenomena, scholars must be reflexive—actively engaging with their own assumptions about what it means for someone or something to be religious. In any given scholarly examination of religion in international relations, scholars must ask what it is about a particular phenomenon or actor that makes it/her/him religious according to the scholar’s own definition and why that might matter for the analysis or argument. For instance, typologies of faith-based organizations often view certain practices, symbols, and relationships as indicative of the relative religiousness of a given organization (Hefferan, Adkins, & Occhipinti, 2009; Jeavons, 1998; Monsma, 1996; Sider & Unruh, 2004; Thaut, 2009). Scholars need to assess what is gained or lost by identifying certain organizational characteristics (e.g., the use of prayer, a Christian identity, the distribution of aid in a mosque) as inherently religious, while assuming other characteristics (e.g., a humanitarian ethos, participation in a campaign to distribute mosquito nets, a workplace free from symbols of the Christian cross) to be nonreligious or secular. What is at stake in such categorizations? Taking an ontological stance that views what counts as religion, or what counts as religious, as part and parcel of socioeconomic and political processes places scholars in an intellectual space wherein they understand their own authoritative power in assigning meaning to religious actors and phenomena, while also allowing for more specificity in understanding how those actors and practices we call “religious” operate in international relations. Such a reflexive and socially constructed ontology of religion pushes the scholar to rethink how she can best understand why an Islamic humanitarian organization or a Christian social movement might or might not proselytize, include prayer in its activities, employ the discourse of development specialists, or participate in an advocacy campaign or protest (Schwarz, 2016).

In order to understand why so-called religious actors might engage in certain activities (including activities of peace or violence), some scholars (Toft et al., 2011, p. 219) advocate for paying closer attention to different forms of religious theologies. However, as Sheikh (2012, p. 377) notes, “The danger in evaluating theological concepts through a priori analyses detached from their adherents is that they can end up being highly speculative about the link between religion and action.” Religious texts (here we use the term “text” in a broad sense to also include religious oral teachings and practices) can often include seemingly contradictory prescriptions, and religious actors are tasked with how to interpret those texts. In this way, religious texts are living documents and religious traditions are “living traditions” (Appleby, 1999; Lynch, 2009; MacIntyre, 2007; Salvatore & LeVine, 2005), rather than static and easily identified blueprints for how to live.

Second, in order to deal with the interpretation problem, scholars need to contextualize the practice, principles, and identities of religious actors within broader histories and geographies in order to understand how such actors navigate ethical choices. While the securitization approach helps explain problematic foreign and domestic policy implications resulting from the essentialization of religion, scholars must go further in contextualizing the tensions among religious actors and within religious traditions. One important step is to look beyond religious doctrine to the way in which religious actors interpret that doctrine through practice. There are several conceptualizations of how to do this, including the ethics-based approaches of neo-Weberianism and “positive ethics,” as well as a relational dialogical approach.

An ethics-based approach to the study of religion treats religion not as static doctrine, but as practice. The neo-Weberian approach focuses on moral reasoning and how notions of the common good are shaped by actors and their experiences (Lynch, 2009, p. 399; also see Lynch, 2014). It is at base a form of constructivism that does not essentialize religion as an inherent motivator of conflict or peace. Instead, such an approach focuses on how actors “bridge the gap between doctrine, ethics, and action in particular contexts” (Lynch, 2014, p. 280). The neo-Weberian approach draws on Max Weber’s insights into the ways in which religious actors practice religious doctrine through specific rituals and choices, but that those practices themselves are shaped by a variety of geographical, historical, and other contextual factors. “As a result,” Lynch (2014, p. 282) writes, “religious adherents constantly navigate experiential, ritualistic, and doctrinal terrains in deciding how to act.” Lynch builds on Weber’s ethical framework by focusing on the ways in which religious communities draw on doctrines, past courses of action, and current situational factors to debate among themselves the best ways to interpret specific texts and how to act according to their conceptions of the common good. The neo-Weberian approach moves past essentialist notions of religious doctrine and action to understand how religious individuals and communities navigate complex social spaces where ethical choices are not simply informed by predetermined interpretations of religious doctrine, but are discussed, challenged, and navigated. Using this approach to deepen the analysis of the securitization of Islam and Muslims, for example, we could examine the tensions in Muslim-majority societies regarding both U.S. bases in their countries and the failure of their own authoritarian governments’ responses to social and political problems. We should go further, however, and examine as well the tensions in different groups’ understandings of the meanings of jihad (including internal versus external struggles for justice) and the requirements of peace, salaam, or Islam. Both contextualization and understanding the range and tensions among meanings allows a richer understanding of religious interpretation and practice, and assists in preventing an oversimplification of complex contexts and identities.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood proposes a similar approach she calls “positive ethics” (drawn from the works of Aristotle and Michel Foucault). She writes, “An inquiry into ethics from this perspective requires that one examine not simply the values enshrined in moral codes, but the different ways in which people now live these codes.… What is consequential in this framework is not necessarily whether people follow the moral norms or not, but what relationships they establish between the various constitutive elements of the self (body, reason, volition, and so on) and a particular norm” (2005, p. 120). Taking these religious ethical struggles seriously, positive ethics and neo-Weberianism entail contextualization of a particular religious actor or group and its practices and traditions, highlighting the “common good” or ultimate goals it wants to achieve, and probing the range of ethics and actions that are interpreted as legitimate for achieving it (Lynch, 2014, p. 283). Because ethics-based approaches treat religion as a socially constructed category, they are also well suited to engage in a reflexive reassessment of the ontology of religion.

Similarly, Erin Wilson (2012, p. 2) articulates a constitutive approach of “relational dialogism” that “highlights the multifaceted nature of religion itself” for studying foreign policy, while understanding articulations of global justice by religious actors in ways that move “beyond dualism” (Wilson, 2010, p. 733). According to Wilson (drawing on Kristeva, 1986, p. 744), dialogism allows for the fluidity of concepts and ideas, while relational thinking (here Wilson draws on Prokhovnik) views those ideas and concepts as “existing in relationships.” Employing such an approach in the study of religion vis-à-vis global justice and other areas of international relations enables the scholar to “emphasize the connections that exist” within dichotomies of religious–secular, irrational–rational, problematic–beneficial, and others (2010, p. 744). Rather than treating religious actors, beliefs, and practices as inherently good or bad, relational dialogism shows how they can be both and neither. Furthermore, a relational dialogical approach encourages the scholar to think beyond her own assumptions about religion by, for instance, focusing on other nonreligious intersections of identity in interreligious peace building (Wilson, 2010, p. 747). Relational dialogism treats “religion” and its related ideas, practices, and actors as fluid and relational, rather than static and distinct. While Lynch’s and Mahmood’s ethics-based approaches focus on the interpretation of religious guidelines for a wide range of actions and ethics, Wilson focuses on global justice and foreign policy issues. Yet each of these scholars moves away from the dualism inherent in reified conceptions of religion.

Moreover, like securitization theory, these approaches help to pinpoint areas of potential defusion and redefinition of problematic interpretations and assumptions by scholars, pundits, and those they study. According to securitization theory, when an issue or set of actors becomes securitized (either by religious actors themselves or by those who oppose them), the conditions enabling violence are heightened. This leads to the necessity of “desecuritization” where possible (Sheikh, 2011), in order to avoid conflict as well as the reification of religious identities, traditions, and practices. In the securitization framework, religion is not a predetermined problem or threat, but becomes one through specific discourses and practices. The neo-Weberian and other dialogical, ethics-based approaches, in turn, point to the internal workings and tensions as well as internal-external interactions of religious traditions in their contexts. In a similar vein, we assert that studies of religion in international relations, in order to avoid the bad–good, problematic–beneficial, conflict-prone–peaceful dichotomies, should, instead treat religion as socially constructed practice and discourse.


Ultimately, scholars should turn from studying something called “religion” to examining traditions, actors, practices, and ethics deemed “religious” by specific actors and/or analysts. Religion (and secularism) is instantiated through practice, by particular actors, who interpret their traditions through the lens of their socioeconomic and political contexts as well as ethical imperatives. Analysts’ attempts to understand religion as “a” factor that is ahistorical in nature can capture elements of these practices, actors, and traditions, but ultimately risk essentializing specific religious traditions or actors in ways that miss much of their ethical and political import and influence.

The debate between scholars who employ religion as a static variable opposed to “secularism,” and those who emphasize (a) the range of ethics, interpretations, and actors within religious traditions as well as among them, and (b) the intersectionality of religions and secularisms in historical context, will no doubt continue. Moreover, debates internal to each type of perspective are also important to note. Scholars who view religion as a variable that either causes or does not cause particular outcomes debate its role in producing violence and opposing or supporting democracy (for an interesting discussion of Islam and secularism in Senegal, for example, see Stepan, 2000). Those who insist on contextual understandings of religious interpretations present a range of perspectives on several issues, including the degree to which they see secularism as inevitably a byproduct of Christianity, the degree to which they wish to erase any divide between religion and secularism versus probing more deeply the ethics of those who call themselves either religious or secular, and the degree to which they simply critique the religious-secular divide versus develop alternative approaches to address its complexities.

Examinations of both religion and secularism as categories and historical developments should move beyond the European context to those that focus on other intersections and other areas of the world (e.g., the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism in India and China, and the intersections between Islam and West and North African religions, among many others). Such expanded research trajectories could examine more deeply questions of identity, relations between belief and practice, and the constitutive relationship between them and politics in different parts of the world. Such a trajectory might also merge with the call to develop a new subfield of “international political theology” (IPT), as advocated by Vendulka Kubálková (2000, 2003), in order to understand the range of developments regarding the quest for meaning in international relations. Whether or not a specific field of study is required, future research will undoubtedly continue the examination of practices, ideologies, and traditions of religions and secularisms in different parts of the world, their interconnections with political and economic processes, and their ethics regarding pressing issues of their times.

Further Reading

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  • 1. Relatedly, David Little (2015) connects Enlightenment ideas about the nation to Calvinist Protestantism, providing an alternative challenge to the “secularization” brought about by the Enlightenment legacy.

  • 2. The alternative approaches outlined in this article are aligned with the constructivist framework in international relations, which emphasizes contextuality and the co-constitution of identities and interests—i.e., the material and ideational (see Klotz and Lynch, 2007). Lynch (2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2014), Philpott (2001, 2007), Kratochwil (2005), and others who have addressed questions of religion each identify (more or less) with constructivism, as has Nexon (2009). But the focus in this article is on specifying the contributions of specific alternative approaches, rather than attempting to fit them into a particular—if broad-based—international relations framework.

  • 3. Also see Connolly (1999) for a discussion of the ways that secularists rely on metaphysical perspectives, while claiming not to.