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.