A Matter of Faith

Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Matter of Faith


Rarely in modern times has religion's role in international affairs been discussed with the sense of urgency that it is today. In previous eras, religious passions fueled the fires that built nations, forged cultural identities, and raised up whole civilizations--often only to bring them crashing down again. Now, the world is as rife with uncertainty and insecurity as ever, and religion has again emerged as a potentially decisive influence on the course of human history.

Nonetheless, contemporary international analyses are usually grounded in the language of one or another analytical paradigm emphasizing, for example, economic incentives, technological change, or political interests. Prominent academicians heir to the legacy of the European Enlightenment have reinforced this trend by long arguing that religion was destined to be discarded, that it would become a mere relic of a pre-modern past. Often called the secularization or modernization thesis, this once widespread view roughly holds that fundamental social forces cause individuals to identify less with the ethereal values of religion and more with mass political entities like the bureaucratic state or economic groups defined by market imperatives. Some versions of the thesis even claimed that religion could be expected to lose its centrality in international affairs as the world's populace became better educated. Religions faith, they argued, cannot survive in the face of pervasive scientism. If true, the secularization thesis would imply that an international relations theory could explain conflict, cooperation, and political decision-making comprehensively while relegating religion to the status of an epiphenomenon, or perhaps without discussing it at all.

Yet the recent course of international affairs has forced many adherents of the secularization thesis into retreat. Far from being eclipsed by political or economic forces, religion as a social activity instead appears to be in a state of flux--or, more accurately, to be in many states of flux in different parts of the world. Violence in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere show quite clearly that religiously motivated conflict has not just abided but thrived in the 20th century, while the events of September 11, 2001, seem to have further solidified this view in both popular and political circles. Of course, religion factors into politics in ways besides violent conflict. As demonstrated in Iran and Afghanistan, the development of the modern state can serve as a vehicle for the empowerment of religious ideologies that successfully harness the strength of the masses.

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