Difficulty of building a grand theory of religion and international relations

TEHRAN, Oct. 27 (MNA) – Professor Jonathan T. Chow from University of Macau says “religion can be an important factor in international politics, but it would be a mistake to say that it is the sole or even the most important factor.”

“Building a grand theory of religion and international relations, I think, would necessarily oversimplify the diverse and nuanced ways in which religious ideas, practices, and modes of social organization shape world politics,” Professor Chow tells the Tehran Times.

He adds “it’s important to recognize that theories have their limitations. Theories are thinking tools that offer structured approaches to investigating specific questions. One of the most exciting things about studying religion and international politics is that both are always changing.”

Following is the text of the interview:

When did religious issues become a matter of great importance in theorizing of International Relations?

Historically, the study of religion has been a niche issue in international relations theory and has only become a major area of research in the last two decades or so. Some earlier scholars engaged with questions of how religion relates to international relations theory (notably the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who articulated a theory of Christian Realism, and the English School international relations theorist Martin Wight), but the study of religion in international relations began to come into its own in the 1990s with the proliferation of sectarian conflicts after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Samuel Huntington’s controversial 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (itself based on a 1993 Foreign Affairs article), helped to kickstart scholarly conversations about religion’s relationship with international politics. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 played a major role in highlighting the need for more rigorous theorizing about religion in international relations and there has been an outpouring of scholarship about religion since. As an indication of how the field has grown, the International Studies Association—the most widely known professional interdisciplinary association for international studies--established a section for Religion and International Affairs in 2013.

Some argue that if the theory of International Relations means a constitutive and critical theory, then bringing religion into International Relations is possible, but if the theory of International Relations is a explanatory-empirical theory, theorizing religion in International Relations is not possible and, in fact, there is not theological positivism theory in International Relations. What is your opinion?

I think that the answer to this question depends very much on how we define religion. Is religion primarily a set of theological ideas? An organization? A community? A collection of rituals and other cultural practices? If we define religion primarily as a set of ideas and beliefs about the supernatural and the sacred, then we need a theory that links ideas to political outcomes. How do ideas shape politics? They do so in part by constituting the belief systems and thus the political interests of various political actors, who then act according to those beliefs and interests. If, on the other hand, we define religion primarily as religious organizations, then there is no reason why we cannot employ positivist theories. Organizations have concrete interests and the political means by which they seek to achieve them can certainly be illuminated by empirical theories. The kind of theory that we use depends upon the question we ask and which aspect of religion we are interested in understanding.

Some scholars such as Michael Allen Gillespie in the book “The Theological Origins of Modernity” believe that modernity was not initially against religion, and in later years, as a result of social, cultural and political conditions, it has led to secularism. So Based on this concept, religion is not in conflict with modernity, so can it be said that religion is not in conflict with the International Relations theory stemming from modernity?

I don’t think that modernity is necessarily antagonistic to religion. I subscribe to S.N. Eisenstadt’s view that there are “multiple modernities”. Classical theories of modernization argued that economic development and the growing differentiation of society would lead to a convergence in how different societies were organized. One hypothesized result was that religion would eventually be replaced by science or secular ideology, or at least relegated to the private sphere. I think it is pretty clear that this hypothesis has not been supported by the facts. Although economic modernization has fostered secularism in places like Western Europe, religion continues to thrive in modern societies from Indonesia to Brazil to the United States. Different societies adapt to the various experiences of modernity in diverse ways, not all of which involve the marginalization of religion.

It is a rather different question as to whether international relations theories can accommodate religion simply because religion is not incompatible with modernity. I would disagree with that characterization. Whether theories accommodate religion or not has less to do with their conceptions of modernity than with their assumptions about who the key actors are, what their interests are, and how actors seek to achieve those interests. If, for instance, a theory is only interested in how the global balance of power among states shapes international stability, then religion (whether as ideas or organizations) will play little or no role. If, on the other hand, a theory is interested in how identities and interests constitute one another, then religion can certainly be an important factor that the theory takes into account.

Some argue that the current International Relations theory cannot explain some of the current phenomena of international relations and we need a religious theory of International Relations, especially with regard to religious issues. What is your opinion? In general, is theorizing Religion in International Relations feasible?

While it is true that international relations theories have historically failed to account for the role of religion, I do not believe that we need to replace them with a religious theory of international relations in the sense of grand “paradigmatic” theories like realism or neoliberal institutionalism. Religion can be an important factor in international politics, but it would be a mistake to say that it is the sole or even the most important factor. Building a grand theory of religion and international relations, I think, would necessarily oversimplify the diverse and nuanced ways in which religious ideas, practices, and modes of social organization shape world politics. Rather than aiming for grand theories of religion and international relations, it may be more productive to develop theories of more limited scope that are responses to specific questions. For instance, why are wars over sacred space more intractable than other kinds of wars? Such investigations allow social scientists to be more precise about their assumptions, the definitions of what they are studying, and the claims they can make about what our data means. So, yes, we do need theories to help us understand how religion shapes international politics, but I don’t think that that undermines the usefulness of existing international relations theories.

If theorizing Religion in International Relations is possible, can this religious theory in International Relations explain all the unresolved issues and problems?

I think it’s important to recognize that theories have their limitations. Theories are thinking tools that offer structured approaches to investigating specific questions. One of the most exciting things about studying religion and international politics is that both are always changing. Theories that may have been adequate for explaining one period of history may need to be abandoned or revised in the face of changing social conditions. How religion shapes international politics is heavily conditioned by historical context. Change the context, and it is likely that you will have to adopt a theory with different premises. For example, the role of the Catholic Church as a legitimizing authority for secular rulers in medieval Europe was born out of very specific circumstances. Once European secular rulers discarded the notion of Christendom in favor of the territorial sovereign state in the seventeenth century, international politics functioned in a very different way. A theory of sovereign states would not work to explain Christendom in medieval Europe, just as a theory premised on rulers all united by common religious belief would likely not withstand the Protestant Reformation.  As new political and religious phenomena occur, there will be new puzzles for which to develop theoretical explanations.

Interview by: Javad Heirannia

MNA/TT

News Code 139102

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