Until recently IR theory had little to say about religion: Jeff Haynes

TEHRAN, Dec. 25 (MNA) – Jeff Haynes, Emeritus Professor of Politics at London Metropolitan University, says the main reason that International Relations (IR) theory has had little to say about religion is due to the background, history, and development of the discipline of IR.

“Until recently International Relations (IR) theory had little to say about religion,” Prof. Haynes tells the Tehran Times.

“Today, however, many scholars seek to theories about religion when talking about IR theory,” he maintains.

Following is the full text of the interview:

When did the religious issues has been a matter of great in Theorizing of International Relations?

The main reason that international relations (IR) theory has had little to say about religion is because of the background, history, and development of the discipline of IR. As we noted in earlier chapters, for hundreds of years, international relations, especially in the West, has been both state-focused and secular in outlook. In recent centuries, very few states – especially in the secular West – have had an organizing ideology that regards religion as more significant than secular – that is, non-religious – principles, such as liberal democracy, capitalism, or communism.

Despite religious resurgence and claims of post-secular IR, the important actors in IR have not fundamentally changed in recent years: powerful states still dominate most of the time, although in certain contexts and in relation to some issues, we cannot overlook the importance of a range of – secular and religious non-state actors. On the one hand, states (or governments, the two terms are used synonymously in the IR literature) in various ways, in various contexts and with various outcomes, may connect their policies to religious concerns, typically do this in order to justify or legitimate their foreign policies. It is not necessarily the case that they believe that religion is telling them to act more morally or ethically and, as a result, this implies that they must adjust policies. On the other hand, there are non-state actors in international relations employing religion either (a) domestically, to try to encourage governments to act in one way rather than another, or (2) in relation to foreign policy, seeking to adjust, amend or change a country’s international relations in order to be more in line with their religious principles. Sometimes they may act as religious transnational actors, acting alone to try to effect policy change in relation to various issues.

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 an explanatory-empirical theory, the theorizing religion in International Relations is not possible and, in fact, there is not theological positivism theory in International Relations. What is your opinion?

The neo-Marxist view sees political processes at the global level primarily as expressions of underlying class conflicts, which develop from their starting points in domestic political competition and conflict. Religion is not seen as an important facet of class issues. Overall, ‘materialist’ approaches, including neo-Marxism and Critical Theory tend to understand religion (whether in its ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guise) as largely epiphenomenal. This means that religion is understood to be an effect of or a cover for more fundamental material

considerations, especially economic interests and power politics. Talal Asad has observed that materialist approaches, such as Neo-Marxism and Critical Theory, usually dismiss religion ‘as a mode of consciousness which is other than consciousness of reality, external to the relations of production, producing no knowledge, but expressing at once the anguish of the oppressed and a spurious consolation’. Materialist IR approaches differ from Realists in not conceiving of global order as based upon an interlinked structure built of military and economic power, nor as sustained by networks of interdependence as Liberals do. One of the dominant characteristics of the global order for Neo-Marxists and Critical Theorists is the structural differentiation of the world into a core, peripheral and semi-peripheral centers of economic power. While, originally this was regarded as the division between the ‘North’, ‘South’ and the communist Eastern bloc, the emergence of the East Asian Newly Industrializing Countries in the late 1970s and the demise of the Eastern communist bloc a decade later comprehensively undermined this simple (and increasingly simplistic) three-way international economic division. Today, both Critical Theorists and Neo-Marxists tend to look to the allegedly baleful conditions of globalization and neo-imperialism to explain inequities and injustices in international relations.  Global order is today preserved through the interactive power of the leading capitalist states, international organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, transnational corporations, and international regimes based on the hierarchical dominance of these actors, which together serve to legitimate a global diffusion of a dominant ideology of liberalism and Western-style modernization.

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 conception, 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?

Since the foundation of Western social sciences in the 19th century, religion has been dismissed as of diminishing importance in modern (ising) societies. The theory of secularization was for decades highly influential. The core of the theory was that religion would everywhere eventually disappear from the public realm, becoming a private, spiritual issue without profound consequence for political developments, whether within countries or internationally. Secular societies, which would base their approach to life on the application of science and rationality, would eventually exclude religion from public concern. Secularization theory deeply influenced social scientific thinking, including the discipline of International Relations.  Until the end of the Cold War, it is not an exaggeration to say that only a few theorists of International Relations (IR) or policy-makers engaged in either substantial investigation or articulation of the links between cultural variables like religion and ethnicity on one hand and international affairs on the other.

Many sociologists of religion and political scientists now fundamentally question the assumptions of secularization theory, which seem to them both erroneous and wrong, as it does not any longer have empirical validity. This is captured in the idea of a resurgence of religion, with clear international implications, including but not restricted to the events of 9/11 and the murderous attack on the USA which killed over 3,000 people. Yet despite this apparent re-entry of religion in international relations, most IR scholars have been loath to accord religion a central or even important role in IR theories. This may be because most scholars of international relations really do not think that religion matters, or it may be because the most widely accepted theories of IR are actually incapable of factoring in religion to their paradigms. So, in conclusion, or many, religion is an epiphenomenon in IR, in conflict with IR theory building on the development of modernity.

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, theorizing Religion in International Relations is feasible?

A few years after Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilizations appeared, a Czech academic, based in the USA, Vendulka Kubálková, sought to outline a new approach to theories about religion in international relations. Kubálková called her approach to international political theology (IPT). In the same vein as international political economy (IPE), which is the application of political concerns to the study of international economics, Kubálková explained that the purpose of IPT was to look at the growing need for meaning in a world deeply affected by globalization, be that ‘transcendental’ or ‘secular’, and wanted to try to incorporate this very human reaction into IR studies.

Kubálková poses a key question: How can IR as an academic discipline usefully contribute to the study of the widespread resurgence of religion and its effects upon outcomes in global politics? This question is important since the new visibility of religions occurs in a global context which is the primary domain of IR expertise. It is also one that has been overlooked or under-examined by most IR scholars. So far, the contribution of IR to the study of the resurgence of religion has been limited by the social-scientific and materialistic cast of the discipline: religion stands in sharp contrast to reason and is not to be taken seriously. The interests of states are understood in the IR mainstream, particularly in the US, as exogenously given, that is, all conform to a set of universal ‘national interest’ aspirations, inherent within the Realist approach. Religions, on the other hand, are understood in mainstream IR theory as different kinds of actors, which do not conform to the territorial boundaries so essential to state-centric IR studies. To rectify this omission, Kubálková proposed creating IPT to take on a systematic omission in IR, which she saw as neglect of the role of religions, culture, ideas, ideologies, and rules in social-science accounts of global politics. IPT would, she argued, focus on those discourses in global politics which search for, or claim to have found, a response – transcendental or secular – to the human need for meaning. For Kubálková, the multifaceted phenomenon of globalization has encouraged ‘an intensified human search for meaning that reaches beyond the restricted empirical existence of the here and now. Globalization may be one of the possible causes of the increased visibility of religions worldwide, and IPT is a response to this development’.

Kubálková points to a fundamental difference between religious and secular discourses, that is, their ‘ontological’ presumptions. Ontology is a description (like a formal specification of a program) of the concepts and relationships that can exist for an agent or a community of agents’. Kubálková contends that ‘most religions’ share ‘basic ontological characteristics’, a contention with which Fitzgerald (2011) strongly disagrees, not least because there are many religions, especially so-called ‘Eastern religions’ – such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto – which lack a key characteristic of the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – a single God. Kubálková proposes what she calls ‘a rule-oriented constructivist framework’ which enables a serious treatment of ‘religion’ on a par with other ideas, ideologies, and IR theories.  Kubálková’s approach is novel, not least because she argues explicitly for an ontological distinction between religious and secular thought. Critics aver that Kubálková makes generalizations about what all religions, western and eastern, share, which undermines the explanatory power of her IPT paradigm and more generally sheds doubt on the idea that generally theorizing the role of religion in IR is possible.

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

Until recently International Relations (IR) theory had little to say about religion. Today, however, many scholars seek to theorize about religion when talking about IR theory. How generally does International Relations theory engage with religion? We noted that the issue is controversial and there is no consensus about what is the best approach. There is little evidence that the fundamentals of international relations have suddenly changed as a result of the current religious resurgence. In addition, there appears to be no compelling evidence that post-secular international relations is clearly different from earlier secular international relations, which evolved over the centuries following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. To what extent do we need to change how our perception of religion’s minor role in international relations in order to inform IR theory? I believe we live in a hierarchical and multipolar, but also interdependent and multilateral, global system, just as we did 2 or 3 decades ago. For IR theory, religion is not a ‘game changer’, although its various manifestations – expressed both in how it affects states and transnational non-state actors – can at times and in relation to certain issues be significant. However, religion’s ‘return’ to international relations, does not mean that we must fundamentally adjust our understanding of how international relations ‘works’. The long-running focus on the activities of states – which still in the main adhere to secular principles and objectives in their international relations dealings – is still to be captured within the existing mainstream IR theories which collectively see little consistent significance for religion.

Interview by: Javad Heirannia


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