We need to talk about religion. For many,
this is a challenging task: doesn’t religion cause conflict, so why
would we seek it out? For others, it is hard to talk about religion
because, though freedom of belief is to be guarded, religion simply
belongs behind closed doors, not out in the public sphere.
But the study of religion – in
International Relations, Sociology and Development theory particularly –
has seen a steady and undeniable change in the past twenty years.
Predictions of religion’s inevitable disappearance as modernity advanced
around the world have failed to materialize. In fact, religion has
breathed new life in every part of the world except, as Peter Berger
notes, Western Europe, a powerful intellectual centre for such
The failure of the ‘secularization thesis’
has left some important questions essentially open: How should we best
interpret religion globally? How does it shape the modern world? How can
those outside of a religious tradition constructively engage with those
Importantly, despite secularization
theory’s general collapse, specific assumptions about religion that grew
out of the expectation that it would disappear have retained a
stronghold over the study of religion. For example, faith is considered
largely to be a private affair, it is primarily concerned with the
‘spiritual’ (as opposed to the here-and-now), and is expected to be
fully distinct from political governance. In practice, each of these
expectations doesn’t give a full and honestly complex picture of the
real world. Religion is fundamentally public, it is always entwined with
its historical and social context, and in different settings, it has
varying degrees of differentiation from ‘secular’ politics and power.
These lingering patterns of thinking about
religion have important consequences, and need to be rethought in the
light of religion’s resurgence. In the case of religious terrorism,
surely the clearest example for the West of the importance of getting to
grips with religion, we can see two negative consequences of these
patterns of thought.
Firstly, the causes of religious zeal and,
ultimately, religiously motivated violence, are often seen to arise from
material contexts such as poverty, inequality and social immobility,
reflecting the assumption that values and beliefs are products of more
‘basic’ material factors. In reality, Christopher
Hewitt has shown that religious terrorism, for example, the 9/11
attacks on New York, often finds footing among the most educated sectors
of society, suggesting that religion is not just a product of material
causes, but an independent factor.
Secondly, the assumption that religious
freedom is maintained by confining religion to the private sphere often
leads to global prescriptions of western-style secular governance. But
religious terrorism has been explained (particularly
by Mark Jeurgensmeyer) in part as a backlash against secular
modernity. Religious communities may be attempting to violently
re-insert traditional values and morality into the perceived ethical
vacuum of a perceived secular contemporary global system. This
explanation is lent particular weight when widely agreed upon moral
failings of ‘secular’ business and politics – such as political
corruption, scandal, or environmental destruction – are publically
exposed. Terrorism may represent an unjustifiable example of a
reasonable question that religious communities often ask: What morality
is guiding secular modernity?
Religion’s resurgence and centrality to
conflict in the modern world tells us that the world today is
inescapably diverse and plural. Instead of continuing with the modernist
project of unifying the globe under a single narrative, social scientist
Scott Thomas argues that ‘taking cultural
and religious pluralism seriously is now one of the most
important…challenges of the twenty-first century’ (2005). All too often,
the instinctive response to diversity of basic belief is to attempt to
create ideologically neutral public space, rather than to practice the
art of engaging difference in public spaces.
The practice of dialogue – wherein all
parties declare their own views openly, aiming to listen to and
understand other perspectives and traditions (Holenstein,
2005) – is paramount to successful contemporary peace building.
Scottish philosopher Alistair MacIntyre argued that for such
understanding and translation to be possible, the language of another
tradition must become a person’s ‘first second language’.
Ideologically neutral space is impossible
– it will always be governed by the belief system of the dominant party,
whether religious or rationalist. Neutrality is an essential tool in
pursuing peace, to be sure. But perhaps the time has come to shift the
picture of neutrality from a perceived third space, void of ideology,
toward the picture of a space where all ideologies are held openly.
Bringing religion, in particular, out from the shadow of the private,
and recognizing its essential publicity, may be a first step in engaging
the creative power of faith to form lasting peace.
Author works as a
researcher with the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local
Insight on Conflict]