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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

24 - Religion and secularism

from Part IV - The new agenda: Globalisation and global governance



This chapter introduces a new research program for understanding the politics of religion and secularism. It argues that a focus on the politics of religion and secularism offers a productive port of entry into the study of international politics. Following a brief introduction to religion and International Relations (IR), it offers a basic historical introduction to the concept of secularism (see Box 24.1), explains why the politics of secularism is significant to the study of global politics, and concludes with two short case studies of the politics of secularism in the Middle East and North Africa.

Religion and International Relations

The study of the global dimensions and implications of religion and secularism is relatively new to the discipline of IR (Falk 2001; Hurd 2008; Katzenstein and Byrnes 2006; Petito and Hatzopoulos 2003; Thomas 2005). The authority of different forms of secularism and the force they command in many parts of the world, within and between nation-states, has received little attention. There are a number of reasons for this lack of attention.

First and most significantly, questions of religion have been marginalised due to the sheer power and authority of secularism to define the terms of the debate in such a way that religion is understood (at best) as irrelevant to politics and (at worst) as an existential threat to rational public order. Although this consensus has begun to shift in recent years (Hurd 2015), it has been so powerful in IR and in the world that for many years even questioning it was considered nonsensical. The conviction that religion should be privatised – and that particular religions may threaten this process more than others – cuts to the core of modern political thought and practice. The privatisation of religion is ‘mandated ideologically by liberal categories of thought which permeate not only political ideologies and constitutional theories but the entire structure of modern Western thought’ (Casanova 1994: 215). As a foundational principle of modern politics, secularisation is often seen as having contributed to democratisation and liberalisation.

Bender, Courtney and Klassen, Pamela E. 2010, After pluralism: Reimagining religious engagement, New York: Columbia University Press. Interrogates the concept of religious pluralism as a solution to issues posed by religious difference.
Berg-Sørensen, Anders (ed.) 2013, Contesting secularism: Comparative perspectives, London: Ashgate. Analyses how secularism functions as a political doctrine in different national contexts; presents different models for the relationship between political institutions and religious groups; and raises alternative possibilities for the structure of democratic and multi-faith societies.
Cady, Linell E. and Fessenden, Tracy (eds) 2013, Religion, the secular, and the politics of sexual difference, New York: Columbia University Press. Historicises, questions and tests the implicit links between secularism and expanded freedoms for women.
Cady, Linell E. and Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman (eds) 2010, Comparative secularisms in a global age, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Explores the history and politics of secularism and religion in France, India, Turkey and the United States, and interrogates presumption of European origins of modern forms of secularism.
Grillo, Ralph, Ballard, Roger, Ferrari, Alessandro, Hoekema, André J., Maussen, Marcel and Shah, Prakash (eds) 2009, Legal practice and cultural diversity. London: Ashgate. Considers how cultural and religious diversity challenges legal practice and how that practice is changing in the encounter with the cultural diversity occasioned by immigration.
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman 2015, Beyond religious freedom: The new global politics of religion, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. An analysis of state-sponsored efforts to promote religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities that proposes a new approach to the study of religion and global politics through the concepts of expert religion, lived religion and governed religion.
Jakobsen, Janet and Pellegrini, Ann (eds) 2008, Secularisms, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Scholars of religious studies, gender and sexuality studies, history, science studies, anthropology, and political science challenge the binary conception of ‘conservative’ religion versus ‘progressive’ secularism.
Snyder, Jack (ed.) 2011, Religion and International Relations theory, New York: Columbia University Press. Reconsiders realist, liberal and constructivist approaches to IR theory and practice in light of new attention to the history and politics of secularism and religion.