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Research Primer for Religion and IR

September 25, 2013

Michael Desch and Daniel Philpott at Notre Dame have concluded their two-year Mellon funded working group on religion and IR and published their final report titled Religion and International Relations: A Primer for Research.  Desch, in his introduction (titled: “The Coming Reformation of Religion in International Affairs? The Demise of the Secularization Thesis and the Rise of New Thinking About Religion”), starts with a puzzle expressed by working group participant Timothy Shah: “religion has become one of the most influential factors in world affairs in the last generation but remains one of the least examined factors in the professional study and practice of world affairs.”

Why is this? In addressing this question, the working group focused on three broad set of questions: What is religion and how should we study it in international relations? How can religion broaden our understanding of international relations? and, what should be the core of the future research agenda for religion and international relations?

The report begins with broad overview of definitions and concepts and moves to particular discussions of the relationship of religion and nationalism, civil war, and terrorism, etc…

William Cavenaugh’s contribution tackled perhaps the toughest issue:

If we are to talk seriously about something, we ought to be able to say what it is. This is a commonsense principle of rational speech that unfortunately is often regarded as an unduly burdensome requirement when it comes to religion. International relations scholars exude confidence that we can talk about religion sensibly, but the issue of definition tends to be dismissed rather quickly, either by laying hold of one of the standard substantivist definitions that lie readily to hand, or by appealing to some version of “We all know it when we see it.” International relations scholars do not generally doubt that religion is out there; we just have trouble defining it.

Monica Toft’s chapter on religion and civil war notes that religious civil wars are more violent and last longer than non-religious civil wars. As such, she concludes:

given that an increasing number of individuals, communities, groups, organizations, and states identify as ‘religious’ worldwide and are demanding a greater role in politics, it is incumbent upon international relations scholars to take religion into account in much more systematic terms, both empirically and theoretically.

Take a look.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.