By Rooholamin Saeidi

The resurgence of religion in the last modern century: prof. Scott Thomas (Part 2)

April 25, 2019

TEHRAN - Dr. Scott Thomas is an American who lectures in International Relations and the Politics of Developing Countries. He studied in the School of International Service at the American University, Washington, DC before going to the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics for his MSc and PhD. He taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and South Africa before coming to Bath in 1994 where he is a permanent member of the teaching staff. At Bath he teaches a variety of courses on international relations.

Following is the text of the part 2 of his interview with Asre-Andisheh Magazine:

Q: What do some thinkers mean when they call the 20th century ‘The Century of God’? What does this concept indicate?
A: I would prefer to call the 21st century – ‘the century of God.’ It would seem, given what I have said already in previous questions, the 20th century may have been the high water mark of secularization, and a particular faith in the myth, the theory, of secularization as a coherent, inevitable social process spreading around the world. It is why I now talk about the religious world of the 21st century.
It was, of course, André Malraux, the French intellectual who was Minister of Culture towards the end of Charles De Gaulle’s presidency, who purportedly said, ‘The 21st century will be religious or it will not be,’ which for many has become a kind of prophesy. It is argued he did not say this, but that did point to an enduring power of religion, and a relationship between God and man in every age. However, he boldly said this during the high water mark of modernization and secularization. I quote Gary Wills, the U.S. commentator, ‘The learned have their superstitions, prominent among them is a belief that superstition is evaporating.’

Q: Contrary to our expectations, even reflectivist or post positivist thinkers like Alexander Wendt who pay attention to social factors, neglect religion and don’t take it seriously. What is the reason of this negligence? Is it as you write in your book, because of ‘secular habit’?
A: Yes, this is broadly the reason since these broad societal characteristics also influence academia. The reasons are the standard ones I explained in my book. Firstly, scholars of International Relations marginalized religion since it was supposed to decline according to the theory of secularization – (Western) modernity would be the global home of all of us. Secondly, religion was marginalized, given what I called the ‘Westphalian presumption,’ i.e. a certain reading, a certain set of assumptions, which argued that the lessons of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), i.e. mixing religion and politics, inevitably leads to violence and intolerance, and so the Westphalian settlement – according to the conventional story, separated religion from international politics. Thirdly, for these reasons religion was marginalized from the main theories, paradigms, or traditions of thought in International Relations. Fourthly, is the impact of positivism and materialism on the study of International Relations: positivism is based on naturalism (i.e. the same scientific method is applicable to explaining a natural event like a volcanic eruption or a political event like a political revolution), and it is based on the separation of facts from values. Materialism – all varieties, and not only Marxism, argues the basic material, economic, and technological forces are what are important for studying international relations.  Positivism and materialism established the epistemological basis of the discipline – what constitutes knowledge, and how to go about discovering it. However, what had been lost is the role of ideas, values, beliefs, desires, hopes, and passions in international relations.  
Alexander Wendt’s form of social constructivism – dominant in the U.S., is now often called ‘conventional constructivism’ – it combines a positivist epistemology with a social, or relational ontology (i.e. the types of actors engaged in International Relations), in contrast to ‘consistent’ social constructivism, which combines a social epistemology and a social ontology. The first conforms to mainstream social science, and the other recognizes the reflexive, inter-subjective nature of international politics, and I think the implications of this difference can be seen in some of my responses below, and my use of critical theory in international relations.

Q: Why do you consider religion as ‘The Soul of the 21st Century’?
A: What else is there, what other idea, concept conveys what this concept has conveyed throughout much of history? The concept has always grappled with how identity, meaning, and purpose are connected in diverse ways in societies and communities around the world. At some level these ideas are also connected to conceptions of transcendence – even in critical theory. This is also what provides the basis – beyond an individualist ontology for interreligious dialogue.

Q: Today we witness a contradiction that in practice, religion and religious actors play an important part in international relations but in theory, they are still neglected and marginalized by mainstream or even reflectivist theories. How can we interpret and solve this contradiction?
A: Well, what can be called ‘the religious turn’ in the study of International Relations, which has been going on since the 1990s has tried to deal with this problem.  There is also now the Religion and International Relations section of the International Studies Association.  However, the real problem is religion is still ‘securitized,’ what the Copenhagen School of Security Studies argues when something is perceived to be a security threat, which legitimates extraordinary actions by states (migration, immigration have also recently been securitized). The story I told earlier of the role religion in the United Nations and the European Union requires a lot more research since the idea religion in relevant to international institutions is denied, ignored, or forgotten by many elites, or secular elites, from developing countries.  I am not sure it can be resolved entirely but there can be glimpses of hope for the future. The Catholic lay organization, Community of Sant'Egidio, which helped establish with the Italian government ‘humanitarian corridors’ for Syrian refugees which may turn out to be a model for Europe (a similar arrangement has recently been signed with the French government). What Pope Francis has done, which in all likelihood will outlive his pontificate, is the link between social policy and interreligious dialogue. In the past interreligious dialogue has been about doctrines, but Pope Francis has linked it to how people from different religious traditions can work together on some of the major social policy questions affecting many states and societies. One of the key pointers towards the future on theory and practice may very well be the role of religious non-state actors (social ontology), and the kind of knowledge from below (social epistemology) which they have, and the new concept of religious engagement in foreign policy and international relations.

Q: What do you mean by ‘The Revenge of God’ in your book when you refer to the global resurgence of religion? Can we say that westerners’ excessive attitude in marginalizing and omitting religion has resulted in its coming back to the West?
A: The West marginalized religion, and the Communist world persecuted it, and God is coming back to both worlds. I would not use the word ‘revenge’ to describe this social process, the phrase comes from Gilles Kepel, the French expert on Islam. It is a great title for a book, and if God has come back, many would argue he has come back with a vengeance – God has come back violently.  What I have said is that the global religious resurgence is one of the ways the global South has ‘outwitted’ the developed countries.
The problem is this - God’s return – if God ever went away, at least in the public, political, and scholarly consciousness, always seems to be related to anger, jealously, revenge, and violence. This is, as I said, what the Copenhagen School of Security Studies calls the ‘securitization’ of religion. It reflects what I have called ‘the Westphalian presumption,’ the dominant ways religion - and its seemingly inevitable relationship to violence has been perceived, and even conceived in the European political imagination, and recent Western concerns regarding religion in international relations.
Recall it was Ludwig Feuerbach (a strong influence on Marx), who wrote at the time the famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841).  Religion, he argued, consists of ideas and values produced by human beings in the course of their cultural development, but they mistakenly project them on to divine forces or gods. So, ‘God fights back’ (BBC), ‘God’s Warriors’ (CNN), ‘The Revenge of God’ (Gilles Kepel), and similar titles perhaps say more about contemporary (or at least Western, or Western secular) views of god than they do about religion and international relations.  
However, following Feuerbach, who may be (partly) on to something - is it God who is angry, violent, and revengeful, or is it we humans who are like this? We cannot conceive of a God who is not angry, violent, and revengeful since this is what we are like. So, we project (as he says) our violent characteristics onto God, and in this way we do indeed create God, or really create our images of God as a God of war, violence, and revenge to justify our own violence.  

Q: In your opinion can we understand and theorize religion in the framework of existing IR theories or do you believe that there should be new theories?
A: I am more inclined to say this depends on the broad division between positivist and post-positivist approaches to the study of International Relations – and, how religion is conceived within in them. Any approach will be deficient which does not recognize that the discipline of International Relations not only seeks to explain the political world, but is also crucially, and inevitably also a part of the political world, and a part of global politics.  This opens up also the whole area – which is not widely engaged with, regarding the concepts of religion.  How we study religion and its impact in politics and international relations changes if we recognize that religion is not a transcultural or transhistorical concept but is socially and politically constructed. Therefore, I now argue, taking the argument of my book further, if you want to take religion seriously in International Relations, take politics seriously. I mean by this not the conventional agenda – with examining the consequences of mixing religion and politics, i.e. religion being securitized. What now need to be studying the politics surrounding the way the concepts – the sacred, the secular, and the political are socially and politically constructed in specific countries, contexts, and historic states-systems.

Q: What opportunities do interpretive, normative and constructivist approaches provide for theorizing religion in international relations?
A: I concluded my book, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations, by saying to see the world differently is already a way of beginning to change it. So theory does matter. It opens up new way of seeing and interpreting what is going on. I am no deconstructionist, there really is a world out there, but if I was in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 I would not be here. However, the social world is not like the natural world. All of us – especially in the West, but now many people in the global South with the rise of the NICs and BASIC countries, do not influence the volcanic activity of Mount Vesuvius in Italy (i.e. not positivism or naturalism in social science), but we all can have an influence on many contemporary international events. What critical theorists call ‘theory as negative critique’ – how the world got to be the way it is, should it be this way, and can it be changed, fits very nicely from a theological viewpoint with the idea of theory as prophetic critique, and offers a basis for critically assessing international relations from within the perspective of the Abrahamic religions. Critical theory’s approach to ‘theory as theory as every day social practice,’ argues every one of us – by our life styles, what we buy, what we consume, how we travel, etc., every one of us every day is living out a theory of international relations.  Again, this view of theory fits with what every believer in the Abrahamic religions conceives of as the moral life, the social life, and the spiritual life.        

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