Over the past decade-and-a-half, the academic study of religion and international relations has sprouted from a sparse scattering of works into a vibrant body of scholarship. The Working Group on International Relations and Religion, funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to the University of Notre Dame, met four times over two-and-a-half years to assess this trend, asking how far scholarship on religion and international relations has come and where it might go. The group’s task, though, was not merely to explore the existing literature but also to engage broad questions: What is religion and how has it shaped the international system of states and international relations theory? And, how is religion most importantly manifested in contemporary international relations?
The resulting report offers insights for all who are interested in research on religion and international relations, whether they are scholars, students, practitioners, or general readers. The report’s center of gravity lies in political science, with ten of its thirteen contributors hailing from this field, but also manifests disciplinary breadth.
Members of the working group—part of Notre Dame University’s Mellon Initiative on Religion Across the Disciplines—include William Cavanaugh, Michael Desch, Kirstin Hasler, Ron Hassner, Amaney Jamal, Atalia Omer, Daniel Phlipott, Sebastian Rosato, Timothy Shah, Nilay Siaya, Jack L. Snyder, Monica D. Toft, and Ernesto Verdeja.
In his contribution to the report, Cavanaugh poses a basic but central question about the definition of “religion” (also posed by a number of contributors to TIF’s recently posted set of reflections on the State Department’s plans to “engage religion”):
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. Like many large concepts—“culture” or “politics” perhaps—the edges are fuzzy, but we share a common vision of the core of the concept “religion” such that we can move fairly quickly past questions of definition and start talking about the way that religion acts in the world.
One problem with this breezy dismissal of the difficulty of defining religion is that it masks a significant diversity in the way that scholars address religion.
Read the full report here (PDF).