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. Dr. Thomas has a research programme which centers on how the global resurgence of culture and religion have transformed international relations. It challenges the existing constructions of culture, religion, and identity, and examines the impact of culture and religion on key areas in international relations - conflict, cooperation, diplomacy, peace-making, inter-religious dialogue, and economic development. He writes for a variety of journals, and speaks widely on the role of religion in international relations today to both academic organizations, such as the International Studies Association, and to a variety of NGOs, governments, religious groups, and other organizations. Recent speaking engagements include the Dutch and Canadian foreign ministries, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, the Netherlands Chapter of the Society for International Development, the International Federation of Catholic Universities, and Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy. He is a contributing editor to The Review of Faith & International Affairs, and is also involved in inter- religious dialogue between British Catholics and a variety of Shia clerics from Iran sponsored by Heythop College, the University of London.
Why contrary to all predictions, hasn’t Western modernization led to the erosion and demise of religion even in developed countries?
It is true that we now live – especially for most Westerners, or Europeans, ‘We live in a world that is not supposed to exist.’ Why do we live in a world that is not supposed to exist – the short answer is that religion was supposed to decline with modernization and economic development, and this has not happened. The idea that there is such a relationship – is a product of (Western) social science, in which what happened to the West – socially, politically, economically, was thought to establish general principles, patterns, propositions, or relationships which were valid for all peoples and cultures in the world. However, there may not be a set relationship between religion, secularization, and modernization, and the relationship between them might be related to specific cultures, religions, and civilizations.
The decline of religion as a part of modernization has been predicted since the 18th century Enlightenment: education, urbanization, science, technology, and the rise of literacy, and the middle class (i.e. better living standards) were all – allegedly – supposed to lead to the end of religion. This has not happened, and these factors have even contributed to the vitality of religion.
A number of factors come together to shape the contours of the global political and religious landscape in the 21st century: (i) the rise of the global South (demography), (ii) the rise of emerging powers (economy), (iii) the rise of global urbanization (megacities in the global South), (iv) the rise of the global middle class (in the megacities, in the global South), (v) the rise of refugees, migrants, and diaspora communities, and (vi) how these contours intersect or come together in the ‘religious world of the global South.’ So, from Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Lagos, and Cairo, to Seoul, and Jakarta - contrary to secularization theory, and contrary to the European experience of modernization, megacities, mega-churches, mega-mosques, and being religious, educated, and middle class go together in the 21st century. Religion returning to public life, and religion and modernization can go hand in hand, especially in the global South, and dramatically so in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, where the state, the nation, religion, and modernization have gone together). Moreover, by 2050, if not before this time, China will have the largest number of Christians and Muslims in the world.
We do need to careful since the Middle Ages were not entirely the great ‘age of faith’ as it is often made out to be, so there also may not be a great age of decline. Moreover, these are factors which might link not necessarily be linked to all religions, but only Christianity and modernization, or perhaps only European Christianity and modernization, i.e. the close relationship between church and state (‘throne and altar’ in European history) is what contributed to the decline in religion, and this is not like Christianity in other parts of the world. It is often argued the separation of church and state has contributed to vitality of religion in the U.S. (an argument going back to Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, seeing the close relationship in Jacksonian America between religion, voluntary organizations, and civil society).
A couple of other points may be relevant. The idea of ‘decline in religion’ is often seen as synonymous with ‘decline in church attendance,’ membership figures, etc., but it is not clear this is an indication of the interest of people in spirituality (regardless of how this concept is defined). The number of people – even in what might be called ‘neo-pagan’ secular Britain, there is still a wide desire, thirst, for meaning, authenticity, spirituality, and transcendence. If this is the case, then it might be argued one part of the explanation has to do with the nature of religious institutions themselves. It is also not clear a decline of institutional religion is directly caused by cultural trends – since many institutions are struggling with members (e.g. political parties, trade unions, etc., and these are secular institutions).
Why do some thinkers name the 20th century as ‘The Last Modern Century’? Should we consider Western modernity as a linear process and generalize it to other parts of the world or can we think of ‘multiple modernities’?
The idea of the ‘last modern century’ is a recognition of the rise of the ‘postmodern’ and the ‘postsecular’ in the sense that toward the end of the 20th century there has been a growing lack of faith, even a collapse of faith, in a hegemonic narrative of (Western) modernity and modernization. In other words, a lack of faith in a single overall character, direction, and meaning of progress, modernity, and development, which would now spread around the world. What is now happening is postmodernity and postsecularity open up the possibilities for the rise of multiple modernities (i.e. the collapse of the hegemonic Western narrative), multiple ways of being religious and being modern in the 21st century. This connects with what I said earlier about the religious world of the global South or the religious world of the 21st century.
I first examined this idea of the 20th century as the ‘last modern century’ in my book The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. I argued there that one of the aspects of the global resurgence of religion was the way (cultural) ‘authenticity has come to rival development as a key to understanding the political aspirations of the non-Western world.’ This referred to the ways societies, countries, want to gain economic prosperity, and organize their political, economic and social systems in ways that are consistent with their moral base, their cultural heritage, and religious traditions. Basically, it is one of the results of the failure of the secular, modernizing, state to produce democracy and development. Now I would add the failure of more and more people to share in the benefits of globalization. It is also for these reasons why it would be misleading to view the global religious resurgence as the same as ‘fundamentalism’ or a ‘clash of civilizations.’
Moreover, given what I have said about the religious world of the global South, it is simply no longer the case that secularization is inherently a part of modernity and modernization. Modernity – as a type of social condition, and modernization - as a type of social process – yes, was a linear process, began in Europe, and now was spreading – or seemingly spreading, around the world. How much this ‘linearity’ is itself a product of a Judeo-Christian or really ‘Abrahamic’ view of history (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is an interesting question, but clearly for the West this linear view of history is a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
However, the alternative view is still with us - it is the idea that what happened in the West – a particular type of modernization and development, will happen in the rest of the world, or as V.S. Naipaul, the British write born in Trinidad who won the Nobel Prize for literature famously put it, ‘Western civilization is the universal civilization.’ However, what we can now see is that the European great power politics went together with the universal idea of the inevitability of the global spread of Western civilization (i.e. spread in the early ideas of European anthropology, sociology, etc.). This is also why today the decline in Western hegemony is accompanied by the increasing idea of multiple modernities to account for the ways of being modern and being religious in the rise of the global South.
Do you consider modernity or secularism as a universal theory or as a faith or myth?
I do not consider modernity or secularism to be a universal theory, or universal theory of modernization, but (like the sociologists Robert Bellah and Robert Wuthnow) I consider them to be a type of myth, or a type of faith, in a certain (Western/European) view of progress, modernization, and development (how the doctrine of progress is itself a secularization of the concept of Christian eschatology I will not examine now). What makes the theory of secularization ‘mythic,’ i.e. the idea that modernity, modernization, secularism, and secularization are inherently interrelated social processes, is that it does what myths have always done – for (so-called ‘traditional societies’ as well as ‘modern’ societies,’ myths are powerful stories we tell ourselves – who were are (identity), and who we want to be in the world (the ‘telos’ or end goal of ourselves, our societies, and what our countries, or civilizations can offer the world, which need not be based on arrogance, but on a genuine appreciation of others).
We have to remember that what are now regarded as the periods of Western or European history – what are now called ‘the dark ages,’ the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment began as ideological constructions to legitimate certain ideas, interests, groups, and institutions before they became merely the periods of time. The idea or concept of ‘the Renaissance’ - the way European history is divided up and characterized, is itself an ideological construction by Vasari, Petrarch, and other Renaissance artists and thinkers. The point was to link Italy – and see all of Europe or Renaissance Europe (e.g. Henry XVIII as a renaissance Prince), as a ‘rebirth’ a ‘renaissance’ of classical Greece and Rome – derogatively, calling the period in between as ‘the dark ages’ or the ‘middle ages’ and the cultural rebirth of Greek and Roman heritage in the city-states of Italy. Now the concept of the ‘global renaissance’ tries to connect the Italian Renaissance within ideas, events in international relations – trade, finance, commodities, patronage, imperial conflict, and encounters/exchanges between other cultures (esp. Islamic world of Levant, Middle East), which were also part of the Renaissance. In other words, the collapse of faith in (Western) modernization, and multiple modernities are opening up a new reading of history, even a new reading of Western history, one which tries to argue not necessarily against Western achievements, but towards a greater recognition of the interdependence of cultures and peoples around the world.
If Westphalian order led to the marginalization of religion in international relations, can we say that the emerging post-Westphalian order and the erosion of states’ absolute power has resulted in the return of religion to public sphere?
It is true that Westphalia – the treaty in 1648, which brought the (allegedly) religious wars or Thirty Years War to an end, frames the dominant narrative in the discipline of International Relations on the rise of the modern international system, and the rise of modern international relations. ‘Westphalia was the majestic portal which leads form the old world to the new world,’ as the conventional story is famously told. In this sense ‘Westphalia’ is the benchmark or template against which contemporary international political change or social and political change is assessed in international relations.
It is important to recognize that sovereignty is a legal condition, and autonomy (states’ absolute power) is a political condition. The U.S. after 1945 was in a uniquely powerful position – it was the most unique ‘unipolar’ movement, and yet the U.S. still worked to found the United Nations (rather than only ‘coalitions of the willing’), which arguably was established on the legal equality of states – even though the U.S. was one of the most powerful. European states also agreed to limit to some extent their sovereignty to found the European Community. I have argued that religion mattered in both instances - in the U.S. it was a kind of ‘Protestant’ hegemony, in which theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Christian realists, and Christian liberals (i.e. the mainline churches, at a time when American evangelicalism was in a low position), helped form the United Nations, and World Council of Churches. The Protestant churches in the 1940s actually produced Sunday School materials to support the founding of the U.N, something now, with the rise of conservative evangelicalism, would never take place. The point is that these early theologians constructed a ‘public theology of international order’ which supported international law and international institutions, and it was Christian Democrat leaders (de Gasperi in Italy, Adenauer in Germany), and Catholic social teaching which provided many of the ideas underlying the European Union. So, the idea of ‘the return of religion to the public square’ does need to be contextualized.
What do some thinkers mean when they call the 20th century ‘The Century of God’? What does this concept indicate?
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.’
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’?
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.
Why do you consider religion as ‘The Soul of the 21st Century’?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
What opportunities do interpretive, normative and constructivist approaches provide for theorizing religion in international relations?
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.