Religion: Friend or Foe?

We need to ask a different question if we hope to truly understand the role of religion in international relations, argues Peter Denton.
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December 16, 2013

This article is adapted from a speech delivered to the Toronto branch of the Canadian International Council on October 21st, 2013.

These days religion is often depicted as the elephant in the room and rightly so – it really is an elephant, it really is in the room, and we avoid recognizing its presence at our peril. Wondering whether religion is friend or foe, however, does little to increase awareness of its role in society and much to deepen misunderstandings of its relationship to conflict.

As an historian, I find glib associations of religion with conflict (bereft of context and evidence) instantly irritating; as a philosopher, I find them (absent clear definitions of the terminology used) intellectually lazy; as a social scientist knowing the work that has been done on the social and cultural dimensions of religious beliefs, I find them crude and easily dismissed.

Elevate the discussion of religion out of context, and the term means what you choose it to mean, without any necessary reference to anything that has actually happened.  Fail adequately to define the abstraction itself, and even the general discussion of religion leads to whatever conclusion you choose.   Ignore the various aspects and manifestations of religious belief and activity for some essentialist core concept, and you are discussing something that no group actually believes or practices.

So it is meaningless to talk about Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of their subsets, except as someone intending to caricature a religious tradition from the outside as a means to some predetermined conclusion.  The hidden premise within the syllogism of religion’s culpability in fostering violence is that if religion was removed from the equation, reasonable people would find a way to settle their differences and resolve the problems that the conflict otherwise exploits or reveals.

I want to move past this point, however, to get to what I think is at the heart of the problem.  Suffice it to say that religion, by nature, is local, fragmented and sectarian, rooted in communities and not in abstract ideological structures.  In other words, it is only by looking at the expressions of religious traditions from the outside that any larger caricature is even possible.  The more specific that caricature becomes, the less value it has for anything substantive we choose to discuss on the ground.

So, in terms of the absurdity of our initial question, you can neither adequately define religion nor resolve the secondary question as to whose friend or foe it might be.  Whatever social pretenses about religion we may publicly adopt, we are all personally affected (positively or negatively) by the presence of that elephant in the room.

Whether you act one way because of your religious beliefs or convictions, or choose not to act a certain way in opposition to the beliefs or convictions of others, the fact remains that whatever is defined as “religion” influences the choices you make in a specific situation.

To help convey the importance of this rethinking of the nature and role of religion in public affairs, I want to shift analogical contexts for a moment. I want you to consider the stunning realization in the nineteenth century that the universe was not Euclidean by some divine design, but by human choice and construction.  Before that period, the Euclidean axiom – that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line – had been accepted for millennia as a true description of the way the universe was designed and constructed.

Enter a series of mathematicians, like Lobachevsky and Riemann, who realized that one set of axioms could be replaced by another set. Overnight the axioms that defined the Euclidean universe were replaced by the ones that spawned quantum mechanics.  In response to the “what if,” they discovered that the universe changed utterly when you asserted, for example, that the shortest distance between two points was a curve.

Similarly, if we replace the axiom that religion is inherently responsible for initiating or prolonging conflict with one that holds the root causes of the conflicts so glibly labeled religious in nature or conduct have nothing to do with the religious beliefs of the protagonists, everything changes.

Religious beliefs are co-opted into master narratives of conflict to sort the good guys from the bad guys, and thus to manipulate the identity of groups to suit the purposes of those who stand to gain the most from the conduct or outcome of the conflict. I would therefore argue that the root problem we need to discuss is not the role religion plays in any conflict, but the nature of religious identity and its role in the moral narratives of a culture.

I remember sitting in the living room of a Presbyterian minister in the southern town of Sligo on a trip to Ireland over thirty years ago and asking him about “the troubles.”  He told me bluntly that were the labels of Catholic and Protestant to disappear overnight from all memory, the very same people would be fighting for the very same reasons. The problem was not religion – it was everything else but religion. It could easily have been a bitter war between shirts and skins.

In the battle space of the 21st century, there are believers everywhere, whether we know it, or like it, or not.  But the conflicts that are glibly labeled religious are largely about far less lofty things.  In fact one might say they are all about goats – you have a goat that I want, and to justify the fact that I am going to kill you to get it, I have to distinguish myself from you by some means.  It doesn’t matter how my identity is distinguished from yours – it could be by the colour of your skin, for example – but the real issue is that I want your goat. 

Yet to kill someone merely because they have a goat you want neither contributes to continued social stability nor to the likelihood that you will enjoy that goat yourself for very long.  If you make it a religious issue, however, it becomes a different story.  For example, if the goat’s owner is a Muslim and you are a Christian, once the battle is over, you can claim the goat as the spoils of religious war. You can also count on the support of others of your religious tribe to help protect you and your new goat from any reprisal.  

It is really just about the goat, but the moral narrative that is woven to explain and justify your actions requires something more emotionally appealing than simple desire or greed.

To say the problem is all about the narrative, the story, however, risks losing the attention of any serious audience.  We need to consider the role and importance of religion in international relations, which takes us back into the heart of the problem: by ignoring the elephant, or worse, by not understanding what it means to have an elephant in the room, we all but guarantee our efforts to intervene in other contexts than our own will fail by any local measure of success, however bold our headlines back home might be.

Much more space is needed to elaborate upon this, but I suggest that the repeated failures in American or Western foreign policy, especially through military intervention, are the direct result of not comprehending the moral narrative within which local situations are interpreted.  In particular, I would point to the lack of understanding about the nature and role of religious beliefs in the formulation and retelling of such moral narratives.

One of the frustrations of my students in the Canadian Forces who have often told me of their experiences in Afghanistan is that the media spin or government pronouncements about “the mission” – itself an interesting choice of words, given the religious dimensions of the word! – did not reflect what was actually happening on the ground. In specific areas, working with the local people and building relationships based upon trust and understanding, the CF unquestionably contributed to the welfare and future and stability of the communities in which they operated. But when that is undermined by the seemingly injudicious support of the Afghan national government, by apparent acceptance of the foreign policy goals of the United States, and by being aligned with the commercial interests of foreign corporations, the local stories were swamped by a narrative of distrust and foreign meddling that focused on Kabul.

Throw in an identity clash stemming from a variance between western values and tribal ones in Afghanistan, toss in a measure of religious difference, then loudly announce your intention to leave the country in a couple of years and not come back – and the moral narrative shifts against the CF, against ISAF, and heralds a return to the way things were before. We might win the battle, but we lose the story.  And as the story goes, so goes the war.

Again, much more could be said, but I want to draw some specific conclusions in terms of the significance of understanding religion in international relations: To begin, we are clumsy and ineffectual in managing international affairs with other cultures because we do not adequately train the people who do the work. Vague arm waving about religion does not engender respect for foreign policy decisions nor does it breed confidence in the judgment of those who make them. 

Our foreign policy think tanks and our experts in international affairs are so woefully ill-prepared to manage the religious and moral narratives in which we are enmeshed that it is nothing short of a miracle that more catastrophic decisions have not been made about foreign interventions in domestic conflicts elsewhere. Add to this the suspicion that religion is somehow complicit in such failures, and you start to understand why there is no quicker way to end a conversation in international affairs than to admit you are a believer.

In Canada (though not elsewhere), religious practice seems to be thought a sign of personal moral weakness that is best not shared in public.  Thus, the elephant in the room remains ignored or unacknowledged; we pretend to understand the moral narratives of communities in other cultures, but we cannot even understand our own. Naiveté is never an asset when trying to mediate between opposing parties, but the lack of education and experience in the religious dimensions of society and culture cannot help but disempower those whose sincere desires for resolution are not matched by their skill set.  We could change that situation by investing in a different foreign policy or international relations skill set that includes such dimensions, but I have seen no evidence of any particular interest in doing so.

In terms of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the idea that someone should protect the vulnerable – that those with power and influence should protect those who do not from the violent predations of others – is laudable.  It is, interestingly enough, also very much a part of the belief systems of the major world religions.  But so, too, is finding a way to resolve conflict for the good of all players instead of provoking a fight.

I would argue that the ensuing dilemma this poses for us is the counter-intuitive idea that, in fact, the world needs more religion rather than less.  All of the major religions are founded on an ethic of care, of compassion for the poor and concern for one’s neighbor. That we hear so little of this reality and so much of more combative ones reflects the hermeneutical cherry-picking of those who use a particular set of religious beliefs or a selection of texts from a holy book to mobilize psychological support to achieve their own particular goals.

Or should I say goats?

In a world at risk through climate change, we collectively have bigger fish to fry than the narrow interests of any elite – political or corporate.  The moral narrative we intentionally promote at every opportunity must be one of collective interest, of the common good.

If it is not, we are sidelining the meaning, purpose and care for others found in the myriad expressions of religious belief in every culture around the globe.  If we favour crude economic self-interest instead, then our story, our moral narrative, will be heard and understood in ways that make a sustainable future impossible for us all.

Instead of being about our future, our children’s future, and the future of the earth itself, our own story will be all about goats.

Also in the series


Let's Talk about Religion

Dr. Chris Seiple on why religion needs to be treated as a real factor for analysis by foreign policymakers.

Freedom, Faith, and Foreign Policy

Daniel Cere on the state of the debate over the role of foreign policy in advancing religious freedom.

Religion & Diplomacy

Ian Linden reflects on critical responses to championing religious freedom.

Religious Freedom: The Diplomatic Dimension

Anne Leahy, Canada's representative to the Vatican, on how Canadian foreign policy can help protect religious freedom abroad.

Bringing Religion into Foreign Policy

To promote religious freedom internationally, Canadian policymakers must first debate this principle at home, argues Robert Joustra

What's Wrong With Promoting Religious Freedom?

The U.S. State Department's new office of religious engagement begs the question: What forms of religion should be protected? Elizabeth Shakman Hurd considers the consequences.

The Messy State of Religious Freedom

Despite the challenge of defining and enforcing the right to freedom of religion, it would be wrong for Canada to stop trying, argues Jon Waind.

Nation-building and Religion: A Q&A with Dr. Charles Keyes

Dr. Charles Keyes on how religion and religious differences can strengthen rather than undermine political order.

Russia's Political Orthodoxy

Alicja Curanović on how the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church became political bedmates.