The Impact of the Religious Dimension in the Field of International Relations

Religion has long played a significant role in shaping international relations. From the Crusades of medieval Europe to modern conflicts in the Middle East, religious beliefs, identities, and divides have impacted relations between states and peoples across borders. In recent decades, there has been renewed academic and policy interest in understanding how religion interacts with the theory and practice of international relations. This article provides an overview of key perspectives, developments, and debates regarding the intersection of religion and international relations.

Defining Religion in International Relations

To understand the impact of religion in international relations, we must first define what we mean by “religion.” Religion encompasses an extremely diverse range of beliefs, practices, and institutions. Academics have proposed various definitions of religion as related to international relations. Fox (2008) defines religion broadly as “human recognition of superhuman powers and particularly the feeling of awe, respect, reverence, and fear in the presence of such powers” (p. 432). Sandal and James (2011) focus their definition on belief, defining religion as “a system of mutual beliefs and rituals that bind a community together” (p. 9). While definitions vary, most scholars agree religion involves some combination of beliefs, rituals, institutions, and feelings related to the supernatural.

It is also important to recognize the diversity within and between religious traditions. The “world religions” paradigm divides the world into discrete faiths like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. However, there is vast diversity within these broad categories in beliefs, practices, institutions, and relationships with politics. It is more accurate to speak of Christianity, Christianities, Islam, Islams, Judaism, Judaisms, etc. There is also diversity between traditions and blending into syncreticbelief systems. Simple “West versus East” or “Christians versus Muslims” dichotomies fail to capture the complexity of religious identities, divides, and interactions in global politics. Definitions and applications of religion in international relations must account for intra-faith diversity, intersections between faiths, and blending into distinctive syncretic belief systems.

Role of Religion in International Relations Theory

Most mainstream international relations (IR) theories have historically downplayed the role of religion. Structural realism, with its focus on the distribution of material power between states, overlooks religion as a factor shaping state interests and relations. Liberalism addresses the domestic sources of state preferences and identities but often ignores religion or sees it as waning in influence compared to secular ideologies. Constructivism recognizes the power of ideational factors but rarely incorporated religion into its analysis until recently.

However, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, scholars challenged this marginalization of religion in IR theory. The subfield of religion and international relations emerged, claiming religion is an important factor that classical theories failed to account for. Monica Toft et al. (2011) compile various arguments for why religion matters in IR:

  • Religion shapes the domestic norms, values, interests, institutions, and behaviors of states and other actors in world politics. It is an important “unit-level” variable.
  • Religion transcends state borders, forming transnational identities, networks, and movements that impact international relations.
  • Religious actors like faith-based NGOs and transnational terrorist groups are playing important roles in shaping global issues.
  • Religious identities, divides, and conflicts are driving forces behind key international conflicts.
  • Religion impactsstate approaches to human rights, terrorism, Middle East politics, nuclear proliferation, and other global issues.

Scholars have worked to integrate religion into IR theories like realism, liberalism, and constructivism or develop new theoretical paradigms to explain the interaction of faith and world politics. Religious factors are now widely recognized as essential to understanding international relations.

History of Religion in International Relations

While often overlooked in IR theory, religion has long played a prominent role in the actual practice of international relations. Missionary activities carried religions like Christianity and Islam across continents, impacting relations between civilizations. The Catholic Church was a major political and diplomatic player in medieval European politics. The Protestant Reformation led to extended wars between Catholic and Protestant powers. By colonizing most of the world by the early 20th century, European powers left a legacy of transplanting their Christian religious divisions globally.

Religion has been a factor in both conflict and peacemaking throughout modern history as well. The FirstWorld War saw major Christian powers battle each other in the deadliest conflict ever at the time. However, the war also led to greater dialogue between Christian denominations and engagement with other faiths. Christian pacifism emerged as a strong counter to militarism. In the interwar years, the academic study of international relations developed as a predominantly secular field, downplaying religion as irrational and outdated.

Religion again became centrally involved in global affairs with the rise of radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State starting in the 1980s and 1990s. Religious divisions also contributed to ethnic conflicts following the end of the Cold War in places like the former Yugoslavia and Sudan. Since 9/11, debates about religion and violence, the relationship between Islam and the West, and religious extremism have occupied policymakers. At the same time, interfaith dialogue has increased, and religious peacebuilding by groups likeSant’Egidio has supported diplomatic efforts to end conflicts. Over the past century, religion has been associated both with division and conflict but also with efforts to build peace.

Dimensions of Religion in Contemporary International Relations

Several key dimensions arising from the intersection of faith and world politics deserve emphasis:

Religious Identity, Conflict, and Peacemaking

As scholars like Huntington (1996) argue, religious civilizational identities have increasingly replaced ideological ones as a driver of global divisions since the end of the Cold War. Long-standing conflicts involving Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and other faiths have religious dimensions. However, painting broad civilizational brushes obscures complex realities within religious traditions and reduces culture to religion. While religious identities divide, they can alsoprovide resources for peacemaking through values of compassion and forgiveness. Religious leaders and faith-based NGOs have played significant reconciliatory roles in conflict regions (Appleby 2000).

Religion, Terrorism, and Violence

Religious extremist groups have carried out high-profile terror attacks in the 21st century. This has fueled narratives of religion as inherently prone to violence—what Scott Appleby (2000) calls “the ambivalence of the sacred.” However, most religiously-motivated activism is nonviolent (Smock 2002). Extremism arises from complex sociopolitical contexts, not just religious ideologies. Effective counterterrorism strategies require nuanced understanding of extremist religious interpretations and grievances (Thomas 2005). They must also engage nonviolent mainstream religious leaders and organizations as partners.

Religion and Human Rights

Religious interpretations and activism have impacted global debates on human rights. Conservative religious groups contest rights related to sexuality, reproduction, and gender equality. However, faith-based NGOs and movements have also advanced human rights. Liberation theology in Latin America and Christian anti-apartheid activism in South Africa demonstrate religion’s role in promoting justice and moral norms. Scholars argue for communicating human rights principles in religiously-grounded “vernacular” terms rather than secular language alone (Philpott 2012). This contextualizes rights within diverse local faiths and traditions.

Religion and Diplomacy

As Andrew Preston (2019) details, religion has long been entangled with diplomacy, from medieval Europe to the 21st century. Today, states maintain formal and informal diplomatic relations with major religious institutions. Transnational faith-based NGOs increasingly participate in multilateral forums and local peace processes. US diplomacy around the world involves cultivating relationships with religious communities and leaders. Religion is an everyday part of shaping bilateral relationships, communicating US values, and carrying out public diplomacy (Johnston and Sampson 1994). Failing to understand religious landscapes and engage faith leaders hinders diplomatic effectiveness.

Case Studies: Religious Dynamics in Key Regions and Issues

Religious factors have profoundly impacted the history and current affairs of nearly every region. A few notable case studies illustrate these dynamics:

The Middle East

Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East involve religious divisions between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, sectarian divides within Islam, and the complex relationship between religion and nationalism. The creation of Israel led to lasting turmoil and wars with Arab states. However, scholars debate whether conflicts are driven primarily by secular Arab nationalism and territorial disputes or religious dimensions. The 1979 Iranian revolution brought Shia Islamism into regional politics. Gulf Arab states ally with the US but export their conservative Wahhabi Islam worldwide. The Arab Spring uprisings incorporated Islamist political movements with varying views on integrating Islam and democracy. Religion shapes views of regional peace and security issues from the Syrian civil war to Iran’s nuclear program.

South Asia

The 1947 partition creating India and Pakistan involved deadly religious riots and population transfers. India maintains a secular democracy but has also seen a wave of Hindu nationalism in recent decades manifested in the rise of the BJP party. This has fueled communal violence, especially against India’s Muslim and Christian minorities. Next door, Pakistan was founded as a homeland for South Asian Muslims but also witnesses sectarian Shia-Sunni violence. Religion intersects with ethnic nationalism in Muslim-majority Kashmir’s separatist conflict, the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka, and the Rohingya crisis involving Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia contains majority-Muslim, Buddhist, and Catholic nations divided along complex religious lines. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Southern Philippines contend with Islamist separatist and extremist groups. Myanmar and Thailand grapple with Buddhist nationalism and violence against Muslim minorities. As the region’s largest Catholiccountry, the Philippines has debated policies from contraception to divorce touching on church-state ties and religious freedom. Questions of tolerance, extremism, human rights, and pluralism accompany Southeast Asia’s multifaceted religious diversity. Regional cooperation through ASEAN relies partly on forging shared religious, cultural, and political identities.


Despite its official atheism, religion impacts China’s domestic governance and international relations. The Communist Party harshly suppresses unauthorized religious groups as ideological rivals, especially Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, and Falun Gong. It views religious extremism in western Xinjiang as a national security threat, enacting repressive policies against Muslim minorities. However, the regime also recognizes five approved religious organizations and allowed religious freedom to expand during the reform era. Engaging in interfaith dialogue and cultivating ties with foreign religious actors is part of China’s soft power diplomacy while restricting foreign religious influence at home. Domestic religious policies and transnational initiatives reflect contradictory impulses of fostering harmony while asserting tight control.


Christianity and Islam arrived in Africa through colonization and missionary activities. Today, the continent contains vibrant diversity with indigenous religions, orthodox Christianities, Evangelicalism, political Islam, and syncretic beliefs. European colonial racial ideologies often exploited religious differences. Debate continues on the role of religiosity in fueling contemporary conflicts vs. being a force for peace and reconciliation. Religious leaders like Desmond Tutu promoted forgiveness in post-apartheid South Africa. However, violent religious nationalism also erupted in places like Rwanda and Nigeria. Waves of Christian evangelism and Islamic renewal impact politics and culture across sub-Saharan nations. Meanwhile, rapid religious change generates interfaith tensions, especially in politically marginalized areas.

Nuclear Weapons and Warfare

Religious ethics have long informed debates on just war traditions, pacifism, and weapons of mass destruction. During the Cold War’s nuclear arms race, the Catholic concept of nuclear deterrence argued for maintaining weapons to prevent war rather than disarmament. Today, the Holy See and most faiths condemn nuclear weapons as immoral and support abolition. However, some evangelical Christian Zionists oppose nuclear restrictions on Israel. Islamist groups have raised concerns about apocalyptic extremists acquiring nuclear weapons. States cite religious norms like just war to justify or oppose war and evaluate new weapons technologies such as lethal autonomous drones. Ethical restraints on warfare grounded inreligious traditions continue to evolve.


This article demonstrates the multifaceted impact of religion on international relations in theory, history, practice, institutions, ethics, conflicts, and policy issues. Secular realist perspectives fail to capture how profoundly faith shapes global affairs. No civilization or major region can be understood without examining religious factors. Religion intersects with nationalism and politics in complex ways that defy simplistic “clash of civilizations” narratives. It can divide communities through war, repression, and terrorism. But religious movements and leaders have also promoted peacemaking, diplomacy, reconciliation, and justice. Rather than an outdated source of irrational violence, religion encompasses ethical resources for restraining warfare, upholding dignity, and forging shared identities across borders. Scholars and policymakers must grapple with religion’s paradoxical risks and moral promise to build a more peaceful world.


Appleby, R. Scott. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Rowan & Littlefield, 2000.

Fox, Jonathan. A World Survey of Religion and the State. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Johnston, Douglas, and Cynthia Sampson. Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Philpott, Daniel. Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Preston, Andrew. Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. Anchor, 2019.

Sandal, Nukhet A., and Patrick James. Religion and International Relations Theory. Continuum, 2011.

Smock, David R. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding. US Institute of Peace Press, 2002.

Thomas, Scott. The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Toft, Monica Duffy, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. WW Norton & Company, 2011.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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