Our Approach

Speaking of Religion

The Religion and Global Society Research Unit seeks to speak of religion within the complexities of contemporary global concerns. Religion is often a contentious topic, bound up with personal experience, both positive and negative, and with the contested histories of peoples, societies and institutions. This is true of Western academia itself whose journey from its ecclesiastical origins has brought its own biases and interests. This short paper seeks to position our unit within some of these concerns, and flag up some of our key considerations in addressing religion within today’s global society. 

On speaking of religion 

To speak of religion means very different things in different times and different places. This is true in the evolving use in the Western tradition of the term “religion” itself. The word deriving from the Latin religio¹ has been used to signify different aspects of life through history. In Ancient Rome religio referred not simply to human interaction with the gods so much as moral obligation to anything, whether temporal or eternal. In the Middle Ages, when all aspects of secular life were suffused with spiritual meaning and purpose, religion denoted the consecrated life of monastic communities. Only in the modern era, as the system of sovereign nation states emerged, did religion come to denote sets of beliefs, institutions and rituals that were discreetly gathered together and differentiated from secular worldly affairs. 

The limitations of this conception of religion are continually exposed by the immense diversity of the phenomena that we try to contain within it. Discourse about religion is necessarily pluriform since social imaginings of the spiritual or metaphysical dimensions of life have varied significantly through time and space, and continue to do so. The cosmic religion of archaic societies most commonly took the form of territorial cults in which temples were centres of sacrifice and imperial rulers reflect the immortal power of the gods. At this time, religious practice expressed a people’s place within the land, the seasons, and the divinely ordered hierarchy. With the dawn of the axial age (two to three millennia ago) a new understanding of religion emerged as voluntary and mobile. Beliefs and practices are not simply given, they require assent, and those who assent to them can move from place to place without losing them; diaspora religious communities become possible. Religion is held by transnational groups that become concerned with universal truth and ethics. “World religions” as we know them today began to emerge. 

Through the modern era, colonialism and Western-driven models of categorisation consolidated an understanding of the religious category shaped by European Christian priorities. It emphasises belief over practice and seeks to confine religion to a domain demarcated from science, politics, and power more broadly. In so doing it effectively created what we now take to be longstanding religious traditions in parts of the world where the domains in question are far more closely intertwined. 

In our own times we see a range of forces reshaping the meaning of religion. On the one hand, globalisation continues to diminish the scope and content of these religious “brands”, divorcing them even further from territorial grounding as they circulate in the virtual networks of social and other media. Populist politicians co-opt these hollowed-out religious identities as malleable social capital that can be fused with nationalism to direct hatred at minority religious groups. At the same time, we see forces that break down axial age religion. Many, particularly in the West, reject institutionalised religion in favour of more personalised spiritual practices, often fused with environmental concern in ways that revive the territorial embedding of cosmic religion. 

Given this historic and contemporary plurality of meanings in speech about religion, is it possible to speak meaningfully of religion at all? The answer is complex:  this is a conversation we cannot do without; it is also a conversation whose terminology and assumptions need continual interrogation and stretching. One point, however, is clear: discourse around religion gathers concepts, symbols, motivations and practices that cannot entirely be absorbed into other categories of social or cultural life, despite repeated attempts to do so. Speaking of religion is not only possible but necessary. 

On speaking of religion too much and too little 

It is one of the principal tenets of Western modernity that there are dangers in talking about religion too much. Today even mainstream religious institutions would agree that it is dangerous to talk about religion as a substitute for scientific or other more rational discourses. Equally, modern political economy recognises the dangers of religion intruding too far into political discourse. The Treaties of Westphalia resolved the bloody European Wars of Religion in the seventeenth century by subordinating religious allegiance to the sovereignty of the state. This became core to the colonialist construction of religion as confined to the domain of personal piety and private sentiment rather that politics. 

Today we are increasingly aware of “multiple modernities” that diverge in myriad ways from the monolithic secular modernity defined by the West. These include those cultures that resist the total removal of religion from the public realms of social regulation and intellectual reasoning. That said, it is not simply a Western liberal impulse to challenge the fundamentalist religio-political movements that have characterised the early twenty-first century. From Iran and Afghanistan, to India and the USA, an overdominance of religious discourse has had the effect of marginalising minorities and closing down conversations about the extension of human freedoms. As a result, activists, even those who come from religious positions, advocate for forms of secularity that will protect pluralism and the rights of the marginalised against dogmatic religious monopolies. 

Within academia the dangers of speaking of religion too much are found in “maximalist” views of religion’s agency in global affairs. Since 9/11, religion has often been considered within a “civilisations” discourse in which it is seen as the primary cultural driver of collective identity.² An over-focus on religious motivations and historic legacy can, however, lead to an oversimplification of the particularities of regional conflicts or an inattention to the diverse ways religion manifests at the local level. This kind of civilisational analysis can neglect of other factors such as the role of economics or the breakdown of state infrastructure. 

This maximalist view can be witnessed in the contemporary policy sphere where religious freedom has received new attention in response to the rise of religious nationalisms and the persecution of religious minorities worldwide. While this can be seen as correcting an historic neglect of religious belief as an aspect of public life to be safeguarded, the other extreme sees it as a “first” or foundational freedom from which other social goods flow. Neither extreme is helpful. Within the human rights discourse, religious freedom must be enmeshed in the nexus of freedoms as a whole (of women, of political expression, of the press, and so on) whose causal interrelationships are complex. Rather than seeing religion as the overwhelmingly determinative factor, attention needs to be paid to how both a range of legal provisions and the wider culture of civil society are built up to create the conditions in which religious pluralism may flourish. 

Maximalism is frequently, as indicated, an overcompensation for Western modernity’s tendency to speak about religion too little. All too often, religion has been seen as either irrelevant to the advancement of human understanding or, at worst, its primary obstacle. A crude narrative of the Enlightenment sees modern thought, not as an evolution of earlier religious traditions, but resulting from the defeat of the superstition and ignorance that they represent. This progressive receding of religion constitutes a normative assumption in much of academia, and indeed when discussion has taken place about religion it has most commonly been on the question of either its decline or its possible (assumed toxic) revival, rather than addressing more pressing considerations about its current character and role. 

This minimalist view continues to appear in responses to religious resurgence or politicisation today, in which scholars are likely to dismiss the religious component as an ideological obscuring of more critical economic or political forces. Among non-state actors, religious motivations will be seen as arising only from material grievances, not as a principal causal factor. There is, therefore, an unwillingness to take seriously what individuals themselves say about the beliefs that drive their actions, be they the Taliban or the Sikh separatists calling for an independent state in India. At the state level, religious rhetoric is often seen in terms reminiscent of Marx as an ideological manipulation of public opinion. A religious narrative of the state becomes therefore a means of legitimising and/or masking the baser activities of realpolitik. The range of religious nationalisms championed by contemporary populist leaders may warrant such suspicions but we should not presume that a religious story embedded in national identity serves only to be drawn on cynically or instrumentalised for entirely non-religious purposes. 

On new ways of speaking of religion 

The Religion and Global Society Research Unit seeks to bring new language, new tools and new categories to the task of speaking about the complex phenomena of religion in today’s world. Its approach is interdisciplinary, drawing into dialogue understandings of religion and its interactions with the secular from across the social sciences and beyond. These conversations on religion are linked with ‘the global’ in three senses. 

First, our desire is to expand and reframe the study of religion in line with the decolonising and multi-perspectival imperatives of our times. To do this, we include a global diversity of voices within our team, draw on global scholarship, and form partnerships with institutions across the world that will enable us to see beyond purely Western tropes and categories. We do not underestimate the scale of this challenge, particularly in unlearning the ways in which “the knowledge regime of secularism”, as José Casanova calls it, shapes and informs most dominant epistemologies.³ An openminded attention to theological voices is essential to this task, and requires the legitimisation of religious speech within academia, even as we seek to interrogate and explore it. 

The grounding of our research in the practical activities of the LSE Faith Centre is the foundation of this approach. The unit has grown organically out of the engagements, commitments and questions of religious voices within the School itself, not least its hugely diverse student body. The Faith Centre seeks to bring religious identities from the margins of campus life to the centre of student experience and learning. The religious subject is not something ‘other’ to be distanced and critically observed; it is among us, it is us. The religious sensibilities of such a global academic community cannot be purely privatised or ignored; they are a lens into non-Eurocentric ways of thinking and knowing that must be drawn into the conversation of the university. 

Our second reason for speaking of religion in relation to global society is that we want to consider religion, not in isolation, but in its intersections with other global issues and challenges. Climate change, gender, conflict, education, economics and government are all themes to which we bring a religious frame. We seek to avoid both the minimalist and the maximalist conceptions of these intersections. Rather we see religion as one among multiple causal factors that is entangled in these complex themes. Religion alone does not unlock their meaning but without its consideration we are handicapped in both understanding and addressing the major challenges of our time. 

Again, this flows out of the Faith Centre’s longstanding mission to address religion-related conflict (note: not simply “religious conflict”) that LSE students have experienced, been formed by, and continue to encounter in our community. We reject both the maximalist view that the escalation of such conflict is driven solely by toxic “extremism” that needs to be eradicated and the minimalist view that would deconstruct the theological as simply masking socio-economic or political considerations. We recognise these conflicts are likely to be a complex interaction between the two and our interest is in how religion gets caught up with things: how it becomes a fault line for or fuels existing conflicts; how it creates new conflicts that draw on other sources of division; and how it might restrict, or not, a constructive resolution. 

Third, talk of “global society” raises questions about the scale at which religious speech might operate. As an interdisciplinary unit we want to consider multiple levels. The local level is crucial in understanding the reality of religion in people’s lives: everyday religion or lived religion. But an overfocus on particularity has led in some quarters to the collapse of wider conversation about religion as a binding collective force. Some ask if we can even talk about “world religions” at all. We recognise that this anxiety has arisen in response to an essentialising of religion that finds its origins in modern Western thought and has been reinvigorated by the maximalist “civilisation” discourses. 

We also want to think beyond even the global to the cosmic or metaphysical frame that a reductive social science would instinctively dismiss or shy away from. We hold that whether we view these vast ancient theological systems as extremely elaborate social constructions or products of divine revelation, their nature and power should be kept in view. Such “religious imaginations” serve as vast organising frameworks that are manifest and adapted at the local level but also politicised and often essentialised at higher levels. Global discourse about religion speaks, therefore, of a “middle distance” of real and virtual spaces in which religious identity and community are reconfigured in ways that may be either innovative or homogenising. That is why it is legitimate to talk about a global society rather than “societies” as we learn to live with a complex but nonetheless shared global conversation about faith identity and belonging, which intersects variously with its local expressions. 

In sum, to speak of religion and global society for our time is to encompass myriad localities where belief systems and faith commitments are lived out in different ways and where they intersect with all other aspects of life – community, conflict, gender, technology and so on; it is to have an eye to a world where international, transnational and translocal dynamics are reshaping religious narratives and identity in new ways which require our attention; and finally it is to engage with the cosmic or metaphysical interpretations of the world and our place within it which continue to be a principal source of inspiration, radicalisation, consolation or empowerment.


[1] The etymology of the word is contested. It may derive from relegere meaning “to re-read or “go over again”. Alternatively, it may derive from religare meaning “to bind together” or “reconnect”.

[2] Samuel Huntingdon, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996)

[3] José Casanova, “Rethinking Secularisation: A Global Comparative Perspective” in The Hedgehog Review 8,1-2, (2006), p.15