Scott M. Thomas has been widely praised for his book The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (NY & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005). This is an ambitious book with many potentially fertile ideas. In his chapter in Fabio Petito & Pavlos Hatzopolous (eds.) Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile, (NY & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), Thomas makes an interesting attempt to historically problematize the category of religion, with the added virtue of drawing on the insights of critical scholars from other disciplines, such as Talal Asad (2003:47), John Bossy (2003:47) and William T. Cavanaugh (2003:27) to name only a few. Referring to “the modern invention of religion”, he suggests that “[a]t issue is the meaning of religion in early modern Europe, and how we understand religion today” (2003:25). He refers to “the invention of religion as part of the rise of western modernity” (2003:28). He notices, I think rightly, that “the rise of the modern state is the other part of the story…” (2003:27). He claims that
Most scholars of early modern Europe now recognise that the confusion over the role of religion and other political and socio-economic forces in the debate on the Wars of Religion was based on retrospectively applying a modern concept of religion – as a set of privately held doctrines or beliefs – to societies that had yet to make this transition (2003:25).
That the author’s aim seems to be a radical and critical questioning of the ideological functions of the religion and secular politics binary and much else that hangs on it appears to be made clear in the opening paragraph of the first chapter of his book:
The concept of religion was invented as part of the political mythology of liberalism and now has emerged as a universal concept applicable to other cultures and civilizations. This understanding of religion is used to legitimate a form of liberal politics that considers the mixing of politics and religion to be violent and dangerous to reason, freedom, and political stability (2005:21).
Unfortunately Thomas continues the paragraph ambiguously, as though he is not quite sure whether or not he wants to critique the category of religion or simply make statements about religion as though religion had some objective existence in the world. Repeating the expression in his title, he continues:
The global resurgence of religion, however, challenges the concepts of social theory that interpret public religion in this way. It challenges the idea that secular reason can provide a neutral stance from which to interpret religion, and it opens up the possibility of multiple ways of being ‘modern’, making ‘progress’, or being ‘developed’… (2005:21)
The radical pronouncements that appear here and there suggest that Thomas is concerned with the challenge that problematizing ‘religion’ as a category implies for IR as a ‘secular’ discipline – a problem because if religion is a modern invention, as I think he rightly argues in places, then not only IR but everything that is conventionally (and juridically) placed in that category is logically and discursively dependent on ‘religion’ for its conceptualization. Thomas acknowledges the implications of this insight for the wider academy and much else (2005:17).
But for most of the book, far from treating ‘religion’ as a rhetorical invention with a crucial part to play in the “mythology of liberalism”, and far from critiquing an understanding of ‘religion’ that constructs it as a real and present danger to liberal reason and freedom, Thomas energetically re-inscribes the category along with its ideological binary ‘secular liberalism’ as a fundamental organizing principle of his book. Even in the paragraph just quoted, Thomas moves from saying “The concept of religion was invented as part of the political mythology of liberalism” to referring only two sentences later to “The global resurgence of religion”, as though there could be any such thing.
The author stays safely within the well-worn discursive conventions of the “mythology of liberalism” that he also wants to critique, and in this way contributes to the rhetoric on religion and its implicit distinction from secular reason. I would suggest that his position remains unresolved because the conclusions he must draw are too radical. Too much is at stake. For the problem of the retrospective application of a modern concept “as a set of privately held doctrines or beliefs” set apart from the non-religious state and so on, ineluctably implies the problem of the retrospective application of these other modern reified concepts such as “socio-economic forces” which the modern concept of religion has made possible. If the modern secular state has, as in my view the author would be right to argue, depended for its conceptualization on the related concept of religion as a private right of faith in unseen mystical powers separated from the state, then so have those modern discourses which construct “political and socio-economic forces”.