Religion had and has a strong impact on the lives and deeds of the people for several tens of thousands of years and it is presented in all human societies in different forms. About the earliest known human societies there are pieces of evidence only due to archaeological remains but they, nevertheless, are showing undisputable proves of both various religious symbols and ceremonies. For instance, there are suggestions by the cave drawings that religious beliefs and practices can be traced back to some 40.000 years B.C. Religion, nevertheless, in the course of historical time was continuing to be one of the focal aspects (if not the crucial one) of human existence and experience. Religion even today, in many societies is focally influencing the people how they are perceiving and reacting to the surrounding environments in which they live and work.
Undoubtedly, religion historically played an extremely significant role in global politics and international relations. Many ancient civilizations understood that religion is a powerful instrument when it is bonded to secular authority – a truth that is recognized by many political philosophers and writers like Niccolò Machiavelli (1469−1527) who noticed that where religion exists it is easy to introduce armies and discipline (The Prince; The Discourses).
Similar to previous times, modern and contemporary states and other political actors are using religion in order to either promote the legitimacy of their actions (in the name of God) or to co-opt religious identities that might undermine the loyalty of citizens. Several secular authorities have been proclaiming themselves as the defenders and protectors of certain religious denomination: for instance, the Russian Emperors of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity or the Islamic leadership of Saudi Arabia of Islamic law – sharia. A Zionist Israel was established in 1948 on the basis of Judaism, India on Hinduism while Buddhism is the focal identity feature of the Tibetians. The Vatican during the Cold War 1.0 was struggling against communism in East-Central Europe fostering nationalism wrapped into Catholicism. Pope John Paul II played an extremely inspirational political role in the Polish revolution in 1989 in which the Roman Catholic Church gave open support to anti-Communist the Solidarity trade union movement which finally overthrew the Communist Government of the Polish United Workers Party. A similar situation was in Lithuania or Croatia at the same time and, therefore, it can be concluded that Roman Catholicism finally won over the divisions of Communism.
What is religion and its focal features?
In principle, it does not exist precise and commonly agreed definition of religion. What is, however, clear, is the linguistic fact that the origin of the term religion is derived from the Latin word religiare – to bind. This fact is suggesting that many types of beliefs, in fact, have fundamental characteristics of religion (nationalism, Nazism, or Marxism). It is, however, very difficult to define religion for the purpose and, therefore, the question arises are witchcraft or paganism a religion (theosophy) or just a set of religions?
Religion, at least from the points of views of the sociologists and anthropologists (Émile Durkheim), can be defined as a cultural system of commonly shared beliefs and rituals which are providing a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose by the creation of an idea of reality that is sacred, all-encompassing and supernatural.
From the most general viewpoint, religion is an organized community of people who are bound together by common beliefs about certain transcendent realities. Now, the question is: What is „transcendent“. In the context of religious belief, the transcendent is understood as any belief in a distinctly „coming from another world“ to be a supreme being or a God Creator and supreme ruler (Pantocrator). However, in the case of Buddhism, it can be a „this-worldly“ experience of personal liberation (nirvana).
Religion is usually concerned with the worship of transcendent or supranational beings whose existence is outside of this world and, or at least, above the mortal and temporal realm. In the monotheistic forms of religion like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the religious concern is concentrated into a single almighty God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient – the creator of the universe.
Concerning today’s major confessions, there are crucial differences between on one hand monotheistic denominations of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, which have a single, or a limited number of, sacred texts and a quite clear system of authority and philosophical teaching (dogma), and on the other, pantheistic, non-theistic, and nature religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, or Taoism, which tend to have looser, more decentralized, lesser authoritarian, and more pluralistic structures. For all three major monotheistic religions today (the religions of the book), the so-called scriptural literalism is a common issue – a belief in the literal truth of certain sacred texts (holy books), which as the revealed word of God have unquestionable authority (Old Testament, New Testament, Quran).
Surely, religion is some cultural form. Culture, in turn, is composed of common values, beliefs, norms, traditions, customs, and ideas which are all of them creating a shared identity among the members of a certain group of people. Nevertheless, religion is sharing all of the mentioned characteristics. Religion comprises beliefs that take the form of practices that are, in essence, ritualized. Therefore, in practice, all religious forms have a behavioral aspect that means they have a special set of practical activities (rituals) in which believers (followers of the religion) take part and that identify them as members of the religious community. However, the focal point of religion is that it is providing a sense of (life’s) purpose that is a feeling and explanation that life is ultimately meaningful and going on with a final purpose. In other words, religion (or religious dogma) is explaining coherently but and compellingly what transcends human life. Usually, nonetheless, it is explained in such a way that some other cultural aspects cannot do that (system of civic education, science, etc.).
The people usually believe in God or several Gods (theism – a term of Greek origin meaning the belief in God/Gods), i.e., believing in one or more supernatural deities as the foundation to religion. However, in practice, this is not necessarily in all cases as some religions (Buddhism) believe in the existence of spiritual forces rather than a particular God or Gods.
In traditional and conservative societies and communities, religion is usually playing a focal role and influence in social and everyday life. Commonly, religious symbols and rituals are integrated with the material and/or artistic cultural products of a particular society (paintings, music, carving, dance, literature). In some small societies, professional priests do not exist, but some personalities are specialized in the knowledge of religious or magical practices (shamans). A shaman is a person who is believed to be able to direct spirits or supernatural power by using certain rituals and they are in many cases magicians rather than real religious leaders.
Strict moral dogmas are essential for all major confessions today and they are, in practice, in odd to the sociological concept of Moral Relativism that is the approach that there are no absolute moral values or conditions in which exists deep and widespread disagreement over the crucial features of the morality phenomena.
Religion was and still is of huge ethical significance in the majority of societies. For instance, what individuals or groups of people ought to do is usually derivable from the existence, nature, and will of God. It is assumed to be difficult to be seriously religious in any sense without that religion determining some of one’s political beliefs. The most natural relationship between religion and politics is one in which the most important political questions have religious answers (legitimacy of the authority, rightness/wrongness of legislation). The types of religiously justified authorities are theocratic and non-theocratic. In theocracies, the divine revelation and the priests who interpret it to rule directly. In non-theocracies, the divine will have, nevertheless, sanctioned the particular form of secular rule (the doctrine of the divine right of kings to rule).
Clash of civilizations and religion
For Samuel P. Huntington (1927−2008), religion is the central defining characteristic of civilizations. He viewed religion as the focal defining characteristic of civilizations, in which case the clash of civilizations, in fact, is a synonym for the clash of religions. In other words, his idea of the clash of civilizations effectively implies a clash of religions. The clash of civilizations as a thesis suggests, in essence, that the global politics and security order in the 21st century is going to be characterized by sharp tensions and open conflicts between different civilizations (in fact religious denominations). Such conflicts are, nonetheless, are going to be of a cultural nature in character, rather than ideological, political, or even economic.
We have to keep in mind that culture from the most general point of view, is the way of life of humans: their religion, values, or practices. Anthropologically, there is a difference between „culture“ and „nature“ as culture is what is passing from one generation to the next by learning and educating but not by biological inheritance. Culture includes language, religion, customs, traditions, certain social norms, and some moral obligations based on customary principles. Sociologists are making difference between „high“ (art, literature) and „low“ (popular) culture. Culturalism is the belief that people are culturally defined beings and that culture is the focal foundation for both personal and group identity.
The fundamental prediction by Samuel P. Huntington is that in the post-Cold War era of global politics and international relations the civilizations based on religions and religious values are going to be the primary force. Therefore, Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations (confessions) is directly contrasting the neoliberal framework of global politics as it is based on an idea of interdependence between different parts of the world, cultures, civilizations, confessions at the time of (turbo)globalization. Basically, Huntington was a realist as he accepted the traditional realistic approach in international relations that the key factors and actors in global politics are still power-driven states. His realism was, nevertheless, modified by his approach that the struggle for power is taking a place within a larger scope of civilizational (confessional) conflict but not ideological. In his opinion, cultural-confessional conflicts are most likely to happen at both a micro level (local, regional) and a macro level (global). Micro-level conflicts can be along division lines between civilizations and confessions (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia in the 1990s) where one civilization-confession clash with another escalating in regional wars (wars of Yugoslavia’s succession in 1991−1995). At the macro-level, civilizational-confessional conflicts and wars can occur between the civilizations or confessions themselves with their core states as the focal actors (for instance, Iran as a leader of the Shia Islam). Nevertheless, for Samuel P. Huntington, the most dangerous conflict can be between China with its distinctive Sinic cultural values and the West (Western Christianity) or between the West and Islam (between cultural incompatibility between value systems of the Western and Islamic civilizations). The third conflict possibility is between the (imperialistic) West and the Rest (anti-Western bloc composed by China and Islamic nations). In his opinion, civilizational conflicts can be managed by political intervention as he warned that the Western brutal way of pursuing political democracy and human rights promotion would provoke non-Western civilizations to create a common anti-Western alliance.
Religious identities and sentiments
Religion became during the last decades increasingly important in studying the discipline of International Relations and in the practice of global politics. Both scholars and politicians understood that religious identities and sentiments are still of the highest importance in the biggest parts of the world. It is clearly noticed that since 1990, we are witnessing the rise of religious identity as a strong factor in global politics and international relations.
Religious identity, sentiments, and solidarity have been more important than national identities, sentiments, and solidarity for many centuries and have been the focal causes of political conflicts and wars either within or between the states (The 1618−1648 Thirty Years War) up to the Peace Treaty of Westfalia in 1648. This treaty made the end of the wars between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in Europe, and as well as ended the period of religious (Christian) domination over the states in Europe. From the year 1648 onward the sovereignty of the states superseded the supranationality of the Vatican and the Pope. At the same time, both the identity and loyalty of people gradually shifted from their religious denominations to their rulers, nations, and states. The system of Westfalia became spread out of Europe after 1648 to the rest of the world (Western colonies) but, nevertheless, the nations and national sentiments did not totally replaced religions as a group identity for which individuals and/or groups were ready to go to the wars.
In many historical cases, ethnic or national identity succeeded rather than superseded religious identity and created an umbrella for the religious wars before 1648. The most important of such kind of wars in Europe have been the Wars of the Reformation with their peak during the Thirty Years War but, however, they are still in existence in North Ireland and the Balkans in the 1990s. In principle, there is in many cases an overlap between religious and ethnic/national identity, but conflicts and wars such as those in North Ireland, ex-Yugoslavia, or for Tamil independence are well understood as the struggles by the nationalists in which the nation is framed (imagined community) on the foundations of confessional identity rather than religious conflicts as such. However, the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh from India after WWII has been much more based on confessional reasons than ethnic/national.
In some states and regions, confessional identity and religious sentiments compete with citizenship with regard to the loyalty and solidarity of the individuals and the people as a group especially in those cases when majority-minority relations are based on different and/or opposing religious beliefs. Conflicts concerning identity issues, particularly those involving religion, are especially sharp in certain regions of the world but mostly in the Middle East (in Europe at the Balkans). The fact is that the European type of nationalism and national identity based on the territory did not take root in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and, in general, among the (Muslim) Arabs for the reason that both pan-Arabism and Islam do not recognize existing state borders or any political boundaries between the Arabs and/or Muslims. Therefore, these two ideologies are traditionally threatening the stability and functionality of Arab states in MENA where, in addition, Islamic identity is usually more important than Arab identity.