Realism and Religion

Andrew Calderwood

Image © Duke Human Rights Centre

For many people, religion will have a profound effect throughout their lives, often acting as a great healer of the soul. It will provide a positive influence in times of need and a rock of solace throughout times of pain and suffering. Equally, during periods of great plenty and fulfilment, the preaching of key messages, moral wisdom and the search for solidarity can be used as an unmatched medium in the step towards societal advancement.

Whether a fully fledged believer or an ardent atheist, the majority of society are likely to agree, that the cornerstones of religious preaching can set sound foundations when building towards a prosperous future in the pursuit of harmonious global relations. This positive underpinning, however, makes it an ever more bitter pill to swallow when recognising that the various religions that encompass our world appear inherently unable to co-exist side by side and assimilate themselves into a united society. Instead, radical religious leaders and sects appear intent on abusing religious ideology in the pursuit of objectives that are deemed as personally productive. Many demonstrate a lack of willingness to cooperate within the national and international arena and thus fail to contribute to the constructive progression of developments in cordial political dialogue.

Too often we see religious leaders or groups striving for dominance over another, or politicians using religious beliefs as a political vehicle to control the masses. We have also been witness to the oppression of groups and individuals who openly oppose the dogma of ruling political parties, or those who may be deemed undesirable or a danger to the status quo of power politics. Throughout history religion has been used as a tool to nurture the ‘Power Urge’ of groups and individuals, derived from the more basic urges of self-aggrandisement and self-assertion. The power urge can be translated through personal ambition, a quest for prestige or simply from a desire to profit from the work of others.[1)

The English Reformation is an example from history in which the quest for greater political power and autonomy was achieved through the exploitation of religious convention. The refusal from Rome to allow the legal divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon led to the diminishing influence of the Papacy in English affairs. This removal of power was achieved through the passing of a series of parliamentary legislation, leading to the appointment of King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. This move towards self-rule removed the obstacles preventing the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn, allowing the recommencement of the quest to secure a male heir to the throne and eliminating the threat to the future of the Tudor dynasty.[2]

The renowned realist Hans J. Morgenthau stated that all nations are compelled to ‘protect their physical, political and cultural identity against encroachment by other nations.’ He deemed that the national interest is defined by the need for national survival.[3] In this instance, Henry VIII’s desire to secure his legacy conforms to Morgenthau’s view. Although the early stages of the English Reformation were perhaps not designed to alter internal religious practice or to terrorise citizens who did not conform to the preaching of the church, religion in this case can be viewed as a tool that was used to protect the overall interest of the Monarch and the ruling elite. This allowed for the initiation of a restructuring process aimed at incorporating a more centrist state.

In recent international affairs there has been a re-emergence of tensions in the multi-religious West African state of Nigeria, where a wave of violence and bombing attacks have been attributed to the Islamist sect of Boko Haram. Although not originally an organisation with destructive aspirations, since the killings of a number of their leaders in 2009 by security agencies, their members have picked up arms in an attempt to overthrow the Nigerian government. Loosely translated from the Hausa language, Boko Haram means ‘Western Education is Forbidden’ and, in accordance with their values, their aim is to create an Islamist state which forbids any political or social activity that can be associated with western civilization.[4] The actions of Boko Haram underline the fact that the execution of religious philosophy often undermines the liberal conviction that the human race is able to compromise and coexist peacefully.

The current situation in Nigeria illustrates a divided country in which state politics are tainted by the obstructions that originate from clear religious divides. Extremist blocs are able to manipulate this partition, influencing the creation of further tension between Muslims and Christians. This promotes a clear hatred from within Islamist sects towards any western philosophy and will only serve to build barriers and destroy the shoots of diplomacy that many nations are attempting to cultivate.

Similarly to the existing situation in Nigeria, Northern Ireland has struggled to control sectarian violence prevalent in the region as a result of the partition of Ireland in 1920. Although the conflict has origins in political ideals, Northern Ireland has fought to contain the religious grievances generated through the Unionist Protestant and Nationalist Roman Catholic populations. Although groups with political ideals such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) will continue to pose problems, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has done a lot to improve the political stability within the region. It is however the lack of societal integration that arguably poses the biggest barrier to creating a tension-free society. It is a cultural transformation in the form of religious acceptance and the break down of religious separation that must be found in order to build and solidify political advancement in the region. Where religious difference is present, political affairs will continue to be undermined.[5]

The Orange Order parade and Irish Republican marches have sparked controversy for inciting religious tensions. Subsequently a number of clashes have taken place between the Nationalist and Unionist communities. On numerous occasions this has led to the open violation of revered principles such as maturity, integrity and respect for others. The uncompromising support of religious issues and the continuance of actions that knowingly cause tension and harm to others will appear to many as constituting a narrow-minded approach that flouts all logic and reason. From an outside perspective, it may appear that the groups that often involve themselves in such acts of mindless aggression and violence do so in an attempt to indulge their more animalistic traits.

Although humans may have developed a more liberal approach by looking towards peace and progression as a priority, actions fuelled by religious faith and the defence of its practices will debatably still fall under the realist flag. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr expressed a belief that, throughout the 20th century, liberals have over-exaggerated the human capacity to act in a collective manner and our ability to behave in a truly moral way. He suggests that man has the capacity to be good but that the possibility of this being achieved is always in conflict with the sinful, acquisitive and aggressive drives present within human nature.[6] Erika Erdmann supports this stance, stating that due to a human attempt to build unrealistic utopias, countless lives have been lost and a number of religious and political systems have failed. Erdmann signifies that, even when human beings have good intentions, their pursuit of these will ultimately end in failure.[7]

Although disagreement between nations will continue to occur within the sphere of international relations, Erdmann’s view of the political system could be critiqued as outdated when taking into consideration the political systems in which nations participate. These include organisations, such as the United Nations and G8, which operate to extend the successes of integrated international diplomacy. Following the atrocities of World War II and the end of the Cold War, the willing spread of democracy throughout much of the world has led to the development of positive political discourse within the structure of international relations. Amidst a progressive culture, an ever-growing number of peaceful states pursue the realisation of democratic ideals.

It can therefore be argued that religious differences cannot be dealt with in the same manner as many political issues. Over time the international community has developed political structures and forums where dialogue can be more effectively exchanged. Differences can be discussed and the appeasement of issues can also be negotiated in an ever-refined arena. However, the quest to prove that there is one definitive faith has dogged humanity throughout its existence and the trust that people place in their beliefs will always be open to abuse. Perhaps due to religions operating largely in separation from one another and with a lack of inclination to work in union, a realist perspective can be applied to how religion is capable of operating negatively outside of the boundaries of the wider international sphere of diplomacy. Religion in general will therefore be open to human exploitation and, in respect of interfaith affairs, will be confined to an anarchic system which is dominated by the expression of an unquenchable power urge due to a perceived need for ideological preservation.

[1]  J. Dougherty & R. Pfaltzgraff Jr; Contending Theories of International Relations; Harper and Row Inc (1981), p117

[2]  Ethan H . Shagan; Popular Politics and the English Reformation; Cambridge University Press (2003), p30

[3]  Stanley Hoffmann; Contemporary Theory in International Relations; Prentice-Hall Inc (1960), p59

[6]  Chris Brown; Understanding International Relations; Palgrave (2001), p28

[7]  Erika Erdmann; Realism and Human Values; Vantage Press (1978), p40


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