WAR, IT HAS been said, is politics by other means; religion is politics by most means. When people go to war in the name of religion, religion should be analyzed politically. However, all too often when we are disturbed by violence carried out as religious acts, the public discourse bifurcates. Some say religion is the instigator, if not the problem itself. Others claim that monsters have acted in spite of and against the peaceful and responsible teachings of one of the worlds great religious traditions. These positions are equally flawed and necessitate a new framework, whether our goal is to complain, understand, or effect positive change.
We must begin by understanding what religion is beyond our common and established conceptions and shatter our hidebound association of religion as the "God of the Book" or an Abrahamic chauvinism. Moreover, the political nature of religious violence demands a sophisticated exploration of the role of institutions and individuals, as both can act seemingly against their own interests and are frequently torn between conflicting incentives and/or sanctions. Lastly, we must not forget the human element that is often sacrificed to the straw men of "crazy-Christians" and "murderous-Muslims." This issue has unfortunately been mislabeled under "good and evil" and "belief and sanity," rather than politics. Looking through a social science lens, we must shape a more progressive, binding norm of loyalty to humanity.
Politics is more than who is serving in office and how they got there. Political science concerns itself with the decisions individuals and institutions make regarding power, resources, authority, laws, and identity alongside other individuals and institutions. And while people typically think in terms of start/stop linear time, where we isolate events based on proximity and novelty, in political science we start by looking at the world through recurrent cycles of "political time"--at the more enduring trends as opposed to the barrage of scandal blasted at us by the news like context-deficient buckshot. When we think about religion and violence we need to look at the bigger picture to determine if we are being shocked by a fluke, or a greater trend. We must also realize the nature of norms and how they color our thinking regarding what we consider usual and expected, sometimes even without our conscious awareness or against our own better judgment.
By the manner in which they frame issues, norms have an injunctive quality steering our preferences at a core, visceral level. Imagine that I invite you to a picnic. It's a typical spread: checkered blanket, wicker basket, assorted fruits and cheeses. I pull out a covered tray and offer you a serving of the main course, which is heirloom crickets sauteed in a red wine reduction on a bed of mixed greens. You more than likely feel a tinge of revulsion in your gut, instead of the eager appetite that would have spoken up had the selection been shrimp cocktail, the crickets of the sea. In this vein, the violation of religious and political norms can trigger a rather potent reaction. In the United States, we have a laundry list of norms shaping how we react to public discussions.
These norms are reflected in three major schools of political thought regarding religion and religiosity (intensity of religious experience or expression), and their place and influence in the public sphere. Political scientist Ahmet Kuru details these schools of thought in his 2009 book, Secularism and State Policies Toward Religion (Cambridge University Press). According to Kuru, philosophers Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls argued that deliberation in a democratic polity should be separate from religion and religious experience. (Rawls later permitted its inclusion in an "overlapping consensus" of social thought in the democratic process.) An earlier school of thought on religion and politics, the secularization theory of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, saw religion as a waning social force in the face of modernization. Via a process called functional differentiation, all that was once provided by a religious institution acting as a one-stop shop would gradually be replaced by services of the modern age (e.g., psychotherapy, advanced medical care, and so on). Though we see a diminution of religiosity in a growing number of wealthy and highly educated nations, the United States serves as a prime example of how the secularization theory may be incomplete. (However, political scientists Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart, coauthors of Sacred and Secular: Politics and Religion Worldwide, say that it is actually the insecurity caused by socioeconomic inequality that explains this counterexample).
In the atheist and humanist movements a good deal of the discussion is rooted in Durkheimian secularization. Religion is seen as a tribal vestige, a product of backward thought that is solved through education, modernity, and rational discourse. There is an application of moral rectitude...