Organised religion has role to play in international diplomacy

Human rights and climate change are shared values with the secular world

Pope Francis speaks with Iraqi president Barham Salih during a meeting at the presidential palace in Baghdad on March 5th, 2021. Photograph: Vatican media handout/EPA

The influential sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) proposed the theory that religion would wither away with the advance of science and education. That idea was taken as a given in international relations ever since.

In the 21st century it is evident that this stance was but the mindset of the colonising Western world. Among other examples of religion as a force in society is the resurgence of Islam.

The attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 was an example of the toxic effect of religious fundamentalism in the increasingly modernised society of the Middle East. At the same time, the Arab Spring was propelled by a cohort of educated young people influenced by the Koranic ethos.

After 9/11 religion was addressed in the United States and elsewhere in the context of counter-terrorism. The high-profile drama of terrorism, carried out in the name of religion, overshadows the role of religion in pre-empting violence and in conflict resolution, as well as its wider positive sociological remit.


In recent years, however, the idea that religion should be recognised in international diplomacy has been gaining ground. In July 2017, the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, launched the UN Action Plan for Religious Leaders and Actors on Preventing Incitement to Violence.

Francis has been active in bilateral diplomacy, undertaking state visits to <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_location">China</a> and <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_location">Iraq</a>

The secretary-general noted that “attempts to find solutions to these problems have tended to exclude religious leaders. A 360-degree approach which brings religious leaders, policymakers and civil society to the dialogue table is the only way to build solutions that work”.

Beyond peace initiatives, religion furthermore has shared values with the secularist world in areas such as human rights, stewardship of the earth, social justice. This congruence is evidenced in papal diplomacy.

Pope Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI have both participated in sessions of the G7 and of the World Bank, addressing the issues of social justice, ethical capitalism and climate change.

Benedict's encyclical, Caritas in Veritate – Love in Truth – on a reformed capitalism, and that of Francis on climate policy, Laudato Si, are major contributions to a global debate.

Francis has been active in bilateral diplomacy, undertaking state visits to China and Iraq. The papal modus operandi emphasises the need for bilateral diplomacy but it is multilateral agencies that will most serve the changing character of world trends.

The incorporation of practices such as mindfulness and meditation into corporate management culture is another indication of the diversity of spiritual practice

On the Significance of Religion for Global Diplomacy is a recent book by Philip McDonagh and three others. The authors make practical proposals for a framework of multilateral diplomacy, for a sustainable future defined by the congruence between religion, human rights and global policy.

Political globalisation facilitates this process. In the course of the last century, the balance of influence in international diplomacy has shifted away from the nation state towards multilateral organisations – the United Nations, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional bodies.

A proliferation of non-governmental organisations has played a role in this shift, for example aid agencies working in the Third World.

More recently, in popular culture, a middle ground is developing between the old polarity between atheism and religion. This is evidenced in the rise, in the Western world, of a cohort of the population who describe themselves in surveys and censuses as “spiritual but not religious”.

The incorporation of practices such as mindfulness and meditation into corporate management culture is another indication of the diversity of spiritual practice in the post-modern world.

The established religions, for their part, have moved towards religious pluralism, as in the Second Vatican Council and the Parliament of World Religions of 1993.

In 1990, Samuel Huntington had predicted, in his book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, that future wars would be fought not about territory but between conflicting cultures, in which religion is deeply embedded.

Responding, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami proposed a dialogue among civilisations. In November 1998, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2001 as the year of dialogue among civilisations, expressing the determination to facilitate international discussion.

The challenge involved in such aspirations was starkly demonstrated by the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001.

The war on terror followed, but so, slowly, did a new realisation that religion, in its capacity for the therapeutic as well as the toxic, needs to be addressed as a factor in international affairs.