Religion and World Politics

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Politics and International Studies

Module overview

In the 21 st century the world is undergoing serious conflicts, with many of the animations for conflict being attributed to religious persuasion or, as commonly described in Western media, 'fanaticisms'. This course, the first of its kind and scope in the UK, seeks to provide a broad but considered introduction to both world religions and their place in contemporary world politics. It traces the development of world religions historically, and also the modern development of the global state system. The course proposes that, in addition to confessional divisions, the world is also facing a contestation as to the future nature of the global state system. Comparative theological methodologies will be taught, as well as theories and practices of foreign policy formulation. Key individual thinkers of different faiths will be examined, as well as ecumenical thinkers. Among others, the course will showcase the individual but, to this stage, disparate works of SOAS scholars across many Departments and Faculties. Students who successfully complete the course will have foundation appreciations and skills for careers in international policy formulation and political risk analysis in conditions where confessional schisms and violence are a feature - as well as acquiring foundational knowledge for further study.

Summary Lectures

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the course, students will be able to understand:

  • basic methodological skills in comparative theological thought
  • the development of the world’s major religious, their internal divisions, and their key beliefs
  • basic hermeneutic approaches in the comparative study of religion and theology
  • the work of key thinkers within individual religions, as well as thinkers who work in ecumenical projects
  • the dynamics of world politics from the late twentieth century to the contemporary era, with particular emphasis on the construction of foreign policies
  • the strategic thrust of state interests within foreign policies
  • key missing elements of understanding within the construction of foreign policies
  • new thrusts towards state creation beyond the Westphalian model
  • the interplay of religion and politics in today’s world
  • skills of use to policy formation, political risk analysis, journalism and foreign correspondence, and foundational skills for future specialised academic study
  • it will complement the understandings gleaned from the BA in International Relations by providing the students with 'sacral' as well as secular understandings and appreciations


  • 1 hour lecture per week 1 hour tutorial per week

Scope and syllabus

  1. A short history of the world’s religions, and a disquisition on faith, belief, theological argument, philosophical debate, and formlessness. (Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam)
  2. A short history of modernity and the move towards secularisation: the different motifs of the American (Masonic – derivative Christianity) and French (new secular goddesses – derivative Greek myths and the Enlightenment symbolism) revolutions, down to the Baath in Iraq and Syria.
  3. The nature and methodology of desacralisation, and the nature and methodology of desecularisation: no easy resacralisation; eschatology, soteriology, and the political promise. Fukuyama as both soteriology and eschatology.
  4. How not to reason about faith.
  5. The response of Western states to a post-Cold War world. The end of ideology and the confusion with the end of faith. The 5th column within: Saudi Arabia and the Wahabi compromise.
  6. Afghanistan and the advent of the Taleban and Al Qaeda.
  7. Wahaabiism and the spectrum of Islamic belief: from the Brotherhood to the Shia to the Sufis. The Quran, the Sharia and the Hadith.
  8. The nature of fundamental and evangelical Christianity and the political right. The Old Testament, Matthew’s last days, and Revelation. Comparisons with the Pauline, Johannine and Gnostic scriptures. Comparisons with Niebuhr, liberation theologists, and Thomas Merton.
  9. The nature of ecumenical thought and praxis: the nature of hermeneutic recognition. Aref Nayed.
  10. The role of the Vatican in today’s world. The case study of Santo Egidio.
  11. Case studies: Iran (Shari’ati and the Ayatollahs), France, and the United States.
  12. Al Shabab, Boko Haram, and the struggle in the two Sudans.
  13. The tension in Turkey.
  14. Elsewhere in the world: Hindutva, Vedic learning, the struggle in Sri Lanka.
  15. Buddhist learning. The struggle over Tibet and within Burma.
  16. Confucianism in China today; intolerance towards the Falun Gong.
  17. Crossovers: forms of Islam in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.
  18. The great fault-lines: Judaism, Zionism, Orthodoxy and the politicisation of homeland.
  19. The war with Hamas over Gaza.
  20. Finally: state and religion, the religious need for a homeland beyond merely the umma; the Westphalian state assumes a religious guise as well as a nationalist rationale. The emergence of Islamic State.

Method of assessment

Two 3000 word assignments and one 3-hour examination.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules