For thirty years, in the early modern period of the seventeenth century, Central Europe was ravaged by wars justified with reference to differences in religious interpretations. Looking back at the wars between various Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire, scholars have pointed out that those dubbed religious wars were equally about “worldly” matters of politics, power, ethnicity, or social grievances (Palaver, Rudolph, and Regensburger 2016). Yet the urge to understand—and perhaps even isolate the significance of—religion has prevailed in contemporary times. Religion has remained on the agenda of social sciences, and with less “secular resistance” after 9/11 than in the previous centuries, for good reasons, not least since statistical data have shown that conflicts involving self-defined religious actors and religious claims have increased over the past decades, rather than following the curve of other conflict types that are generally decreasing (Svensson and Nilsson 2018).

There seems to be both a real-world and a scientific/methodological need to make sense of religion in more “integrated” ways, where manifestations of religion are studied in relation to their social context and embeddedness. This approach has already been advocated by a long list of scholars, who have warned against “isolating” religion, based on the idea that the privatization of religion (encoded in the doctrine that “the ruler determines the religion of his realm”) was the main principle that ended the religious civil wars in Europe (Petito and Hatzopoulos 2000, iii).1 Fortunately, religion has not been shunted aside, but the relevance of religion, as a conflict claim, identity marker, worldview, doctrine, or some sort of collective emotion, has been discussed across various disciplines in order to understand questions pertaining to human behavior, mobilization drivers, legitimacy structures, violence, and war.

We are very close to developing a research agenda relevant for social sciences where religious wars can be examined and taken seriously, but in ways that challenge monocausal, generic, and essentialist thinking about religion. It is this research agenda that Mark Juergensmeyer has made some of the biggest contributions to, particularly through his development of lenses to approach “cosmic war” (Juergensmeyer 2003) and “worldviews” (Juergensmeyer and Sheikh 2013). With this contribution, I want to point out the contours of how we can develop a research agenda on the significance of religion that can move us beyond a few of the dead ends that I often observe in the scholarly debate on religion and war.

I want to focus on two claims that appear in Juergensmeyer’s recent article “Which Is More Compelling: Religion or War?” (2020), published in this journal. The text describes his thoughts on the linkages between religion and war, both on a conceptual level and on a microlevel that speaks more directly to the radicalization literature, engaging with the question of why some individuals happen to be attracted to participation in religious warfare.

The following claims that can be derived from Juergensmeyer’s (2020) text expose some tensions, though I believe that it is exactly by focusing on these tensions that we can progress and move a bit closer to a fruitful research agenda on religion:

a) Religion is relevant for understanding conflict and war, but it is not the explanation for why they occur.

b) Religious imagery constitute a real-world ambition for many people, but we don’t really have access to the inner side of human minds.

In the following sections, I will discuss the inherent tensions in the above claims by posing some additional questions. Wherein lies the explanatory power of religion, and how can we enhance the feasibility of “entering religious minds” (Sheikh and Juergensmeyer 2019)?

Religion Is Relevant for Understanding Conflict and Wars, but It Is No Explanation—Or Is It?

After 9/11 many of the claims about the relationship between religion and violence were made in unsubstantiated recommendations from think tanks and policy circles, based on implicit assumptions about an intimate relationship between religiosity and violent behavior. These assumptions created tautological and linear links between religiosity and violence: the more religious, the more violence prone; the more religion is mixed with politics, the more likely it is that the outcome will be violent.

As it often is in academia, every movement is met with a countermovement. Rebellion occurred—with good reasons—against making religion the sole explanatory variable. I myself pushed for posing “how” questions instead: How do religious ideas, beliefs, speech, and culture impact or motivate violent action? How do we in the West conceptualize religion in a way that is not biased toward Western Protestantism? How do we understand violence in a way that does not reduce its occurrence to a matter of religious fundamentalism (Sheikh and Crone 2014)?

In responding to simplistic causalities and biased conceptualizations of religion, we should, however, be careful not to understate the explanatory power of religion. Through his scholarship, Juergensmeyer has made great contributions that help us understand why religion is relevant for understanding war. He has, among other things, pointed out the family resemblances between the two epistemes of war and religion, as he draws out that “war is the moral absolutism of social conflict, and as such, one might well ask whether all wars are to some extent religious wars” (Juergensmeyer 2020, 5).

Scholars (like Juergensmeyer) who work with one foot in qualitative studies and the other in developing conceptual schemes and theories are often too humble when it comes to their ability to say something “truly” explanatory. I know, from the field of international relations, the autopilot response of scholars working within the constructivist tradition that they don’t deal with “why” questions, in the face of positivist demands to come up with “real” factors that can explain something.

In his recent article, Juergensmeyer (rightfully) argues that we can’t say anything generic about the role of religion (such as that “it creates war because it generates certainty” or that “it is the most prolific source of violence in our history”; Juergensmeyer (2020) p.3). However, Juergensmeyer’s own family-resemblance approach to understanding similarities between war and religion (as worldviews) does have explanatory power, since it can explain why some conflicts cannot be solved easily using traditional conflict-resolution mechanisms (negotiations/compromise, power sharing, etc.).

There is an important distinction to make in the way religion is discussed: giving religion explanatory power is different from including it as a category that has to be “explained away” (as a rhetorical gloss over something more real, for example). Juergensmeyer’s work can be placed in the first camp, since religious worldviews are exactly that—worldviews, not an expression of something that lies behind them. On a macroanalytical level, Juergensmeyer’s concepts of cosmic war, worldview analysis, and his family-resemblance approach to religion and war can particularly explain the dynamics of escalation: that conflicts are hardened by becoming “lifted onto the high proscenium of sacred drama” (Juergensmeyer 2020, 9) 

For conflict research, it is, in fact, a small revolution to shift the focus of attention from variables to conflict dynamics, and then also to move the explanatory focus from underlying causes to endogenous dynamics (Bramsen and Wæver 2019). In peace and conflict studies, statistical analysis is often used to explain and to answer the “why” questions. Yet the exact effects of each variable are still “only mathematical,” since quantitative studies (which dominate the field of peace and conflict research) would typically analyze the statistical effects of factors x, y, and z that influence the “frequency of the outbreak of violent conflict,” which is not the same as explaining conflicts as such (Bramsen and Wæver 2019).

The kind of analysis that is based on the elaboration of a worldview and how it resembles other ways of thinking (e.g., the resemblance between war and religion) is also about probability (of escalation), not a mathematical probability but a linguistic, perceptual, and emotional one, which has to do with alignment. The more alignment we can observe between war and religious worldviews, the higher the probability of escalation.

This analytical scale—that is, explaining conflict escalation—is, however, different from the question that Juergensmeyer poses in the beginning of his article: why would members of the German upper class leave their comforts, join the Islamic State, and blow themselves up? This question, which I will turn to below, is prompted by the radicalization debate that—in contrast to conflict research—has been very focused on individual motivation and mobilization.

Religion Is a Real-World Ambition, but We Don’t Have Access to Human Minds—or Do We?

It is important to note that different concerns have defined the debate landscape and research agenda on the significance of religion. One concern has been conceptual: to point out that religion, like secularism, is a contested concept with different households of meaning. As has forcefully been argued by theologian William Cavanough, rather than treating religion as something simply found “out there,” one of the critical tasks is to display the power practices involved in constructing certain things as “religious” and other things as “secular” or “political.” (See also Sheikh and Wæver 2012.) The argument that even ideas that are popularly regarded as secular can be religious in some sense of the word has also been discussed among scholars within the international relations disciplines together with the fields’ “genealogical inclination” toward secularism.2 With such a research concern, it would not make sense to start looking for religion, and how it plays into the motivation of foreign fighters, before defining what we actually mean by religion (Sheikh 2012).

Another concern has been spurred by simplistic causalities between religion and violence, which were particularly widespread in the immediate wake of 9/11. As Juergensmeyer points out, the role of salafi thinking and ideas in explaining real acts of (Islamic State) violence is often methodologically unclear. The debate on religion is further confused by the fact that scholars are trying to explain very different factors: violence, human behavior/motivation, legitimacy, escalation, and the like. Qualitative approaches to understanding the significance of religion would therefore gain credibility by creating more clarity on not only the assumption behind the causalities but also what exactly they are trying to explain.

Finally, one concern has been to lend nuance to the policy debate about motivations, and perhaps also the scholarly reflection thereof. Juergensmeyer has been one of the most forceful voices in that debate, not least through his many interview-based contributions. I have also contributed myself to the “pluralism” debate based on interviews with members of the Pakistani Taliban movement. All simplistic hypotheses about “what drives terrorists” falter when suddenly in front of you are human faces and complex life stories. The tragedy behind frameworks that are prone to embrace a singular explanation of the “terrorist motivation” is the lack of empirical insight into the fact that people can be in the very same movement for various reasons. Additionally, as Juergensmeyer also points out (2020), the reason may not be solely politics, religion, vulnerable mental health, or socioeconomics; more often than not, it appears to be all these in mixture.

But the question is, how can we then examine this complexity in a meaningful way, posing the right questions? Juergensmeyer rightfully gives up on the possibility of surgical precision in isolating the “religion factor,” not least because of the fact that we are dealing with a “multifaceted activity that we call religion” (Juergensmeyer 2020, p.3). Juergensmeyer argues that “to test it empirically, one would have to isolate the religious factor apart from all other possible motivations and see if this in fact was the driving force” (Juergensmeyer 2020, 2); hence, in fact, we will never know. That is why Juergensmeyer ends up with the perhaps disappointing message that “we will never know what aspects of these promises of cosmic war appealed to them or why they so willingly gave their lives to the Islamic State’s cause” (Juergensmeyer 2020, p.10).

And Juergensmeyer is right that we will never know with complete certainty, but science as such always attempts to predict or to get closer to an understanding of a connection. This is the case for both quantitative and qualitative studies.

To scholars working within the tradition of qualitative studies, however, words are central data. There is a well-known difference of opinion among scholars who are inspired by Marxist ideas of false consciousness, on one side (an argument sometimes used to dismiss the relevance of narratives and listening to your study objects is that the interviewees do not realize their own motivations and hence are unable to explain them), and others who take language and words seriously.

There are at least two approaches to why words matter: One argument for taking religion seriously as “words” is that religion is a real-world claim that is made “out there”—despite how right scholars like Cavanough might be in pointing out its essential constructedness. Using it in particular ways does something (cf. the speech act theory, which has influenced many generations of scholars). As “triggering” mechanisms, words (about religion) thus matter, and it pays to be attentive to how religious actors frame their actions (for example, to defend God, to reestablish God’s authority, to defend religion, etc.). Securitization theory (Wæver 1995) is an example of a theory that consciously has black-boxed all questions relating to intentions, motivations, and worldviews—that is, the “inners ide” of human behavior. Unlike much anthropological literature, this theory is not about getting a closer understanding of the minds of the activists under scrutiny, but rather about understanding the process that is triggered from the point when something is spoken into being a security issue (religion in this case) and to the point where extraordinary action, such as violence, is enabled (for more on religion and securitization theory, see Sheikh 2014).

Another (but a different kind of) argument for taking religious language and framings seriously is that they are actual access points to understand human behavior, including motivations. The most sophisticated of such approaches acknowledge—as Juergensmeyer does—that an interview situation is not just a neutral path to information about the inner side of the interviewees’ heads or the reality of a matter (Sheikh and Juergensmeyer 2019). An interview situation is always more dynamic, and both parts are simultaneously bound together by their linguistic and cultural context (Strauss and Corbin 1998, 58). One dimension of having a sound methodology is to make explicit the assumptions that enable an analysis of narratives to simultaneously say something about the mind or the worldviews. This is exactly what we attempted to do by outlining a sociotheological approach (Juergensmeyer and Sheikh 2013) to the study of religious violence, which is based on some important ontological clarifications.

A New Research Agenda on Religious War

Juergensmeyer’s recent article (2020) on intersections between religion, war, and radicalization thinking opens up three insights that ought to be part of a contemporary social science research agenda on religious war:

First, a fruitful research agenda should not be about showing how much religion mattered in relation to other factors. Instead of such a zero-sum approach, where it is either religion or something else that is regarded as the “cause” for either acts of violence or war, an alternative path for scholars who are interested in how religion works (in situations of war and conflict) is to depart from the idea that religion is relevant as a collective perception, a worldview. As we have outlined in our development of a “sociotheological” approach to the study of religious violence (Juergensmeyer and Sheikh 2013), worldview analysis requires an integrated thinking about religious imagery and the sociopolitical context it is embedded in. This approach invalidates questions and debates about whether it is “really” religion or other grievances/ambitions that drives violent actors.

Second, there are important differences in analytical scale, depending on whether we are trying to explain conflict and war, or whether we want to explain individual motivation. Yet perhaps there might be lessons to learn from creating more synergy between the focus of peace and conflict research on conflicts and war, and the focus that the radicalization literature has on the individual. The concepts of cosmic war and worldview analysis are well-suited analytical starting points to think more about how the different scales can be related in an explanatory framework.

Finally, Juergensmeyer’s work shows that religion—as a worldview—can have explanatory power when it comes to situations of escalation. One of the most important agenda items for future research on the intersection of religion and war will be to understand other aspects of religious worldviews (other than the cosmic war aspect) that can have a potential effect on conflict dynamics: not just the escalatory aspects but also, equally, on de-escalation. Thinking about how cosmic wars can end, and perhaps learning from historical lessons, where grand narratives became a conflict template with “structuring power” for smaller scale conflicts (as happened during the Cold War), seems to be a fruitful path for future peace studies.

Author Biography

Mona Kanwal Sheikh is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and heads the research unit on Global Security. She is former visiting scholar at the Institute for South Asia Studies, University of California Berkeley (2014), the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara (2013, 2008), and research affiliate at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame, Indiana (2008). Sheikh’s research focuses on religion and secularism in International Relations, and she is the PI of an ERC-funded project on transnational jihadism and containment. Her recent publications on the particular topic of religious violence include Entering Religious Minds – the Social Study of Worldviews (co-edited with Mark Juergensmeyer, Routledge 2019), Expanding Jihad (DIIS, 2017) and Guardians of God: Inside the Religious Mind of the Pakistani Taliban (Oxford University Press, 2016). Among her theoretical contributions to the debate on religious violence are the articles ‘How does religion matter? Pathways to religion in international relations’ (Review of International Studies, 2012), ‘A Sociotheological Approach to Understanding Religious Violence’ (Oxford Handbook on Religion and Violence, 2013), ‘The religious challenge to securitisation theory’ (Millennium, 2014), Recursion or rejection? Securitization theory faces Islamist violence and foreign religions (Global Discourse, 2018), ’ Religion, Emotions and Conflict Escalation’. In Brent Steele and Eric Heinze (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Ethics and International Relations. (Routledge. 2018), ‘Worldview Analysis’. In Mark Juergensmeyer, Saskia Sassen and Manfred Steger (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Global Studies. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2018).



There have been several contributions reinforcing the argument that religion ought to be taken seriously within the discipline of international relations; for example, Toft, Philpott, and Shah 2011; Shah, Stepan, and Toft 2012; Hassner 2011; Fox and Sandler 2004; Philpott 2002; Carlson and Owens 2003; Sheikh 2012; Wæver 1995.


For example, Petito and Hatzopoulos 2003; Thomas 2005; Hurd, “The Politics of Secularism in International Relations,” 2007; Hurd, “Theorizing Religious Resurgence,” 2007; Calhoun, Juergensmeyer, and Van Antwerpen 2011; Sheikh and Wæver 2012.


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Calhoun, C., M. Juergensmeyer, and J. Van Antwerpen. 2011. Rethinking Secularism. Oxford University Press.
Carlson, J.D., and E.C. Owens. 2003. The Sacred and The Sovereign: Religion and International Politics. Georgetown University Press.
Fox, J., and S. Sandler. 2004. Bringing Religion Into International Relations. Palgrave Macmillan.
Hassner, Ron E. 2011. “Religion and International Affairs: The State of the Art.” In Religion, Identity, and Global Governance. University of Toronto Press.
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. 2007a. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
———. 2007b. “Theorizing Religious Resurgence.” International Politics 44 (6): 647–65.
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———. 2020. “Which Is More Compelling: Religion or War?” Global Perspectives 1 (1).
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———. 2003. Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile. London: Palgrave Macmilllan.
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