Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on Religion and Capitalism

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Political Science



Publication Title

Religious Activism in the Global Economy: Promoting, Reforming, or Resisting Neoliberal Globalization


This chapter will discuss the questions of sovereignty, secularization, and capitalism from a historical and theoretical perspective to complement the introduction that was more focused on the current debate in international relations (IR). Here we want to locate the IR debate within research in international political economy (IPE) and historical sociology as well as new research on secularization. In doing so, the chapter challenges the Eurocentric bias of much contemporary social science research. Too often it has been assumed that what was perceived to have happened in Europe could be universalized as a general process of human development. To understand modernity, state formation, the rise of capitalism, and the decline of religion from a European perspective was to know it everywhere. Yet, as this chapter argues, too often social scientists got it wrong, misled by the same "propaganda of the victors" as can be seen at work in the history of nineteenth-century Europe, where "the victors appeared to be rationalism, political economy, utilitarianism, science, liberalism" (Thompson 1993, xiv). Today it is increasingly clear that Europe was not the harbinger of things to come, but, rather, the exception (Casanova 2012).

In the first section, we highlight the limitations of the "Westphalian presumption" that is the usual starting point for the debate on religion in IR. In the second section, we argue that the "return" of "religion" can be more fruitfully understood by developing a differentiated understanding of secularization that gives room for religious activists and also provides a framework for their role in the public sphere. Lastly, the chapter calls for another look at both Weber's Eurocentric interpretation of the origin and development of capitalism and Marx's understanding of religion as a "theory of this world." The goal of the chapter is to highlight that the uncritical acceptance of traditional interpretations in the debate on religion has impoverished our understanding of the possible role of religious movements in IR and IPE. The chapter is an invitation to a debate. We hope it will, along with the chapters that follow, provide a good starting point for further reflection and conversation.


For more information on the published version, visit Rowman and Littlefield's Website.

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