Governing through Faith? A Foucauldian Critique of Post-Secular World Politics



Governing through Faith? A Foucauldian Critique of Post-Secular World Politics


Kobe University

Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies

PhD Student

Shotaro Okuto


Keywords: post-secularity, neoliberal governmentality, Foucault, critical theory



*This handout uses the singular they instead of distinctive pronouns

The new epoch of post-secularity requires international relations (IR) scholars to rethink the presence of religion in contemporary world politics. While various IR scholars, from hard positivists to postmodernists, have addressed this issue, this research aims to critique critical theorists’ post-secular optimism using the Foucauldian approach.


1 Religion and IR: Why Has Religion Been Overlooked in IR?

Religion has been an overlooked element of IR as disciplinary IR is oriented by the Westphalian synthesis (the triumph of secular authority), the modernisation theory (the decline of religion in public according to modernisation), and positivism (identifying causal relation by operationalising variables) (Fox, 2001; Philpott, 2002; Thomas, 2005; Pabst, 2012; Prasad, 2017). 


2 Critical Theory on Religion in World Politics

While some positivists also seek to identify how religion works in world politics, this research focuses on critical theorists’ approach to religion. Some critical theorists also focus on religion in world politics; they have tried to discover the utopian promise in it – the core opposition of this research. Barbato (2010) argues that religious semantics, particularly pilgrimage, help to provide a new conception of subjectivity that develops global community. They problematise the triumph of homo oeconomicus and the asymmetrical profit between global socio-economic elites and others due to the flexibility led by the neoliberal economy – that is, the nomadic state only benefits people in power and makes other majorities insecure. Religious semantics and the narrative of pilgrimage provide the potential to overcome the valuableness of nomads. 

   Thomas (2010) also demonstrates an optimistic view of religion in critical theorists’ emancipatory project. People living in the global south live almost faithfully; thus, critical theorists have to take this into account for emancipation and justice. Critical theory is compatible with religious narratives because it rejects the value-neutrality of knowledge. In other words, critical theory’s advocacy of inter-subjective and value-oriented knowledge accepts political theology for social justice and it helps in revising the Eurocentric emancipatory project.

   While this kind of thinking is fascinating, this research argues that they are entrapped in a serious fallacy from the Foucauldian perspective. It is possible to point out the problems in their argument. Barbato does not sufficiently provide the reason why or explain why religious semantics can help overcome homo oeconomicus. Thomas ignores the injustice driven by religious narrative, which does even exist in developed countries. However, this research problematises the more fundamental fallacy. They claim the religious potential for emancipation and justice without considering that it is also embedded within social relations; that is, when they advocate the power of religious narratives, they presume that it is independent from other social domains. 


3 Rethinking the Post-Secular World Politics: A Foucauldian Critique

In order to critique critical theorists’ optimisation, this research draws on the Foucauldian perspective of religion. In doing so, it argues that religion in world politics should be understood as embedded within social relations and should not be optimised without considering this. 

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, explored power relations in their later career and the conception of governmentality to capture the power relations stands out from their later works. Governmentality is defined as “conducting the conduct” – it can be understood as a meta-governmental (or political) rationality that promotes a specific subjectivity (Foucault, 2008, p. 186). In terms of neoliberalism, Harvey (2005, p. 2) expresses that human wellbeing can be best achieved by promoting individual entrepreneurship and competition and it is understood as not only an economic thought but also a political rationality by Foucauldians. The subject, which is promoted by the neoliberal governmentality, is briefly captured as homo oeconomicus, which follows the principle of self-responsibility (Read, 2009; Tosa, 2009; Joseph, 2010b). 

   References rarely point out that Foucault understands religion in the context of governmentality. In general, Foucault’s thoughts on religion are discussed in the context of the approval of the Iranian Revolution; that is, the naïve optimism of religion is not averted here either. However, Carrette (1999), an expert in Foucault’s thought, argues that Foucault also ponders religion in the frame of governmentality. According to them, for Foucault, religion is also a political technology of self-government (Carrette, 1999, p. 42). 


4 Faith in Global Governance: Promoting Homo Oeconomicus 

This kind of notion is applicable to world politics, which is particularly shaped by neoliberal governmentality. This research specifically focuses on the programmes of international development that cooperate with religious actors, such as faith-based organisations and local religious leaders. These contemporary development programmes, which are often led by Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are criticised for their disposition of individual responsibilisation, which is driven by neoliberal governmentality (Gabay, 2012; Death and Gabay, 2015). Religious actors are sometimes incorporated into these kinds of programmes. 

   The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is a leading organisation that engages religious actors in programmes. In a guideline published in 2009, it states that religious actors, Faith-Based organisations (FBOs) and local religious leaders, are helpful in creating an environment that encourages conduct that is desirable to achieve MDGs, which is precisely compatible with the notion of technology of government (UNPFA, 2009). It organises the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Engaging Faith-Based Actors for Sustainable Development (UNIATF-FBO), which is composed of international organisations that are concerned with development and address issues concerning MDGs and SDGs. The logic that is fundamentally common in these organisations is that religion helps to shape culture for development. This research shows how religious actors are engaged with the issues that MDGs and SDGs address and how it resonates with neoliberal governmentality. 

The UNDP, as noted, also adopts the idea that religion plays a conductive role in shaping behaviour (UNDP, 2014). In particular, the UNDP states that it is helpful in empowerment projects. Empowerment is capacitating individuals and communities to be more self-reliant, which is interpreted as a representative modality of neoliberal governmentality (Sharma, 2006). As argued by Joseph (2010a, 2013), poverty reduction and resilience also resonate with neoliberal governmentality. Both emphasis the individual and community’s capacity to be more responsible for their own socio-economic wellbeing. Further, with respect to these programmes, religious actors are incorporated into the projects. Religion in world politics should be understood as a technology for promoting homo oeconomicus rather than an alternative to overcome it; critical theorists should be involved in the critique it rather than using it to optimise political theology.

While these programmes are undoubtedly necessary to improve the quality of life of those in the third world, they do not considerably contain critical theoretic aspects as they seek a technical solution rather than fundamental revision. Apart from critical theorists’ assumptions, religion is engaged with such programmes. 



In opposition to critical theorists, this research argues that religion is employed to promote homo oeconomicus. As further research, one can more substantially advance the study of how religion works in the context of neoliberal governmentality. 




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