Religion as ‘Prime Institution’ of International Society

AuthorKatharina McLarren
Published date01 January 2023
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
60(1) 7 –28, 2023
© 2023 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817221139927
Research Article
Religion as ‘Prime
Institution’ of
International Society
Katharina McLarren 1
Religion features in early English School work, disappears, and reappears in more
recent literature. Arguably, it has not yet found a solid place in this theoretical
framework, even though the English School is known to provide angles on the
evolution of international society other approaches lack. Religion can unite and
divide; leading to a strengthening or a weakening of identity and legitimacy. Faith
endures and it can exist independently of states, it can constitute them and
it can provide new forms of states and societies. Employing previous English
School ideas from early and contemporary English School scholars as points of
departure, religion is introduced as a ‘prime institution’. Based on the English
School’s understanding of primary institutions constituting international society,
this concept of a ‘prime institution’ provides an additional layer to international
society. Such a prime institution helps grasp the multifacetedness of religion in the
context of international society; identify patterns of religion's (in-) significance for
primary institutions; and examine the difference between religious and religion-
averse states within the international society. This prime institution is illustrated
with a so-called ‘quilt model’, which depicts the multiple layers of international
English school, religion, international society, primary institutions
More than 80 states either have an official state religion (43) or actively support
one or more religions (40) (PEW, 2017, p. 4). If one grasps beliefs as the
institutionalization of faith, outlasting civilizations and transcending state borders,
1 Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg, Germany
Corresponding author:
Katharina McLarren, Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law,
Heidelberg 69120, Germany.
8 International Studies 60(1)
it is surprising how little religion features in the theories of International Relations
(IR), particularly that of the International Society approach, also known as the
English School.1 In one of the core texts of the so-called second debate of IR,
Hedley Bull, as one of the most prominent English School scholars, spells out the
types of questions theories of IR face, including
What is the place of war in international society? (…) Does a member state of
international society enjoy a right to intervention in the internal affairs of another,
and if so, in what circumstances? Are sovereign states the sole members of
international society or does it ultimately consist of individual human beings whose
rights and duties override those of the entities who act in their name? (…) To what
extent is the course of diplomatic events at any one time determined or circumscribed
by the general shape or structure of the international system (…)? (Bull, 1966,
p. 367)
Questions, he argues, which cannot be answered sufficiently by ‘scientific
theorists’ who ‘(…) confin(e) themselves to what can be logically or mathematically
proved’ (Bull, 1966, p. 366). Indeed, these are questions that continue to be at the
heart of English School contributions.2 Apart from identifying historical patterns,
the English School seeks to better grasp the dynamics that shape the constantly
evolving international order manifest in systems and international, transnational
or world societies, focusing on what they term primary institutions. By studying
institutions of international society, such as war, diplomacy or sovereignty,
English School authors tackle the questions listed above. The main assumption of
this article is that religion contributed significantly to shaping such institutions,
whether by design or unintentionally, and one might therefore expect English
School literature to foster a pronounced interest in religion.
This article argues that while invaluable work has been done, the potential of
including religion in English School thought has by no means been exhausted and
thus seeks to explore further pathways of doing so. In a first step, past and current
English School literature is revisited to provide a general overview of what has been
done in terms of including religion, thereby identifying points of departure. The
literature is reviewed chronologically, that is, sorted by generations of scholars and
not concepts, as the English School is understood more as a loose grouping of
scholars, rather than a rigid theoretical framework.3 The points of departure are then
built-upon in a second step in which the concept of religion as a ‘prime institution’
is introduced and illustrated by employing the so-called ‘quilt model’.
Religion in Past and Contemporary English School Thought
Religion in International Relations
Religion was largely absent in the theories of IR until the very late 20th century.
This absence of religion had three main reasons (cf. Fox, 2001; Petito &
Hatzopoulos, 2003; Snyder, 2011): First, the widely held belief in modernization
went hand-in-hand with the conviction that secularism would prevail, thus

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