In his 1990 book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power,” Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power,” positing that global influence extends beyond coercive abilities, such as military strength. It is also about persuasion and attraction. Nye revisited this concept in “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics,” hinting at religion’s role amid various cultural elements that shape global perceptions.
While intersecting with hard power, economics, history, and culture, religious soft power has seen a remarkable upward trend in this millennium. There has been an emphasis on interfaith dialogues, driven by technological advancement and a cultural renaissance, underscoring religion’s profound influence.
Religious leaders are no longer just spiritual guides; they are global influencers, bridge-builders striving for understanding, peace, and unity. Moreover, modern communication has transformed religious discourse, amplifying its reach and impact.
As our world pivots toward multipolarity, savvy nations and political actors recognize the latent potential of religious soft power. Some sponsor religious organizations, while others finance interfaith initiatives, all in a bid to craft narratives that resonate in regions where faith remains pivotal.
The crescendo of globalization has only amplified this trend. Today, the nexus between religion and politics is more pronounced than ever. However, this fusion is not only a byproduct of our interconnected world, but also a testament to religion’s timeless appeal, and enduring influence on human behavior and alliances.
Religions are adapting, modernizing, and finding new avenues to maintain their influence
Yet, as significant as religion’s soft power remains, we must also recognize an evolving dynamic. The world, in many areas, is becoming increasingly areligious. Secularism is rising, especially among younger generations, and traditional religious institutions are witnessing diminished influence.
Furthermore, the perception and reception of religious soft power have changed. Religious soft power was often associated with traditional religious institutions and leaders. However, contemporary religious soft power may also manifest through nontraditional means, such as religiously inspired social movements, grassroots organizations, and digital platforms.
Beyond Karl Marx’s “opium of the masses,” sociology of religion theories suggests that as societies become more modern and scientifically oriented, they become less religious. While the thesis is debated and has its critics, some aspects seem to be borne out in certain societies.
In countries with low fertility rates and aging populations, there can often be a correlating decline in religiosity. However, this is counterbalanced by higher religiosity and birth rates in many developing nations. While adherence to organized religions might be declining in some regions, there is a rise in nontraditional spiritual practices. For instance, meditation, mindfulness, and other such approaches have grown popular.
Amid this upward secular trend, religious soft power would be expected to wane. However, the opposite seems to be happening. Religions are adapting, modernizing, and finding new avenues to maintain their influence. Instead of traditional sermons and rituals, many religious institutions now focus on social activism, humanitarian aid, and environmental issues, aligning religious teachings with contemporary concerns. Political actors have also recognized the potential of religious soft power and have sought to co-opt or manipulate religious narratives for their own agendas.
Religious figures, no longer confined to pulpits or monasteries, are now central actors on the global stage
Giving an interesting twist, the essence of spirituality, separated from organized religion, has found resonance with many, especially the youth. This spiritual-but-not-religious demographic is forging a new path, integrating aspects of various faith traditions, and often leaning into traditional philosophies, meditation, and mindfulness practices.
While soft power as a concept is not novel, the recalibration of religion’s role in geopolitics is. Policymakers, scholars, and diplomats would do well to realize that today’s geopolitics is not just about nations and economies, but is also a complex tapestry of beliefs, identities, and practices. Yet, they must also know that religion’s influence is a double-edged sword. As much as it can unite, it can also divide, especially if co-opted to favor one faith over another.
Religion’s historical influence — from Buddhism’s spread along the Silk Road to the Catholic Church’s medieval clout — remains undeniable. Yet today, it is not just about history or tradition, as religious soft power is intricately woven into our geopolitical landscape.
Religious figures, no longer confined to pulpits or monasteries, are now central actors on the global stage. They champion social justice and environmental causes, leveraging their moral authority to shift public opinion and influence policymakers.
Interfaith initiatives, such as the UN’s World Interfaith Harmony Week, epitomize the strides in promoting mutual respect across religions, enhancing its soft power. As soft power’s religious dimension gains traction, nations strategically align with religious narratives to further their geopolitical aims.
In response to perceived cultural homogenization, there has been a resurgence of religious identity and a desire to protect and promote religious values and traditions. This has led to increased efforts by religious communities to assert their soft power by preserving cultural heritage, promoting religious education, and showcasing religious practices and rituals.
While religious soft power was once the dominion of traditional religious institutions, today, it is a multifaceted force, manifesting through grassroots movements and online platforms. As our world grapples with the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, the role of religious soft power in geopolitics remains more relevant than ever.
• Ehtesham Shahid is an Indian editor and researcher based in the UAE. X: @e2sham