Religious Humanitarianism and the Global Politics of Secularism

32 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 8 Sep 2010

See all articles by Cecelia Lynch

Cecelia Lynch

University of California, Irvine

Date Written: 2010


The director of a Christian transnational humanitarian organization in New York asserts that the “development model” is more rooted in Gospel teachings than the “charity model.” A new wave of Muslim NGO activists from Somalia, Iraq, and Palestine call themselves secular, while Christians working in the same areas do not hesitate to discuss their religious roots and motivations. Many Cameroonian humanitarian workers from mainline religious denominations also observe traditional African religious customs, even though they experience considerable conflict between the two.

How do we make sense of these and other practices within existing religious/secular categories? What are the parameters of our “secular age” within the “desecularization of the world”? This question might be posed in the inverse by many authors in this volume, in order to ask about the parameters of desecularization within our secular age. Given the constitutive nature of my argument, however, I note the interchangeability of the question.

This paper questions the boundaries between the secular and the religious in international affairs. In particular, it assesses how these categories work to produce assumptions about the nature of religious and secular beliefs and actions, and whether they provide adequate conceptual space to capture the kinds of practices and understandings of contemporary religious humanitarians. The boundaries between the religious and the secular are often assumed to be fixed, although the contributions to this volume demonstrate that they are anything but. I draw on in-depth interviews of activists from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on humanitarianism broadly-conceived in Central and East Africa, the Middle East, and New York, to analyze the implications of contemporary religious/secular intersections for international affairs. The interpretations and actions that result often can be construed as inherently “religious” or inherently “secular.” I argue that religious ethics and action in a secular world, or secular ethics and action in a religious world, are constitutive constructs. They rework each other constantly, but the intersection of local contexts with global discourses and practices, including those of the “war on terror” and the liberal market, produces trends which can be identified and analyzed.

The “global war on terror,” for example, conditions religious/secular boundaries in local contexts, and vice versa. Western policy-makers assert that the rise of radical Islam necessitated the global war on terror (GWOT); critics assert that the war on terror exacerbated the rise of radical Islam. Meanwhile, mosques remain important arenas for the articulation of ethics and the provision of social welfare in ways that do not necessarily fit the categories of either “radical” or “moderate.” As a counterpoint, GWOT practices shape the discourses of Muslim humanitarian NGO activists who seek validation and funding from Western donors.

Liberal market economic practices also condition how religious actors conceptualize their work as well as which issues they prioritize. Religious as well as secular NGOs refer to their objectives through using a globalized “NGO-speak.” Moreover, discourses of economic efficiency pushed by donor communities in health-related humanitarian fields must be taken into account to understand the hierarchy of issues that religious NGOs seek to address.

Finally, the religious/secular binary is problematic in dealing with the varieties of syncretism produced by the intersection of “traditional” and “world” religions. Weberian predictions that traditions based on “magic” would give way to “rationalized” world religions have not come to pass. Instead, technology and science intersect with human rights and tradition to create enduring and dynamic relationships between local and world religions. These relationships continue to highlight the unstable nature of distinctions among religious traditions, with implications for the religious/secular binary on issues such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.

Suggested Citation

Lynch, Cecelia, Religious Humanitarianism and the Global Politics of Secularism (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Cecelia Lynch (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine ( email )

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics