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"God and Political Science"

Egyptian anti-government protesters, make traditional Muslim Friday prayers at the continuing demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.
AP Photo

"God and Political Science"

Op-Ed, Public Discourse

May 16, 2011

Authors: Timothy Samuel Shah, Daniel Philpott, Monica Duffy Toft, Former Associate Professor of Public Policy; Former Board Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Former Director, Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Religion in International Affairs


The view of global politics taught by political scientists is the poorest possible preparation for the era of global politics in which we now live. As we address central geopolitical challenges, we must delve into the details of religion and religious actors. The first in a three-part series.


As PhD students in political science at Harvard some twenty years ago, two of us (Shah and Philpott) had to take an introductory course on comparative world politics, and the first book we distinctly remember reading in that course was The Passing of Traditional Society, by Daniel Lerner. This was a classic, highly influential study of the coming of modernity—modern values, modern education, modern organizations—and how the juggernaut of modernity was inexorably, inevitably revolutionizing the traditional societies and cultures of the Middle East. Reading that book in the early 1990s, we vividly recall Lerner's sweeping conclusion about what modernity would mean for religion and traditional culture and for Islam. He concluded that Islam in the Middle East is "absolutely defenseless" in the face of the rationalist and positivist spirit of modernity. The modernization, urbanization, and industrialization of Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East would inevitably bring the secularization of Egypt and the countries of the Middle East.

We don't know exactly how many of our graduate school classmates went on to work in the State Department or the Defense Department or the Rand Corporation or the White House or Capitol Hill. We don't know exactly how many of them went on to study and teach Middle East politics to other people, including people who would then go on to work in the State Department or the Defense Department or the Rand Corporation or the White House or Capitol Hill. But we know that some of them went on to jobs in government, and some of them went on to jobs as professors of political science at major universities. But wherever they went, the view of global politics in which they were immersed—in which we were immersed—was, we're sorry to say, the poorest possible preparation for the era of global politics in which we now live—the era we call "God's Century" in our new book by that name: God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics....

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Part 2 of this series, "God and Democratic Diplomacy," was published on May 18, 2011.

Part 3 of this series, "God and Terror," was published on May 20, 2011.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Shah, Timothy, Daniel Philpott, and Monica Toft. "God and Political Science." Public Discourse, May 16, 2011.

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