Interview: Christopher Douglas on ‘Religion and Fake News’

Religion and Fake News cover

In January 2018 CIRIS released a fascinating new report by Prof Chris Douglas on religion and fake news. The report explores the religious dimension of fake news in both Europe and the United States and offers recommendations for how policymakers and other leaders can fight back against faith-based fake news.

Christopher Douglas teaches American literature and religion at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He wrote the report for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy, which CIRIS serves as secretariat.

(Click here for a version of the report with hyperlinks rather than endnotes.)

In this interview, members of the CIRIS team engage Prof Douglas on several of the issues raised in his report.


CIRIS: In your report you identify three asymmetries when it comes to religion and fake news in the US and Europe. What are those asymmetries and why do they matter?

Douglas: First, in the 2016-17 elections, fake news circulated more among Americans than Europeans. Second, fake news circulates among conservatives more than liberals. Third, fake news targeting conservatives often features religious themes.

In my paper I try to figure out why those asymmetries exist. I hypothesize that part of the explanation is the history in the U.S. of a particular faith tradition – white Christian fundamentalism – that cultivated skepticism to mainstream sources of knowledge like universities and professional journalism. This faith tradition didn’t just oppose modern knowledge – it cultivated institutions of counter-expertise to oppose ideas like evolution, Bible criticism, and now climate change.

CIRIS: You argue that the “alternative information ecosystem” of conservative American Protestant evangelicalism has made that community particularly vulnerable to fake news. And yet all religious communities create, at least to some extent, their own distinctive institutions that reinforce their belief systems. Why have American evangelicals proven more vulnerable than, say, American Catholics?

Douglas: Conservative American Protestant evangelicals – or, more narrowly, fundamentalists – contested two academic ideas that have generally been accepted by Catholics and mainline Protestants. The fundamentalist tradition was born in opposition to the science of evolution and to the historical-critical method of Biblical criticism, especially as they accelerated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These bodies of modern expertise are officially and generally (to the extent they are understood) accepted by American Catholics and mainline Protestant churches.

What makes American fundamentalism distinct is its construction of a significant network of counter-expertise supporting its theological views on creationism and the inerrant, literal Word of God. Christian fundamentalist Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums, websites, and campus ministries, together formed an infrastructure of institutions that resisted elite, secular expert knowledge. This extensive network has no sizable analogue in other Western countries.

CIRIS: For decades religious conservatives have rebuked secular liberals for replacing objective truth with subjectivism and relativism. Now it seems the script has flipped. How did we end up in this odd historical situation where those proclaiming a commitment to truth are falling for fake news and relativists are preaching the importance of objective truth? 

Continue reading

CIRIS Research Associate Tobias Müller Contributes Chapter to Report on Muslims in Europe

13 July 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Tobias Müller recently contributed a chapter in a report on Muslims in the UK and Europe published by the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. Müller’s chapter, ‘Constructing Islam and Secularism in the German Islam Conference,’ argues that beyond the intentions expressed by government officials, the aims of the Conference and the expectations towards Muslims prescribe major restructuring measures of the Muslim community, cooperation with security agencies, and alignment with an undetermined set of “German values.” The full report, co-edited by Paul Anderson and Julian Hargreaves, presents papers from a symposium the Centre for Islamic Studies held in May 2016.

CIRIS Research Associate Edits Special Journal Issue on Religion and Violence

2 May 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Matthew Rowley recently edited a collection of essays for the journal Transformation. The special issue, coedited with Dr Emma Wild-Wood, focuses on religion, hermeneutics and violence. Central to each essay is the relationship between readers, texts, and killing. Key questions addressed in the volume include:

  • What causes religious violence? 
  • What is the relationship between beliefs, texts and violence done in the name of God? 
  • How should one respond to historical violence within their own tradition? 
  • How should one respond to acts of violence performed by those in another faith community? 
  • How are harmful beliefs formed and what can be done to prevent believers from doing the unbelievable? 

Rowley contributed two articles to the collection. The co-authored introductory article summarises ‘the state of modern scholarship on key debates concerning religion and violence, [and] encourages the careful study of how individuals or groups in peculiar historical circumstances interact with their sacred texts and beliefs in a way that facilitates violence or oppression’.

Rowley’s second article examines how people come to ‘inhabit’ a particular sacred text and frame their violence through that text. As case studies, the article looks at individual violence (child sacrifice), communal violence (conquest), and eschatologically oriented violence (cosmic war). It ‘examines one common practice among many who believe their killing pleases or is willed by God—inhabiting biblical texts. Focusing on the Abrahamic and Mosaic narratives and on eschatology, [it explains] part of the process whereby individuals and groups come to believe that they are participating in killing patterned on or prophesied in scripture. Finally, this article [suggests] a scripture-based approach aimed at moving an individual or group away from the harmful habitation of sacred texts’.


  1. ‘Religion, Hermeneutics and Violence: An Introduction’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley and Emma Wild-Wood).
  2. ‘The Use of Violent Biblical Texts by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda’ (Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala).
  3. ‘Early Modern Religious Violence and the Dark Side of Church History’ (John Coffey). 
  4. ‘Christian Responses to Islamism and Violence in the Name of Islam’ (Colin Chapman).
  5. ‘Child Sacrifice, Conquest and Cosmic War: On the Harmful Habitation of Biblical Texts’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley).
  6. ‘Christian Hermeneutics and Narratives of War in the Carolingian Empire’ (Robert A.H. Evans).

Sage has made articles 1, 3 and 4 open access.

CIRIS Commissions Report on the Marrakesh Declaration

cover3 Oct. 2016 – CIRIS has co-published a new report with the US Institute of Peace (USIP) on the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities. The report explores how policymakers and practitioners can further the aims of this seminal declaration.

Susan Hayward, director of Religion and Inclusive Societies at USIP, authored the report and presented it to the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy at the network’s consultation in Washington in June 2016. Hayward attended the January 2016 conference in Marrakesh that produced the Declaration and has closely monitored its impact and implementation.

Summary from the front page of the report:

  • In recent years, ethnic and religious minorities around the world have faced new threats due to the rise of violent extremist groups and exclusionary nationalist movements. In areas where movements associated with the self-declared Islamic State operate, religious minorities have been treated with particular brutality.
  • Motivated, in part, by concern for this reality, over three hundred Islamic scholars, politicians, and activists, as well as a small group of interfaith observers, gathered in Morocco in January 2016 to affirm the rights of minorities living in Muslim-majority contexts.
  • The conference’s Marrakesh Declaration and the legal framework that informs it draw from Islamic tradition, particularly the seventh century Charter of Medina, to affirm equal citizenship as an Islamic principle and traditional form of governance prescribed by Prophet Muhammad.
  • The Marrakesh Declaration is a powerful response to a pressing global human rights concern and a model for how religious tradition and international human rights law can be mutually reinforcing. This initiative can serve as a powerful resource for legitimizing and advocating for minority rights and equal citizenship more broadly within the Muslim world.
  • Its true test of impact will be in its implementation—the extent to which the ideals, principles, and actions envisioned in the Declaration can spread beyond its purview as an elite enterprise to ignite and mobilize a broad-based movement for social, legal, and political change.
  • Those from non-Muslim majority contexts wishing to support the Marrakesh Declaration must be careful not to undermine its legitimacy as a Muslim-led initiative, particularly in contexts where minority rights and religious freedom have historically been used as pretext for colonialism and Christian missionizing.

Birdsall co-authors new report on transatlantic cooperation on religious freedom

FORB report coverCIRIS managing director Judd Birdsall has co-authored a new policy report on FoRB – Recognising our Differences can be Our Strength: Enhancing Transatlantic Cooperation on Promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief. The briefing is the outcome of two 2015 transatlantic policy dialogues on ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief and Foreign Policy’, one at Wilton Park in the United Kingdom in February 2015 and the other at Georgetown University in the United States in October 2015. The project was funded by a ‘Bridging Voices’ grant from the British Council awarded to the University of Sussex and the University of Notre Dame, in partnership with the European University Institute and the University of Milan. The final report was co-authored by Judd Birdsall, Fabio Petito, Dan Philpott, and Silvio Ferrari.

The Policy Brief suggests a shift in policy emphasis and put forward 7 key recommendations to enhance transatlantic cooperation on the promotion of FoRB worldwide:

1.Draw upon transatlantic church-state differences as an asset
2 ‘IRF’ vs ‘FoRB’ – Be mindful of the subtle differences in language
3 Seek collaboration between ‘religious freedom’ and ‘religious engagement’
4 Upgrading the listening mode – enhance knowledge of and training on FoRB
5 Build coalitions and new multilateral strategies to engage FoRB violators
6 Bolster the nascent multinational and transnational FoRB networks
7 Share stories of struggling with religious diversity


For media or other enquiries on the Policy Brief, please contact

In Europe:
Dr Fabio Petito
Department of International Relations
School of Global Studies
University of Sussex, UK

In North America:
Professor Daniel Philpott
Center for Civil and Human Rights
University of Notre Dame, USA

CIRIS’s Tobias Müller’s MPhil Thesis on ‘Contemporary Islamic Thinkers’ Understandings of Secularism’ Now Available

CIRIS research associate Tobias Müller’s Cambridge University MPhil thesis on Contemporary Islamic Thinkers’ Understandings of Secularism is now available online. Müller’s abstract summarises the thesis this way:

Tobias MPhil cover“The public and academic debate on the relation between Islam and secularism has been forcefully revived since 9/11 and the “Arab Spring”. Especially essentialist and monolithic depictions by Western scholars have claimed the incompatibility of Islam with secularism as a prerequisite for democracy. Another strand of literature claims that evidence of Islam’s democratic essence (Esposito and Voll 1994) offers a wide variety of indigenous Islamic concepts and institutions such as Shura (consultation), ijmaʿ (consensus) and ijtihad (independent reasoning) that provide a tradition with strong reasons for Muslims to adopt “modern” democratic principles and even to a secular state organization. However, these accounts of the “secular potential” in Islam often ignore the conceptual differences and contexts when Islamic thinkers talk about secularism. Moreover, secularism is often only dealt with as a universal by-product or precondition for democracy rather than a distinct multidimensional discursive element. This essay contributes to filling this gap by analysing the understandings of secularism of two eminent contemporary Muslim thinkers, Rachid Ghannouchi and Abdolkarim Soroush. Informed by Dallmayr’s framework of “Comparative Political Theory”, this essay demonstrates that both Ghannouchi and Soroush argue in favour of democracy in Muslim societies with a certain degree of secularism in the sense of a primacy of popular collective decisions over religious rules. Both their visions meet the criteria of Stepan’s “twin tolerations” and thereby prove the possibility of an Islamic doctrinal argument in favour of secularism. However, it is only possible to apprehend their understandings of secularism by relating it to their conceptualizations of modernity and democracy in the postcolonial situation.”

CIRIS’s Judd Birdsall Publishes Recommendations on Religion and Diplomacy for Next US President

CIRIS managing director Judd Birdsall has published an article entitled ‘Keep the Faith: How American Diplomacy Got Religion, and How to Keep It‘ in the summer 2016 issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

In his article, Birdsall argues that “any discussion of post-Obama U.S. international religious freedom (IRF) policy needs to acknowledge two basic structural realities. First, the State Department’s IRF Office is arguably the strongest and healthiest it has ever been. Second, the State Department as a whole is more institutionally attentive to religion than at any time in living memory. The next administration will have the duty and opportunity to consider afresh where IRF fits—conceptually, practically, and bureaucratically—within the State Department’s greatly expanded architecture for religion and diplomacy.”

The full summer 2016 issue of the journal, with its collection of essays on “Faith, Freedom, and Foreign Policy: Recommendations for the Next President,” is available here.


CIRIS’s Pasquale Annicchino Contributes to New Report on Religious Freedom

CIRIS senior research associate Pasquale Annicchino is featured in a new conference report on religious freedom published by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The report, International Religious Freedom: Toward a Model of Transatlantic Cooperation, offers a transcript of an 8 October 2015 conference at Georgetown University. Dr Annicchino’s contributions can be found on pages 38-53.

Annicchino is a Research Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He has been adjunct professor of law at Brigham Young University Law School and a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium).

Birdsall in Washington Post: ‘Donald Trump would enrage Christianity’s earliest followers’

(Note: this article was originally published online at the Washington Post on 26 Jan. 2016)


Donald Trump has recently taken flak for a botched reference to “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University, where he pledged to “protect Christianity,” but he might consider reading the book of Acts, where he’ll find characters who display Trump-style attitudes and tactics. I’m referring not to the apostles, mind you, but to their persecutors.

(Note to Trump: Acts is the New Testament, right after the four Gospels. It’s about the dramatic advance of Christianity against many obstacles; it’s a book for winners! And with 28 chapters, it’s much bigger than Second Corinthians. It’s huuuge!)

While feigning Christian devotion, Trump has become a religious demagogue of truly biblical proportions.

Such is the power of The Donald these days that during my pastor’s recent sermon on Paul and Silas in Philippi in Acts 16, all I could think about was how well the passage offers a first century version of Trump’s brand of petty scapegoating and ugly nationalism — even packaged with the same cowardly use of plausible deniability.

Continue reading at the Washington Post

CIRIS Releases Report on Eastern Christianity and Ukraine

11 Jan. 2016 – CIRIS is pleased to announce the release of a new policy report by Aston University’s Lucian Leustean, Eastern Christianity and Politics. In the report, Leustean explores the tensions within Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly with reference to the geopolitical situation in Ukraine, as the world anticipates an historic synod of the Orthodox Church in 2016.

Screen shot 2016-01-11 at 10.05.36 AMThis report was commissioned by CIRIS on behalf of the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD). CIRIS’s role as the secretariat for the TPNRD is a partnership with George Mason University and is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Lucian Leustean is a Reader in Politics and International Relations at Aston University where he has been teaching since 2007. From 2011 to 2014, he was the Associate Dean for Postgraduate Programmes in the School of Languages and Social Sciences. He studied international relations, law and theology in Bucharest and completed his PhD at the London School of Economics. 

News & Events

24th Apr 2018

CIRIS Research Associate Leor Zmigrod Publishes Paper on Psychology of Brexit Voting

CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Leor Zmigrod has published a paper on the psychological processes that give rise to nationalistic ideologies in the context of the United Kingdom’s 2016 EU Referendum. The research identified cognitive information processing styles that contribute towards support for Brexit and opposition to immigration and free movement of labour. Specifically, the findings […]



21st Feb 2018

Interview: Christopher Douglas on ‘Religion and Fake News’

In January 2018 CIRIS released a fascinating new report by Prof Chris Douglas on religion and fake news. The report explores the religious dimension of fake news in both Europe and the United States and offers recommendations for how policymakers and other leaders can fight back against faith-based fake news. Christopher Douglas teaches American literature and […]


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