The Challenge of Analysing Religion, Conflict and Peace


The Challenge of Analysing Religion, Conflict and Peace

07 Nov 2014

As the importance of the role of religion in conflict gains more prominence in the reporting of conflict situations, a new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace investigates the relationship between religion, conflict and peace. We highlight the key findings.

The Institute for Economics and Peace ( IEP) report: Five Questions Answered on the Link Between Peace and Religion was published on 21 October 2014 in conjunction with the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation ( RFBF), an organisation headed by Centre on Religion & Geopolitics Advisory Council member Brian J. Grim.

The report presents empirical evidence research conducted by the IEP, which aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of how religion interacts with peace. In doing this, the report endeavored to answer the following five questions:

  • Question 1: Is religion the main cause of conflict today?
  • Question 2: Does the proportion of religious belief or atheism in a country determine the peace of the country?
  • Question 3: In Muslim countries, does the demographic spread of Sunni and Shia determine peace?
  • Question 4: Is religion key to understanding what drives peace?
  • Question 5: Can religion play a positive role in peacebuilding? 

Very few empirical studies exist on the link between religion, conflict and peace.

For the IEP report, a list of questions were drawn from the most common themes of discussion and opinions expressed in the media, but the report makes clear that even though research highlights key relationships between peace and religion, it also provides opportunities for further research. It also noted that there are very few global cross-country statistical analyses to empirically link religion, conflict and peace.

At a time when the role of religion in conflict is being analysed more than ever before, and with society asking more questions on what the causes are of conflicts such as those in Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, and with the advance of groups such as ISIS, the report comes at a key moment. At the Centre Religion & Geopolitics we have been looking actively at the role of religion in conflict situations around the world, and the IEP report plays an important part in opening up the debate on the perception of peace, religion and conflict.

The report is based on the findings from the Escola de Cultura de Pau Alert 2014 (The School of Peace Culture), which lists 35 armed conflict situations around the world, as well as the Global Peace Index (GPI), two Pew Research Indices on government restrictions of religious practices and social hostilities, the World Religion Project, the World Values Survey and the Religious Diversity Index.

The Escola de Cultura de Pau Alert 2014 on conflict situations is largely based on qualitative analysis of reports and news items provided by sources such as the United Nations, international bodies, research centres, media outlets or NGOs, among others, as well as from the experience drawn from research on the ground. It also worth noting that there are a number of other authoritative and well respected organisations who each year log and analyse the number of conflict situations around the world, including the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The findings from the IEP act as a real starting point for determining and analysing the role of religion in conflict situations around the world to create a better understanding of why these conflicts occur. The report quite rightly highlights levels of religious belief, restrictions and hostilities alongside important socio-economic factors. What this substantial report does is to open up the debate further on what is meant by a religious conflict and how we can evaluate religious elements of conflict.

By combining analysis such as this and from others, including the work of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we can explore current conflict situations and their various components comprehensibly and succinctly without ever simplifying the situation.

Key Findings: Five Questions on Peace and Religion

Question 1: Is religion the main cause of conflict today?

Religion is not the main cause of conflict today. Of the 35 armed conflicts that took place in 2013, only 14% were motivated by religion alone.

Question 2: Does the proportion of religious belief or atheism in a country determine the peace of the country?

Statistical analysis shows there is no link between religious belief and conflict. Of the world's ten most peaceful countries, three are highly religious.

Question 3: Does the demographic spread of Sunni and Shia affect peace?

Many Muslim-majority countries with Sunni and Shia demographic mixes are relatively peaceful.  Qatar, the most peaceful country in the Middle East according to the Global Peace Index, has the same proportion of Sunni to Shia as one of the world's least peaceful countries: Afghanistan.

Question 4: Is religion key to understanding what drives peace?

Other factors such as corruption and inequality have a greater impact on levels of peace than religious traits. However the two religious characteristics that are positively associated with peace are: fewer restrictions on religious behaviour and lower hostility towards religion.

Question 5: Can religion play a positive role in peacebuilding?

Countries that have higher membership of religious groups tend to be slightly more peaceful. Religion can provide a basis for inclusion and social cohesion, which strengthen the bonds between citizens and creates a more peaceful society.

Key Findings: Detailed
  • Many countries with Sunni and Shia demographic mixes are relatively peaceful such as Qatar and Kuwait. The main factors which differ between peaceful coexistence and non-peaceful coexistence relate to well functioning governments, lower levels of corruption and better relations with neighbouring countries.
  • Factors associated with Positive Peace, the broader set of attitudes, institutions and structures have a greater explanatory power for the level of peace than simply the demographic split between Sunni and Shia.
  • Factors other than religious differences are more significant in determining levels of peace. These factors are corruption, political terror, gender and economic inequality as well as political instability. Statistically speaking religion has only limited explanatory power for outbreaks of violence.
  • Countries with greater religious freedoms are generally more peaceful, whereas countries with less religious freedom are generally less peaceful.
  • The most influential factor affecting religious freedom is the government type. Full democracies are the most peaceful and have the greatest level of religious freedom, regardless of the type of religious belief or various religious characteristics.
  • The most peaceful countries are not necessarily the least religious, and the least peaceful countries are not necessarily highly religious.
  • There is not a statistically meaningful relationship between the levels of atheism or religious belief in a country and its levels of peace.
  • Four out of the ten countries with the highest levels of atheism are less peaceful than the global average.
  • Other than New Zealand, countries with high levels of atheism are communist or ex-communist countries.
  • Two thirds of countries in the world have greater than 95 per cent of the population holding a religious belief. Therefore high levels of religious belief can be found at either end of the GPI.
  • Of the ten most peaceful countries in the 2013 GPI, only two countries have greater than ten per cent atheists. These countries are New Zealand and Belgium.
  • The twenty-first century has not been marked by the clash of civilisations but rather intra-group conflict. Of the 15 armed conflicts motivated in part by Islamist groups in 2013, all but five occurred in countries where Muslims were in the majority.
  • Many of the least peaceful countries do not have high levels of religious diversity.

The report can be read in full here.

The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics features a number of the publications cited in this report on our data section

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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The Institute for Economics and Peace