As a new study reveals a growth in religious affiliation worldwide, Brian Grim assesses what this means for peace and religious conflict, and the role that religion can play in peacebuilding.
A new global study released today in the journal Demographic Research shows that social scientists were wrong to predict the demise of religion. The study and its related Pew Research report predict a rise in religious affiliation, suggesting that those who have no religious affiliation will fall to 13 per cent of the world's population by 2050, compared to 16 per cent in 2010, even when taking into account the fact that the number of people with no religious affiliation has been growing through religious conversions in North America and Europe.
Those with no religious affiliation are expected to fall to 13% in 2050, compared to 16% in 2010.
This rise in religious affiliation is projected to far outpace declines due to two reasons. First, the median age of religiously affiliated women is six years younger than unaffiliated women, meaning there are many more religiously affiliated women currently in the child-bearing ages. And second, the 2010−15 total fertility rate for religiously affiliated women is 2.59 children per woman, nearly a full child higher than the rate for the unaffiliated (1.65 children per woman).
Most of this growth in religion is in Asia and the developing world, the very same places where religion can be seen to be volatile. Does this portend more conflict, and specifically religious conflict in the future? Perhaps. But it is critical to understand that research shows that religion itself is not the driving factor.
A 2014 study by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in conjunction with the challenges the myth of religious violence. The study found no general causal relationship between religion and conflict when looking at all of the current conflicts in the world.
The most influential factor affecting peace is the government type. Full democracies are the most peaceful regardless of the type of religious belief or various religious characteristics. The study also confirmed previous research showing that freedom of religion or belief is tied to higher levels of peace. And indeed, when religious people are free to do good, they bring powerful resources that can counter violent extremism and promote social advancement.
Surveying the state of 35 armed conflicts in 2013, the study found that religion did not stand as a single cause in any conflict; however 14 per cent of conflicts did have religion and the establishment of an Islamic state as driving causes. More generally, religion was only one of three or more reasons for 67 per cent of the conflicts where religion featured as a factor to the conflict.
However, the study also found that there is no clear statistical relationship between either the presence or the absence of religious belief and conflict. Even at the extremes, the least peaceful countries are not necessarily the most religious and vice versa. For example, when looking at the ten most peaceful countries, three would be described as highly religious, and when looking at the ten least peaceful nations two would be described as the least religious. Conversely, the absence of religious belief, as manifested by atheism, also sees no significant link to broader societal peacefulness.
This study did, however, acknowledge that sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims is a major feature of conflicts in the Middle East today. But it also highlights that such conflicts are not inevitable. When reviewed globally, countries with high proportions of Sunni and Shia Muslims are not necessarily violent or plagued with conflict. What distinguishes Muslim-majority countries is differing performance on other issues related to violence and conflict. Specifically, countries that have lower corruption, a well-functioning government and better relations with neighbours are more peaceful regardless of the particular levels of Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Analysis reveals that there is a consistent relationship between factors such as corruption, political terror, gender and economic inequality and political instability which determine poor peace scores as measured by the Global Peace Index. The research clearly indicates that these factors are globally more significant determinants in driving violence and conflict in society than the presence of religious belief.
There are however some religious factors that are significantly related to peace. In particular, the study notes that religious freedom, when protected by governments and respected in societies, leads to peace. This relationship was first expounded in (Cambridge University Press, 2011). The book convincingly demonstrated the restriction of freedom of religion or belief most directly leads to religious violence and persecution, not other factors such as Huntington's civilisation divides.
Important to acknowledge the positive role of religion in peacebuilding.
While a lot of analysis may focus on the negative role of religion it is important to acknowledge the potential positive role of religion in peacebuilding through inter-faith dialogue and other religiously-motivated movements. The study also found that countries that had higher membership of religious groups tended to be slightly more peaceful.
Religion can also be the motivator or catalyst for bringing about peace through ending conflict as well as helping to build strong social cohesion. Furthermore, religion can act as a form of social cohesion and, like membership of other groups, greater involvement in society can strengthen the bonds between citizens strengthening the bonds of peace.
One promising venture along these lines is a new initiative that is setting out to counter radicalisation by interfaith outreach that aims to counter hate and intolerance with love and understanding, drawing on the very radical religious suggestion in the Good Samaritan story that we should love our neighbors. And in the case of that parable, the Samaritan neighbor is a foreigner with a foreign religion. Indeed, some radical religious ideas are very peaceful.