In a survey released last week by U. S. News and World Report, over 21,000 people from all regions of the world most commonly rated religion as the “primary source of global conflict today.” Individuals identified power, economic factors, and political beliefs less frequently.

Of course, the fact that survey respondents believe religion drives global conflict more than any other factor doesn’t mean it actually does. However, the survey does raise questions of how religion may contribute to conflict and what could be done within religions to better promote peace.

The famed personality psychologist Gordon Allport first explored these questions over 50 years ago. Allport made the critical observation that religious people vary considerably in how they approach religion. He further hypothesized that those seeking to use their religion for secondary gain are more likely to be prejudiced, but “true believers” who internalize their religion and seek to live it out in daily life are less likely. Decades of research generally supports this view.

More recent research, however, suggests there may be intrinsic aspects of religion that can promote conflict. In one study, participants told that a passage condoning violence came from the Bible were more likely to be violent in a competitive reaction time task than those told it came from an ancient scroll. In a follow-up study, individuals told that the passage was sanctioned by God were more violent than those who have withheld that information. The second study also showed a significant interaction between variables: those who believed in God and the Bible were more likely to be violent when they read about God sanctioning the violence in a passage than when it withheld that information. The researchers speculated by noting that “to the extent that religious extremists engage in prolonged, selective reading of the scriptures, focusing on violent retribution toward unbelievers instead of the overall message of acceptance and understanding, one might expect to see increased brutality.”

Some religious groups are more likely to highlight differences across people, creating a stronger “us” vs. “them” dynamic. In particular, in contrast to inclusive religions emphasizing respect and dialogue with others holding different beliefs, exclusive religions show absolutist beliefs they hold the “one” truth. Sometimes termed “fundamentalists,” exclusivists have internalized something Sacred to them, and this motivates a variety of behaviors, including those intended to persuade and defend against possible threat. Some of these behaviors may incite violence.  

Ben White | Unslash
Source: Ben White | Unslash

Thus, part of what makes religion meaningful to some may also encourage conflict. Some of the most promising developments in religion today attempt to help individuals find both the meaningfulness of strong faith and promote the peace that comes from greater inclusivity.

Paralleling Allport’s distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic faith, Yale Theologian Miroslav Volf distinguishes between “thin” religion and “thick” religion. “Thin” religion, according to Volf, involves a misconstrued, superficial, vague, and formulaic kind of faith that serves “primarily to energize and heal;” it often is influenced by factors outside the faith itself, including national or economic interests. In contrast, “thick” religion “maps a way of life” and connects with an “ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and history… with clear cognitive and moral content.” Ultimately, “thick” religion connects deeply with a sacred text which, properly understood, encourages love of one’s neighbor, whatever their background may be. According to Volf, whereas “thin” religion promotes hatred and violence, “thick” religion encourages peace.

Another example may be found in the writings of theologian Brian McLaren. According to McLaren, there may be a false dichotomy between a hostile, strong faith and a weak, peaceful one. Instead, he argues for a third way, one that blends meaningfulness with peace. He writes: “one can conceive of a high-demand religious movement devoted to justice, freedom, beauty, respect for others, and so on, which could effectively explain to [humankind] without fanaticism, absolutism, intolerance, or judgmental moralism.”

Taking a step back, it may be essential for peace for individuals to prioritize the shared humanity among all people. Human beings possess a need to belong—which can mean individuals will participate in groups that perpetuate “us” vs. “them” distinctions. But, one criterion for which groups of people join and engage is whether these groups extend empathy, compassion, and justice toward others outside the group. If a group fails this benchmark, individuals might do well to find other groups that do. 

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