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Religion in Cooperation and Conflict
Jeffrey R. Seul
Editors’ Note: In the first of two chapters, the author argues that the relationship between religion and conflict is widely oversimplified. Recent and careful social science research has demonstrated that, contrary to the assumptions of some people, religion most often increases its adherents’ ability to relate positively to others—and this can include adherents of another religion or none at all. In contrast, he reviews the research on extreme religious militancy, including the evidence on suicide and other violent attackers, and concludes that the most careful researchers have universally found that these actions are not principally propelled by religion itself, but by other factors. In his next chapter, Seul proceeds to analysis of how religion can help to transform conflict, and how it can be consciously invoked toward that purpose.
Religion and conflict sometimes mix, but perspectives on their relationship tend to be overly simplified. For some, religion is irrational and in tension with modern, liberal notions of democracy and collective problem solving; it is not merely a factor in some conflicts, it is a cause of conflict, and it offers little or nothing in the way of resources for conflict resolution. For others, religion, properly understood, is a benevolent force that promotes personal and collective peace and wellbeing, and all entanglements of religion and conflict stem from perversions of religion or cynical manipulations of it by unscrupulous leaders who are not genuinely religious, but who understand and exploit religion’s capacity to bind and mobilize people. Still others see religion simply as a hopelessly complex, impenetrable mass of traditions, perspectives and social structures; a feature of history and culture that must be superficially understood and acknowledged, but which must largely be quarantined as parties seek a resolution to their conflict in a political, social and conceptual space mostly free of its influence.
This chapter presents a different perspective on the role of religion in both conflict and cooperation, and the potential for transformation of conflicts involving religion. A clearer and more nuanced picture of the ways in which religion and conflict relate, and also how religion promotes cooperation within groups and can contribute to the transformation of conflict between groups, has begun to emerge over the past couple of decades—thanks, in part, to the efforts of a small group of social scientists who have approached these questions with genuine curiosity, largely steering clear of the polemics that too often attend them. This chapter provides an in-depth introduction to this emerging, interdisciplinary field of research. The next chapter, Religious Prosociality for Conflict Transformation, attempts to draw lessons from it, and from the fields of religious studies and conflict resolution, that can be employed to avert, moderate or transform destructive cycles of conflict in which religion is a factor. Violent conflict is the focus of these chapters, but the perspective on religion they present, and the lessons drawn, also are applicable to other types of disputes involving religion.
The Prosocial Character of Religion
Nineteenth and 20th century proclamations that religion was dead or dying are now themselves widely considered deceased. Data compiled by the Pew Research Center indicates that humanity now is approximately 31 percent Christian and 23 percent Muslim. The percentage of Christians is projected to be precisely the same in 2050, while the percentage of Muslims is projected to climb to about 30 percent. If current trends hold, by mid-century about 60 percent of the world’s population will consist of roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, and another 27 percent will identify with other religions. Just 13 percent of the world’s population will be religiously unaffiliated, down from approximately 16 percent today (Pew Research Center 2015). Even many of these unaffiliated people say they hold religious beliefs; for example, 68 percent of unaffiliated adults in the U.S. and 30 percent of unaffiliated adults in France report believing in God or a higher power (Pew Research Center 2012). Following decades of official efforts in the Soviet Union to promote atheism, 82% of Russians identify with one religion or another (Pew Research Center 2014b).
As political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart sum up the data, “[t]here is no evidence of a worldwide decline of religiosity, or of the role of religion in politics” (Norris and Inglehart 2011: 212). Those who are confounded by these trends would do well to consider recent, interdisciplinary research on the prosocial dimensions of religion. A....
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