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Religious Prosociality for
Jeffrey R. Seul
Editors’ Note: In the second of two chapters on religion and conflict, Seul reviews the research on religious prosociality, and the ability of religion to help people relate positively to others, and to help resolve conflict. He offers examples of specific strategies to encourage cooperative behavior when working with religious stakeholders in a conflict.
As we saw in the previous chapter, The Role of Religion in Cooperation and Conflict, religious beliefs and practices help bind people together in groups, and groups sometimes compete. Yet the prosocial features of our religions that help groups form and develop strong internal bonds also can and do help build bridges between people from different groups. Most contemporary conflict resolution theory and practice focused on conflicts that involve religion, particularly the work of religious peacebuilding scholars and practitioners, has given little or no attention to social scientific research on religious prosociality and what it tells us about the ways in which religion is and is not entangled with conflict and how it can and does contribute to conflict transformation.
The contemporary (and still largely Western) academic field of religious peacebuilding, one key strain of which is about religious actors working to prevent or end violent conflicts, has grown rapidly over the past two decades, both in terms of theory development and in terms of number and scope of applied activities. This growth was sparked, in part, by the publication in 1994 of Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Johnson and Sampson 1994) the first in-depth study in the modern West of religion’s potential to contribute positively to official and unofficial diplomacy in the context of contemporary international relations. This was the year after Samuel Huntington’s article The Clash of Civilizations? appeared in Foreign Affairs (Huntington 1993). That article and the book (Huntington 1996) that followed it tend to characterize religion as essentialist, reified, and conflict generating. The field’s growth began to accelerate in 2000, with the publication of Scott Appleby’s The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation and Marc Gopin’s Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking.
While violence in the name of God grabs headlines, many religious actors are working quietly to avert or end conflict, whether or not it involves religion, and to promote peace in other ways (Smock 2001; Hayward 2012)—as, indeed, they have been doing for millennia. According to one study published in 2011, religious actors had played a mediating role in the vast majority of post-Cold War peace processes designed to end civil wars (21 of 25), playing a very direct and decisive mediating role in over half of these cases (11). Well-known examples include the successful mediation efforts by the Roman Catholic Community of Sant’Edigio and the work of Muslims and Christians through the Interfaith Mediation Center to reduce conflict in Nigeria. They also played significant roles in many of the reconciliation and transitional justice cases examined (Toft, Philpott and Shah 2011). There is resurgent interest among researchers and policymakers in religion as a positive force in international affairs, including interest in “very non-political notions such as reconciliation, forgiveness, healing of relations, and apology . . . connected with religious world views” that are increasingly “included in contemporary discourse on [international relations]” (Kulska 2015). Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserts that religious organizations “have more resources, more skilled personnel, a longer attention span, more experience, more dedication and more success in fostering reconciliation than any government” (Albright 2006: 77).
Religions obviously have resources (texts, norms, rituals, etc.) that can be used to justify and promote cooperation or conflict (Appleby 2000; Gopin 2000; Seul 2006: 323-334). While resources that more readily can be used to promote cooperation often are deployed to expand and strengthen bonds within religious groups, and resources that more readily can be used to justify conflict sometimes are deployed to maintain and defend the boundaries of religious groups, examples of....
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