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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds We have just seen some of the dominant views about the relation between religion and conflict in popular discourse. But what do scholars say? Even in the field of political studies, since 9/11, you’ll hardly find anyone who claims that religion is inessential to conflicts between groups of different religious affiliations. Where specialists differ is in their answers to the question, to what extent religion is the primary cause of such conflicts. The dividing line here runs between those who identify a number of core features that make religion prone to generating conflicts, and those who state that such characteristics are not exclusive to religion, but can be found in other world views, as well.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 second Arguments that see the potential danger of religion to get embroiled in violent confrontations can be categorised in three overlapping types. According to these arguments, religion is inclined to lead to violent conflicts because it is absolutist, divisive, and irrationalist. Let’s first look at the view that religion is absolutist. Here, the argument is that the motivation to confront adversaries, rather than negotiate with them, lies in the absolute truth claims of religion. These truth claims sharply demarcate between good and evil. It is particularly the transcendent nature of religious truth claims that allow for no compromise. Therefore, when social struggles get interpreted in terms of religion, they become larger than life and are translated into cosmic war.

Skip to 2 minutes and 5 seconds That is, divine battles between truth and evil. Another effect is that a worldly dispute becomes salient in a most personal way. What is at stake is the ultimate salvation of those who fight for the cause of God. Secondly, religion as divisive. Religion not only suggests clear cut distinctions between good and evil, but also between us and them. Arguments that emphasise the divisive nature of religion point to its capacity to offer strong exclusive identities. Religious symbols, rituals, and discourses have the power to create a strong sense of communion between those who share them. Also, religions provide believers with a sense of sacred privilege. The idea of belonging to the chosen ones elevates the believers above all others.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds This self perception then leads religious groups to draw sharp lines around themselves, and to negatively speak of others. Thirdly, there is the argument about religion as irrational. Advocates of this view emphasise the wide divide between religiously organised groups and those who stand in the rationalist tradition of the Western Enlightenment. Scholars who hold this view argue that religious faith differs from other commitments, because the rules and directives of religion are understood by the faithful to transcend ordinary socialising interactions. Therefore, ordinary logic and judgement simply do not apply. The religious logics and moralities that govern decision making in strongly religious communities is beyond scientific and rational understanding.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds The supposedly non-rational or irrational character of religion has several implications that might lead to violent conflicts. First of all, religion calls for blind obedience to God. Believers are taught to subordinate their personal desires to religious traditions and regulations. Therefore, they can easily be persuaded to fight for religious battles, even if it goes against their own welfare. Secondly, since a transcendent reality takes precedence over issues in the empirical world, the aim to realise ideal time justifies any means to get there. Believers can easily turn into zealous fanatics who go to extreme ends to fight a holy war. This is all the more dangerous since, thirdly, believers may be motivated to fight for the divine cause against all odds.

Skip to 5 minutes and 16 seconds It may not even matter to them that winning a battle in real time is pointless from a rational point of view, since they are convinced that they will ultimately be rewarded in afterlife. To sum up, we have so far looked at two opposite answers to the question, whether religion has an intrinsic tendency to cause conflicts and violence. On one hand, there are scholars point to specific characteristics or warning signs that they consider to be unique to religion. Warning signs affirming that yes, indeed, religion is more prone to conflict and violence than other ideologies. On the other hand, there are scholars who reject this substantive view of religion.

Skip to 6 minutes and 5 seconds They argue that under specific circumstances, people are ready to kill or die for other ideologies as well. The third, intermediate, position is that of scholars who argue that religion is not innocent. They argue that by providing models to create order, stability, and harmony, religion does not usually cause conflicts. Religion promises the ultimate victory of good over evil, and of eternal life over death. However, precisely because of this unique transcendent dimension of religious discourses, conflicts over interests can intensify when framed in religious terms. Religious discourses provide tools to conceive of earthly struggles in terms of evil that must be destroyed.

Skip to 7 minutes and 6 seconds Also the conviction that eternal life will conquer death may convince believers that death on earth can be controlled by sacrificing one’s own life, or that of others. Therefore, religion is not innocent. So it offers tools to paradigms that preach peace and tolerance, as well as to paradigms that preach struggle and destruction. Moreover, more strongly than other world views, religions consist of a rich repertoire powerful symbols, rituals, and stories that can be tapped to create highly personal meanings, as well as shared understandings and bonding between individuals and groups.

Skip to 7 minutes and 56 seconds To sum up, scholars who point to the ambivalence of religion– that is, the capacity of religion to provide models for order and peace, and models for battle and sacrifice– those scholars argue that religion has no intrinsic tendency to cause conflict and violence. However, in a particular set of circumstances, political, social, or economic conflicts can intensify when framed in terms of religion by at least one of the parties involved.

Scholarly understandings of the link

This video focuses on scholars’ views on the question to what extent religion is the primary cause of conflicts between religious groups.

One line of arguments states that religion is inclined to lead to violent conflict because it is absolutist, divisive, and irrationalist. Another states that these features are not specific to religion, but can also be found in other worldviews. A third line of arguments is centered around the idea that religion offers tools to understand earthly conflicts in terms of absolute evil that needs to be destroyed.

Up for debate

Things to consider while watching this video:

  • What are the overlapping themes that lead some to assume religion causes or is inherently violent?
  • What are some of the implicit assumptions about religion that might lead to this framing?
  • What influences how we frame issues like this?

Close to the end of the video (at 7.34) Marjo Buitelaar states that, ‘more strongly than other world views, religions consist of a rich repertoire powerful symbols, rituals, and stories that can be tapped to create highly personal meanings, as well as shared understandings and bonding between individuals and groups.’ Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Please explain your answer.

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Religion and Conflict

University of Groningen

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