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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsLast week, in the first lecture, my colleague Kim Knibbe presented an historical overview of the ways scholars have defined the concept of religion. And if you have done the interview assignment, you yourself will have done some research by asking people in your own environment how they define religion. Reflecting on definitions of religion is not just an academic past time for scholars of religion. Categories serve vital purposes. We think through them and through the meanings we assign to them. Insight into the different ways that people can conceive of religion is therefore crucial of what we study in this course-- the relation between religion and conflicts.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 secondsIn the next two lectures, I will discuss how different conceptions of what religion actually is are related to specific views on the relation between religion and conflicts. Many conflicts in the world today are framed in terms of religion. For some, this proves that conflict and violence are inherent to religion. Others hold the view that "true" religion is peaceful. And again, others claim that religious conflicts are always about something else, that religion only serves as a label or a disguise for what are, in fact, socioeconomic and political conflicts. In popular discourse, you will find the proposition that religion spells trouble most often among people who are not religious themselves.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 secondsBelievers may sometimes agree, but usually not without qualifying that it is the religious convictions of others that are potentially violent, not their own. Both views are based on a substantive view of religion, the idea that there is something in the nature or essence of religion as such, in itself, or at least in the nature of certain religions that tends to spark conflict. Those who claim that religiously framed conflicts are always about something else come in two strands. First of all, there are those who conceive of religion as inessential, not worth bothering about other than that it functions as a cloak for other issues.

Skip to 2 minutes and 41 secondsPeople who express such views reason on the basis of a functional definition of religion, that is, the view that religion cannot be defined by a universal substance that all religions share, but as it can only be defined by the functions it may have for a society. For others, religion is so dear and important, that they strive to protect the purity of "true" religion. They may hold the view that while others may abuse religion for their own cause, violence is not what true religion is about. People who take this position, again, have a substantive view of religion, that is, that one can identify some core features that define real religion.

Skip to 3 minutes and 34 secondsIn the next assignment, you are invited to have another look at the street interviews we did in Groningen. In addition to the responses of the people we talked to to the question, what religion is, this time, you will also get to know some answers to the questions, how our respondents conceive of religion and its relation to conflict. Can you recognise substantive and functional views in their answers?

The significance of definition

Insight into the different conceptions of religion is crucial to the study of the relationship between religion and conflict. While some people believe that conflict and violence are inherent to religion, others believe that at least their own religion is essentially peaceful.

This video explains how the functional and the substantive views religion influence our conceptions thereof. The functional view focuses on the function of religion for society. The substantive view aims to identify core features of true religion.


Up for debate

  • How can substantive views be included in fruitful academic discussion?
  • How can people of various religions come together in debate using contrasting substantive views of religion?

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This video is from the free online course:

Religion and Conflict

University of Groningen

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: