The role and relationship between religion, peace and conflict is a contentious and polarising subject, attracting a wide array of arguments and contrasting opinion, often grounded in popular belief rather than empirical fact.
Research from IEP shows that religion can facilitate greater peace and can have a positive role in peacebuilding.
While increased terrorist activity by organisations including Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al-Qaida have driven down levels of global peace, and the religious aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict are major factors of a seemingly intractable conflict, there are many religious leaders who have played significant roles in shaping peace, including Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Research by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) outlines two ways in which religion can encourage peace – through the common benefits of group membership and the power of interfaith dialogue for conflict resolution.
Membership in groups is a form of social capital, where social capital is generally associated with better performance in peace. Social capital here refers to networks and shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups. Providing that a country is tolerant, greater religious membership can foster these shared values, and have a positive impact on a country’s peace.
IEP research into the pillars of Positive Peace found that civic engagement and participation is associated with gains in peace. In particular, group membership can lead to improvements in the pillar Good relations with Neighbors – the relations between individuals and communities as well as crossborder relations. IEP has also found that countries with positive external relations are more peaceful and tend to be more politically stable, have better functioning governments, and are regionally integrated.
Interfaith dialogue is a growing area of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the 20th and 21st centuries. As a peacebuilding approach, it helped to resolve the US Civil Rights movement and the reconciliation efforts at the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Lesser known efforts include the intervention of an imam and pastor in Yelwa Shendam, Nigeria and supporting the end of conflict in Sierra Leone via the Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone.
Religions for Peace, a key player in interfaith dialogue, was instrumental in this last effort. The organisation works globally with hundreds to affiliates to address challenges and advance multi-religious action.
The likelihood of success is dependent on certain conditions, including the presence of a religious element to the conflict, involvement of religious leaders on both sides of a dispute, religious struggles that transcend national borders, and if delays have impeded a resolution to the conflict.