Expert Commentary

Religion and intergroup conflict: Findings from the Global Group Relations Project

2013 study by Arizona State University in Psychological Science exploring how the degree to which religion permeates groups interacts with incompatibility of values and the competition for resources.

Research has shown that religious beliefs can play a helpful role in the lives of individuals and communities. Potential benefits can include greater self-control and more prosocial behavior such as volunteering and charitable giving. When it comes to relationships between different groups, however, religion frequently serves more to divide than unite, despite efforts to use faith as a peace-building tool. Indeed, religion is often a central factor in many intractable and violent conflicts around the globe, from the Middle East to Africa and Southeast Asia.

In a 2013 Psychological Science paper, researchers from Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict examine this relationship more closely. In their study, “Religion and Intergroup Conflict: Findings From the Global Group Relations Project,” author Steven L. Neuberg and his team explores the different types of conflict between large groups. The researchers were particularly interested in the role of “religious infusion” in conflict, which they define as “the extent to which religion permeates a group’s private and public life.” The study explores how religious infusion affects two common “pathways to conflict”: incompatibility of values, and competition over resources. While religious infusion can enable intragroup communication and coordination, it may also increase prejudice toward others.

The Global Group Relation Project involved a network of researchers at 100 locations around the world; 25 were chosen due to recent or current inter-group conflict, and 75 were selected at random from a list of United Nations member states. Each local researcher — there were an average of three to four per site — provided data on value incompatibility among local groups, resource and power differentials, and the level religious infusion.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Powerful groups with more resources engaged in a greater number of conflicts with adversaries than did groups with fewer advantages. Groups whose values were more incompatible with one another displayed increased prejudice and interpersonal discrimination.
  • Religious infusion was an independent predictor of all forms of conflict, including increased prejudice, interpersonal discrimination, and individual violence and collective violence.
  • Disadvantaged groups with low levels of religious infusion were more likely to refrain from acting aggressively toward more advantaged counterparts, while disadvantaged groups with high levels of religious infusion were more likely to aggressively engage powerful groups. “Religious infusion appears to increase the willingness of otherwise weak groups to endure costly confrontation.”
  • Levels of religious infusion did not always cause conflict in the same ways: “Whereas religious infusion interacted with value incompatibility to predict levels of prejudice and inter- personal discrimination — but not symbolic aggression, individual violence or collective violence — it interacted with resource-power differential to predict levels of symbolic aggression, individual violence, and collective violence.”

The authors write that additional research is necessary to better understand the relationship between religion and conflict, particularly because “different forms of conflict were predicted by different patterns of variables.” They also note that examining any exceptions to the overall trends they observed could be valuable both in theoretical and practical terms when it comes to reducing violent conflict.

For further reading on religion and conflict see Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, which publishes in-depth case studies, as well as the peer-reviewed Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace.

Keywords: war, religion

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