Field of Science

Religion and conflict: cause or coincidence?

Conflicts often fracture along religious lines - the Balkans, Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland to name just a few of the best known. But it's hard to say that religion is the cause of the problem. There are always other factors, like ethnic differences and disputes over land rights.

So what's going on here? Is religion really the cause of conflict, or is it just an innocent bystander?

In a recent analysis of survey data from 30 European countries Malina Voicu, a sociologist at the University of Bucharest in Romania, found that people who said they were proud of their country were significantly more likely to also be religious.

This relationship held even after controlling for a bunch of other factors that could explain differences in religiosity - age, sex, education, income, religious denomination, living in a post-communist nation, and living in a poor country. All of these factors were important, but even after taking these into account, nationalistic people were more religious.

But that's not the whole story. What Voicu did next was to look at what she calls "religious concentration". That's a measure of how divided a country is religiously - whether there is one dominant religious denomination, as opposed to a more fragmented picture.

What she found was that the more united a country was religiously, the closer the link between nationalism and religion.

So it seems that religion does not necessarily trigger national pride. But when religion and nation are aligned, they reinforce each other.

I think that what this really does is show once again that it is simply too simplistic to talk about 'religion' as if it is a real, single entity (Voicu used a basket of different measures of religiosity, and lumped them all together). Religion is, in fact, a jumble of different cultural and psychological traits some of which (at different times, for different reasons, and in different mixes), we lump together and call it 'religion'.

One of those components is a kind of nationalism. It's always there, but in the right circumstances - when religion and nation match - then nationalists are attracted into religion, and religion itself changes accordingly.
Voicu, M. (2011). Effect of Nationalism on Religiosity in 30 European Countries European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcq067
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. "it is simply too simplistic to talk about 'religion' as if it is a real, single entity"

    Fantastic concluding paragraphs!
    I wrote a post today which reflected on this study. Thanks.

  2. I agree with the comment above and have a couple of comments: there's pretty much nationalism in the old testament. There's much talk about what God and people think and do with nations. I wonder (if I'm correct at all) if that is the case in other holy books, or epic fantasy for that matter.

    Also, David Sloan Wilson made a study of randomly selected religious movements from an encyclopedia and found that a minority was spread by violence. It's was rather small and preliminary though.

  3. Those who assert that the Middle East conflict is "just" a land dispute and has nothing to do with religion ought to read this. Yes, it is ultimately a land dispute, but it is difficult to see how that particular land dispute (especially over that particular patch of land...) could have escalated to this level without the religious conflict.

    This analysis provides a framework in which to model this idea. Surprise surprise that Judaism might enhance nationalistic feelings in Israel (ya think?), and similarly for Palestine. Sure, there might still be a land dispute, but without religion people wouldn't care nearly as much!

    (By the way, if you think nobody argues this: )

  4. In light of this complex overlap between religion and patriotism there doesn't seem to be a need to establish causation for this point to come down in favour of church/state separation.

    The internal cohension that results from hand-in-glove national/religious pride seems, in a modern global context, to be inherrently undesirable owing to the impact it has on tensions with the neighbouring out-group.

    I'd like to learn of counter-examples, if they exist. Are their particular state religions (presumably non-abrahamic) that are bucking the trend by significantly easing bilateral tensions?


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