The State of the Evidence in Religions, Peace, and Conflict

Professor Erin K. Wilson

University of Groningen

Susan Hayward

Harvard Divinity School

This blog series is introducing and summarizing every chapter of the JLI’s 2022 Edition of the State of the Evidence in Religions and Development. The full report and chapters are available at their dedicated web page. This is the seventh blog post, which focuses on religions, peace, and conflict.

The first blog, which introduces religions and development evidence in general can be found here; the second blog on religions, development and health is here; the third blog on religions, development and the environment is here; the fourth blog post, which focuses on religions and ending violence against children, can be found here; the fifth blog post, on religions, gender, and development can be found here; and the sixth blog post, which focuses on religions and forced migration, can be found here.

After years of neglect, in the late 1990s there was a marked surge in interest in religions, conflict, and peacebuilding. Yet, while attempting to address the lack of attention for religions, an initial over-correction occurred. For a time, research on religions, conflict, and peace overemphasized religions as the crucial element for understanding all conflict situations. This was coupled with a tendency to focus on the positive contribution of religions to peacebuilding and conflict transformation and downplay their place in violence and extremism. This was in part an effort to counterbalance negative normative assumptions about religions as irrational, chaotic, dangerous, and a threat to the modern secular state. In so doing, theory and practice inadvertently reinforced problematic conceptions of the idea of “religion” as a uniform, static, and autonomous dimension of human society.

Other scholars in the 1990s and early 200s sought to present a more complex understanding of the intersection of religions with violence and peace, and highlight the potential of religions to contribute to peacebuilding. For example, in The Ambivalence of the Sacred, Scott R. Appleby rejects an essentialist understanding of “religion” as being either violent or peaceful at root. Rather, he sees religion as something that is inherently lived and experienced, shaped by ongoing encounters with a transcendent, sacred reality. Some scholars sought to highlight resources within religions that could support work of just peacebuilding and diplomacy. In his Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam, Abu-Nimer lists the various values, teachings, and practices within Islam that support peace. He is forthright in saying he does not want to assert that Islam is essentially peaceful (nor essentially violent). But he is driven by a practitioner’s approach to find Islamic tools that can be used to build peace in Muslim-majority communities.

While endeavoring to address the previous neglect of religion attributed to a secular bias, this scholarship left core elements of secular thinking in place. Analysis continued to focus on the characteristics of “religion” as a distinguishable and autonomous phenomenon, rather than recognizing that what “religion” is and how it manifests differs from context to context depending on a complex array of intersecting factors. More recent debates have emphasized the need to eschew pre-existing generic assumptions about the nature of “religion” in favor of contextually grounded intersectional analyses of conflicts and issues that focus on the specificities of religions in particular places. 

The field is now experiencing a re-balancing. Research is increasingly moving away from the idea that “religion” is a distinct recognizable phenomenon or agent with specific characteristics that make it either violent or peaceful. Instead, new approaches seek to embed research on religions, conflict, and peace within specific contexts, paying attention to the nuances and complexities within different religious communities and traditions as well as the diverse ways that religions are entangled with gender, politics, economics, and culture. The result is contextually grounded intersectional analysis of the relationships among different aspects of the category of “religion” and conflict, violence, extremism, and peace.

For example, critiques of the gendered assumptions within earlier scholarship and practices of religious peacebuilding have highlighted how these interventions may have reinforced gender injustice. This insight has led to new standards emphasizing gender justice as an essential element of religious peacebuilding, recognition of the important roles that women hold in religious spaces to transform violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, and of the priorities of women in religiously informed peacebuilding. Specific attention has now been given to LGBTIQ+ actors’ and needs in religious peacebuilding. Case studies and attendant recommendations for gender-sensitive religious peacebuilding often disrupt assumptions about what constitutes “traditional” or orthodox religious positions and values worldwide. They emphasize how colonial projects sometimes displaced traditional norms affirming of gender minorities, even as this new attention raises criticisms from some corners globally about “foreign” or “Western” agendas.

Now that religious considerations and engagement in peacebuilding have become more common, there is an increasing call to ensure these efforts are not siloed as a “niche” field, but better integrated within larger projects, as part of multi-sectoral approaches. Indeed, some observers have become concerned that the increased attention given to religion has swung too far, resulting in an over-emphasis of religious dimensions both in defining conflicts and in designing peace responses. This has led many scholars and peace practitioners to urge for “right-sizing” religion in analysis of problems and solutions, neither over nor underemphasizing its contributions but noting its intersection with multiple factors as necessary for designing effective policy and practice solutions. Some scholars have gone so far as to call for de-emphasizing religion entirely as a dimension of foreign policy analysis and making.

Some scholars have also raised concerns about the bureaucratization of faith-based networks and organizations.The concern, based on observation, is that part of what makes these networks effective and legitimate, namely their “prophetic” and disruptive actions for the cause of justice, and their informal nature, is lost as they become forced to operate as traditional nongovernmental organizations. Faith actors are often faced with choosing between increasing “professionalization” (often seen as code for increasing secularization and domestication) to access donor funding and be given a seat at the table with other major humanitarian and peacebuilding players; or retain their independence and their core religious identity and praxis.

In conclusion, it is notable that the nuances and complexities of the intersection of religions with peace and conflict have not permeated beyond the circles of already interested and invested scholars and practitioners. Most governments and secular-defined NGOs continue to display little interest in, or knowledge of, dynamics connected with religions. Thus, a key task for scholars and practitioners is promoting more thoughtful attention for and engagement with religious traditions, communities, ideas, and practices, demonstrating their significance for holistic analysis of conflict settings and therefore also for developing peacebuilding strategies. Yet this must be done in a way that does not position religions as the central factor in conflict, but rather puts religions in conversation with other factors from the conflict context.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *