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Exploring Religion

Session 14: Overview

Religious Competition and Conflict

Learning objectives

  • Understand how competition between religious (and non-religious) groups affects society
  • Understand how religion contributes to and remediates conflict in society

Religious competition and conflict between religions, or even within them, is hardly a novel idea. One of the strongest critiques of religion’s role in society has focused on its role in sparking conflict, particularly when that leads to violence. Competition between religion also is a source of tension, and even when it doesn’t lead to conflict, many religious and nonreligious have expressed concern about religious competition. The ecumenical movements of the early 20th century grew out of such concerns, as did contemporary approaches to interreligious dialogue, such as the A Common Word movement for interreligious cooperation between Christianity and Islam and the Marrakesh Declaration on the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority contexts. 

Still, despite these important efforts, religious competition and conflict happens frequently. One of the most prominent, and much resented, theories about religious conflict is Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” Huntington argued that following World War II, global conflict would no longer be based on the poles of democracy and communism but rather at the borders of several historical cultural-religious civilizations. He argued that these religio-cultural fault lines would be the sites and impetus for major global conflict for the foreseeable future. Just a brief look at the map he proposed does provide some face validity to his argument. However, as you will read in the article by Grim and Finke, this does not fully explain religious conflict. Government restrictions on religion play a large role in making religious persecution and conflict more likely. 

Additionally, other research has questioned whether, at the micro level of individual interactions or the meso level of groups, these civilizational boundaries necessarily lead to conflict. In the article by Braun, we see that minority religious groups are more likely to help other religious minorities, even those from different religious “civilizations.” The status of being a religious minority plays a larger role in motivating this behavior than the particularly religious tradition. 

Finally, religious competition, far from producing conflict, also tends to produce religious growth. In almost the opposite of the findings from the Grim and Finke article where government restrictions on religion adversely affect religious diversity, a lack of restrictions and the multiplying of religious groups actually helps religious growth. You’ll read about this in an article by Brik on religious diversity and competition in Ukraine, and you’ll hear from Brik himself in the interview on the role of religion during the Russian invasion. 

As we’ve seen over the course of the semester, religion unites and divides, often in unexpected ways. We’ve seen that questions about whether religion is good or bad for society, which expect a single answer, are not sufficient. There are many different ways that religion intersects society, both for good and for ill, and even the categories of “good” and “bad” can vary according to religious tradition and context. This ambiguity and tension has had its own effect on research on religion, particularly on the process of secularization, which we will look at in the last module. With respect to competition and conflict, it is important to keep in mind religion’s own conflicted role.

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