Religion And War: “It’s Complicated”

Religion And War: “It’s Complicated”

It is not the religion, but its intensity that leads to conflict.

When was the last time you read the news and didn’t read about religious war? My guess: you can’t remember. The world around us seems to be saturated with religious conflict. Although many people “feel” that religion is intrinsically linked to armed dispute, little research has successfully shown a significant link between the two. How and why religion exactly leads to violence remains undiscovered. Up until now.


A group of thirteen researchers (Neuberg and colleagues) at Arizona State University have conducted a massive research spanning across 97 countries in which 471 local expert informants supplied data to the researchers. They investigated the link between religious infusion and the propensity for violence, whereby religious infusion is defined as ‘the extent to which religion permeates a group’s private and public life’. Their question, in other words: how could the daily intensity of one’s religious group activities relate to an increased likelihood for violence towards other groups?

The researchers focused on religious infusion, since high levels thereof have been shown to enhance various group characteristics. Religious infusion causes religious ritual and deeply shared values to be embedded in daily life, norms and political decisions. Studies have shown that this tends to cause increased prejudice towards members of other groups whose different ways of life are incompatible with one’s own group. For example, anti-abortion laws fit into the religious framework of some, but clash with the ideologies of others.

Religious infusion implies stronger commitment amongst members, leading to increased coordination and communication within the group. For example, think about group solidarity; group members perform the same tasks and visit the same sites daily, creating strong bonds over time. Therefore, high levels of religious infusion lead to higher collective motivation and action. And there you have it, the recipe for conflict: a highly motivated, organized, exclusive and prejudiced group. But is this really the case?


The research uncovered two interesting processes that give better insight into why, how and when religious groups become violent. I’ll give you a hint: high levels of religious infusion played a big role. As Neuberg and colleages put it, “we learned that religious infusion, interacting with value incompatibility and resource-power differential, predicted multiple forms of large-scale intergroup conflict.” What does this mean?

The first finding revolves around the link between high religious infusion and its effect on value incompatibility. Neuberg and colleagues found a significant link between increased religious infusion and increased levels of prejudice towards other groups; the higher the level of religious infusion, the higher the chance of prejudice. I find this especially important because, although incompatible values and concomitant disputed (political) decisions are usually blamed for religious war, these aspects only become real causes for conflict when the religion that informed them is significantly embedded into its members’ daily lives.

The second point revolves around the link between high religious infusion and resource-power differential. The researchers discovered that disadvantaged groups with low religious infusion were less likely to engage in violent conflict with more advantaged counterparts due to various deterrents. High religious infusion however, removed those deterrents and actually increased the likelihood of disadvantaged groups to wage war with more advantaged adversaries.

Why this is important

“Religion causes war!” “Religion is the root of all evil!” I’m sure we’ve all come across sentences like these in conversations, news papers, talk shows and social media. These conclusions are hollow analyses though, as the how and why of religious conflict is ignored. This is problematic because in order to treat the disease, we must understand where the symptoms come from. This research is a small step towards that understanding. We now know that the intensity to which one’s religion permeates daily life tends to increase prejudice and removes deterrents that would otherwise prevent violent conflict.

Neuberg SL, Warner CM, Mistler SA, Berlin A, Hill ED, Johnson JD, Filip-Crawford G, Millsap RE, Thomas G, Winkelman M, Broome BJ, Taylor TJ, & Schober J (2014). Religion and intergroup conflict: findings from the Global Group Relations Project. Psychological science, 25 (1), 198-206 PMID: 24264940

We believe that science should be available to everyone, everywhere. Delivering well-supported stories, written by experts, about scientific discoveries requires hard work. We strive to meet our audience's standards. Your contribution will keep our magazine running free of charge.

Support United Academics
Support Open Access to Science

Creative Commons Licence
United Academics Magazine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.