Peace and Conflict, Part 2 – The Role of Religion

St Peters Basilica Rome

This is second post in a series on peace and conflict. Specifically, we are looking at an article entitled Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems by psychologists Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak and Bui-Wrzosinska. In the first post, we introduced the reasons for examining peace and conflict from a dynamical systems or chaos theory point of view, and examined the question of why intractable conflicts are so persistent despite the fact that they only seem to bring misery to all involved. Today, we follow the authors’ question about religion:

What is the role of religion in the origin, maintenance, and resolution of conflict?

Religion plays an important role in many conflicts. Usually we think of places such as the Middle East or Ireland when the topic of conflict arises but there is much more. Just to name some examples, religion is a major player in the political conflicts in the United States, interfaith marriage is still very controversial in many parts of the world, and the effects of religion’s part in oppressing minorities (such as in Canada’s residential schools for First Nations) can still be painfully felt, both on an individual psychological level and on a societal level.

On the other hand, there are the beneficial effects of religion on conflict. Religion can provide constraints on selfish actions and promote those that are conducive to peaceful and cooperative relations with other people. In Christianity, the Quakers and Mennonites are good examples of that; there is Engaged Buddhism such as exemplified by Thich Nhat Hanh; and in the Islam the Ismailis are instances of groups that actively work towards peace and cooperation. Apart from that, most religions stress moral codes that incorporate impulse control and a concern for the welfare of others.

However, many religions also emphasize — subtly or strongly — a division of the world into good and evil, which often ends up meaning “our religion is good, yours is evil.” This divides the world into ingroup and outgroup, a phenomenon that was recognized as early as 1906 by pioneering sociologist William Graham Sumner and then elaborated on in psychology by Gordon Allport and, famously, by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif in the 1950s and 1960s. In these situations, religion can intensify conflict. Perceiving others as members of an outgroup typically leads to seeing others as less worthy or human, and to loosening any moral codes regarding aggression or violence. The loosening, or disinhibition will, under certain circumstances, outweigh any religious rules against killing. The genocide in Rwanda is a famous example, where Hutu called the Tutsi “cockroaches” and proceeded to slaughter them wholesale.

The authors return to the idea of attractors – in psychology, points in a system that attract and hold ideas, beliefs, emotions, etc. (see my previous post on more information on attractors). They go on to say

Religion captures the defining properties of an attractor. A religious faith provides certainty: a coherent view of the world, both with respect to moral values and cosmological truth, and a stable platform for personal and collective action. Information or events that are inconsistent with the religious worldview represent potential threats to the validity of that view and thus can promote intense defensive reactions (as seen in the current debates between creationism and the theory of evolution). The cognitive biases observed when personal attitudes are contradicted are on full display when information or events challenge a group’s religious beliefs. Indeed, because religion by definition reflects faith rather than reason or empirical evidence, discrepant information or events are likely to be experienced as especially threatening and to promote very intense reactions in the service of reinstating the mental and social system at its attractor.

Seen from the point of view of chaos or dynamical systems theory, there is yet another crucial element, however. Clearly, not every system (country, family, workplace, etc.) with a diversity of religions breeds conflict. To the contrary, countries like Canada pride themselves in embracing a wide variety of religious views, from Islam to Christianity to Paganism to atheism.

What needs to be factored in are other aspects, most of them related to availability of resources — financial resources, land, etc. When these resources are steadily available, the system’s patterns can remain stable for a long time — imagine a garden going through the seasons in a mild, temperate climate. When the resources are not available, however, patterns change and can become chaotic (e.g. with lack of rain, the roses in our garden might wither and thistles might start growing). It is exactly in an effort to change this chaos, to re-stabilize it, that people look for attractors like religion or charismatic leaders.

This perspective on religion and conflict can also be supplemented by Freud’s idea of regression, which proposes that when faced with a real or perceived threat, individuals tend to regress to feelings, thoughts and behaviours associated with a younger age. This can be applied to groups, as well, and is sometimes referred to as societal regression. Let’s take Rwanda as an example again: faced with the threat of diminishing grazing lands, the Hutu literally listened (over the radio) to the voice of an authority figure who exhorted them to go out and kill the Tutsi. In the presence of this threat, more rational, adult “voices” were squashed.

Having looked at the problem of intractable conflicts in these two posts, in the following post we will examine what psychologists say about solutions to intractable conflicts.


Vallacher, R., Coleman, P., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2010). Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems. American Psychologist, 65 (4), 262-278 DOI: 10.1037/a0019290

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.
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