Religion and Conflict

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AKC 5 General – Spring Term 2007 – Religion in the contemporary world: social scientific perspectives
12/02/07
AKC 5 – 12 FEBRUARY 2007
RELIGION AND CONFLICT
DR MARAT SHTERIN, DEPARTMENT OF THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES
I. Religion, cohesion, and conflict
We should go beyond the assumption that any conflict is inherently bad and any cohesion
is necessarily good. Cohesion can be based on oppression and involve restrictions that
are intolerable to many social groups and individuals; conflict, on the other hand, can, in
some circumstances, lead to more freedom and more social justice. Moreover, “a certain
amount of discord, inner divergence, and controversy is organically tied up with the very
elements that ultimately hold the group together” (George Simmel (1906/ 1955 Conflict:
the Web of Group Affiliations, Glencoe: Free Press, p 18). On another level, in many
ways, cleavage is the obverse of unity: what holds together a social group may separate it
from, and cause tensions with, other groups.
Religion can contribute to both social integration and conflict in a variety of ways. On
the one hand, religion is capable of providing the ultimate justifications and
legitimisation for political system and social organisation; it can symbolically represent
societal and group unity; and it may reinforce or even create social solidarity. On the
other hand, appeals to different sources of ‘ultimate authority’ can cause or exacerbate
conflict between religious groups, which can be particularly troublesome when the
religious boundaries of these groups also constitute separate political entities. Conflicts
can also arise within religious groups over integrity of their adherence to the scripture
vis-à-vis compromise with the larger society, legitimacy of leadership, and dissent of
individual members. Also, there maybe conflicts when a religious group takes on and
wishes to maintain a ‘world-rejecting’ stance towards the rest of society (‘sectarianism’).
Finally, it can be argued that the attempts to exclude religion from the public arena in
order to eliminate it as the main source of social conflict (USSR, Turkey, pre-1979 Iran)
have been unsuccessful.
II. Can religion contribute to cohesion in contemporary societies?
Most contemporary societies are multi-religious, with religion being an important marker
of ethnic identity or creating new identities beyond ethnic boundaries.
Has the
contemporary mass migration, associated with globalisation, made religion an
inescapable source of social cleavages? Is civil religion a useful concept for thinking of
possible solutions to the vagaries of contemporary multi-culturalism and religious
pluralism? On the other hand, is it likely that religion will emerge as the definitive fault
line in the current geo-political cleavages, often associated with globalisation?
III. Religion and pre-existing social and political cleavages in the contemporary
world
III.1. Northern Ireland: Religious conflict? Conflict between civil religions?
III.2. Checnya: Is religious conflict the source of the war or its outcome?
III.3. The Balkans: politics or religion?
III.4. Clash of civilisations?
IV. The nature of religion and conflicts in the modern world
World-rejecting stance towards the rest of society can be a source of social conflict
between a religious group and outsiders: fundamentalism and particularism.
V. Cult controversies in the contemporary world
Many conflicts in contemporary societies are concerned with opposition to new forms of
religion. Part of these conflicts is the secularist stance found in some contemporary
societies and among some social groups.
Further Reading
Aldridge, A., Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction,
Cambridge: Polity Press, Ch. 6, 7, and 8.
Beckford, James, Cult Controversies: the societal response to New Religious Movements,
London: Tavistock
Bellah, Robert et al (1996), The Habits of the Heart, Berkeley: University of California
Press
Maduro, O. (1982), Religion and Social Conflicts, New York: Marycoll
McGuire, M. (2004 or any other edition), Religion: the Social Context, Wadsworth,
Chapter 6.
Warner, R.S. "Toward a New Paradigm," American Journal of Sociology 98(1993):10441093.
Full details about the AKC course, including copies of the handouts, can be found on the AKC
website at: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/akc. Please join in the Discussion Board and leave your
comments. If you have any queries please contact the AKC Course Administrator on ext 2333 or
via email at [email protected] Please note the AKC Exam is on Friday 23 March 2007 between
14.30 and 16.30.
EXAM REGISTRATION is now open. To register please reply to the email from the Dean’s
Office giving your full name and student ID number. The deadline of registration is 9 March
2007.
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