This renewed interest in the relationship between religion and contemporary warfare is a reflection of two claims that appear to be common knowledge in international relations these days: One is the claim that with President George W. Bush’s entrance onto the stage of international politics, religion entered the stage with him. The other is the claim that religion has become a primary characteristic of the confl icts of our time. These two claims often appear as intertwined, or at least as having some relation, suggesting that Samuel P. Huntington, in his thesis on the Clash of Civilisations, might have had a point after all.
While these assertions – if correct – may point at some important aspects of the dynamics that may turn peace into war, they also imply a dangerously stereotyped view of the core concept, namely that of ”religion”. Given how much religion is discussed in the public and political spheres of Western society, there is conspicuously little reference to the concept of religion itself. Instead, the concept remains highly undifferentiated and imprecise. In other words, we appear to know impressively little about what we talk about.
"We appear to know impressively little about what we talk about."
What do we actually mean in the public space when we talk of “religion”? What does it really consist of – this global phenomenon that has had a major impact on human life throughout history, with the power to turn us into either doves or murderers? It is important that we start asking ourselves this question – that before we use this term “religion” so extensively, we must stop and examine what we are actually talking about. Do we mean the same by using the term “religion” when we speak of the Taliban, Palestinian suicide bombings and President George W. Bush’s administration as we do when we speak of Bar Mitzvah – let alone Christmas? When we assume that religion has an important role in the generation and maintenance of conflict – is it religious theology we speak about? Or, rather, religious rituals? Or, could it be that we more than anything else refer to opinions that deviate from our own?
Ever since research in religion left the confines of mere theological thinking and was established as an independent school of research, defining “religion” has been an issue of much concern. The advantages of reaching a common definition would be significant: a common definition would provide a starting point for discussion, dialogue and interaction across continents and cultures. In short, a
common definition would define a common ground.
At first glance, it appears as if finding a common definition would be within reach. There are hardly any other phenomena that can claim such worldwide influence and significance as religion. Religion or religious phenomena are represented in close to all cultures we know of and one could perhaps claim that religion is a universal phenomenon that we all are familiar with in one way or another.
Nonetheless, despite – or perhaps because of – its extent, the concept of remains to be encapsulated in a single definition. Religion is simply too complex to be pinned down in a few sentences, and finding a definition that believers, non-believers and researchers alike can agree on seems to be impossible.
The primary quandaries in the struggle for definition were explicitly spelled out as early as the 1850s when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels presented their notion of religion. They stated that “Man makes religion, religion does not make man”. This claim implies two central and widely discussed controversies within the research on religion:
Firstly, by denying that religion is anything beyond human activity, Marx and Engels question the ultimate reality that adherents of religion claim it represents. To Marx and Engels,religion is in other words nothing in and of itself. To claim that religion is merely a human construct was obviously highly controversial at the time when it was first presented, and it remains a highly disputed and sensitive claim to make. Drawn into the confines of academic scrutiny, the question regarding religion’s independent existence has caused researchers in religion much concern and has been an issue determining how to study religion. Whether or not the researcher believes may in other words determine how the researcher approaches religion. But, from the mid-1960s, researchers in religion overcome this challenge plainly by disregarding the whole question. A representative example is that of the sociologist Peter Berger. Berger adopted an approach of “methodological atheism”, which strived towards leaving the whole question of faith aside and rather examine the social expressions of religious faiths. Although Berger is openly and actively Protestant, this approach nonetheless led him to conclude that religion is a human construct. In other words; the research in religion is not about examining the righteousness of the various religions. Rather, it is about looking into the various expressions religious beliefs may take.
"Any understanding of contemporary religion requires that we see that religion extends beyond the confines of theology."
This leads us to the second point embedded in the definition of Marx and Engels that has been given considerable attention in the study of religion: By claiming that man makes religion, Marx and Engels make it clear that religion on the one hand is something, while it on the other hand is a phenomenon that also is related to human action. This implies that there are two ways of analysing religion: On the one hand, religion can be understood in terms of what it is. On the other hand, religion can be understood by what it does. To use a more precise terminology; religion can be approached in both substantive as well as functionalist terms. In her book Religion: The Social Context (1987), the sociologist of religion Meredith McGuire states that the choice of definition is primarily a choice of strategy. In other words: the choice between a substantive and a functionalist definition of religion is a choice between methods of how to approach religion and of what to examine.
Substantive definitions attempt to establish categories of religious content that qualify as religion and other categories specified as “nonreligion” (McGuire 1987:6). An advantage of substantive definitions is that by trying to say what religion is, substantive definitions categorise and clarify, and are thus rather specific about the contents of the object of study. On the more negative side, however, is the fact that when stating what something is it freezes in one position. However, religion is a highly dynamic phenomenon, and by failing to embrace this aspect, substantive definitions also loose sight of a decisive characteristic of religion.
Functional definitions, on the other hand, emphasise what religion does, both for the individual as well as for the social and cultural group. A functionalist defi nition does therefore embrace the dynamic aspect, and understands religion in terms of both its social and cultural functions. It is therefore not the content of the religion itself that is of interest, but rather its consequences. It follows that functionalist definitions of religion are broader than the substantive ones, as they embrace a much wider spectrum of human activities. This breadth is on the one hand an advantage with functionalist definitions of religion, as it opens up the dynamic and cross-cultural aspects of religion. On the other hand, the same breadth may result in too-inclusive categories, defining “everything” as religion.
Both ways of defining religion therefore have their advantages as well as disadvantages, and for researchers of religion the question of definition boils down to how one best can examine the object in the given research project, rather than being a question of “righteousness” or “iniquity”. It is, in other words, a question of finding the appropriate tools, and therefore not a normative question.
Outside the confines of academia, however, the question of how to approach religion is a highly normative issue. Issues concerning religion are questions concerning right and wrong, truth and lies, and – ultimately – war and peace. Contemporary political activities, such as the “War against Terror” as well as the expansion of the European Union, draw a thick red line between “insiders” and “outsider” which to some extent also reflects a notion of “known” and “unknown”, “good” and “bad”, and, in some cases, also the “Christian” West versus the “Muslim” East. This accentuates a decisive characteristic of religion, namely that religion is not just religion. Religion is a highly complex phenomenon, both shaped by – as well as shaping – the larger political, cultural and economic processes in society. The intimate relation to society and culture leads me to conclude that without much exaggeration one can claim the link between religion and conflict appears when opinions and cultures clash.
Any understanding of contemporary religion requires that we see that religion extends beyond the confines of theology. Rather, a deciphering of “religion” must give attention to the fact that the concept of religion refers to belief systems as well as social practices, to the way we organise society as well as other activities that do not even appear at first sight to have any direct connection to the religious sphere.
As the phenomenon called “religion” entails numerous aspects, any attempt in making an exhaustive list is consequently doomed to failure. However, if we for a moment leave aside the more inwards-looking aspects that concern primarily theologically substantive definitions of the reality that believers of religion experience it to represent and instead focus on some of the more socially
and culturally relevant aspects of religion, some common aspects can be identified. The aspects listed below are intimately related. Splitting them up rather serves our present analytical purposes, but does not imply that the following elements are separate, nor independent from each other. 
Firstly, religion entails a set of dogmas. These dogmas comprise a normative belief system that serves as a map for how each individual believer should live her or his life. This set of dogmas, which in its strictest sense define right from wrong, purity from defilement, defines objectives, and offers conceptual frameworks and narratives that inspire action. The dogmas do in other words provide religion with an essential cognitive aspect, or to use Meredith McGuire’s phrase: “The religion shapes what the adherent knows about the world. The cosmic knowledge organises the individual’s perceptions of the world and serves as a basis for action.” (McGuire 1987: 13) A highly important consequence of this point, is that the cognitive, religious belief system such religious dogmas contribute to, also serves as a basis for knowledge. Religions provide truths to their beholders in the sense that the dogmas appear as providing data and information beyond what humans can provide in and of themselves.
Secondly, religion has a strong social dimension. This implies that religion has a decisive identity-forming potential. Religions do, in other words, offer the individual a feeling of belonging to an experienced or sensed community of fellow believers. This has both a vertical as well as a horizontal as dimension: As each individual believer identifies him- or herself with a certain belief system – and the mindset and activities that comes with it – the believers are united with each other. At the same time, this unification stems from the fact that they share a common belief system, look at the world in more or less the same way, and thus believe in the same goals. In other words: they share a vision. Located within the same extended ontological setting, identities with religious sources may therefore be exceptionally robust: religion tells you where you belong and where to proceed.
Thirdly, the religions institution(s) that appropriate the authorised and thus correct interpretation of the dogmatic systems, also defines structural hierarchies, distributes religious power, and organises society. Religious belief systems are upheld by some form of organisation. While neither adherence to a normative system nor identification with a particular religion presumes a formal organisation, both normative commitment and identity are greatly strengthened by it, as organisational arrangements strengthen the ability of the religious community to express and spread its worldview (Harpviken & Røislien 2005: 10).
"Religion is simply too complex to be pinned down in a few sentences, and finding a definition that believers, non-believers and researchers alike can agree on seems to be impossible."
This leads us to a fourth point, namely that of culture. The above-mentioned aspects have direct socio-cultural consequences: Religion is both explanatory, explaining why things are the way they are, and normative, prescribing how things should be, while at the same time giving directives for action, for social and cultural behaviour. Religion is therefore just as much a concept that refers to our society, as of the interpretation of scriptures or the ritual life in churches or mosques. “Religion” is our social behaviour, it is part of the accepted truths in our society, it is culture, language, food and music.
In the background of the above-mentioned points, the fifth and last point appears. This point is one of the strongest aspects of religion, which can be summed up in one short sentence: religion provides meaning. Religions can interpret and explain situations within a wider framework that extends beyond that of the human sphere, beyond human reasoning. Therefore, religion can add meaning to events in human history that appear meaningless to the mundane eye.
What does this tell us of religion? What does it tell us of those forces embedded in religion, those traits that seem to have such decisive impact on world affairs, contemporarily as well as in century after century in human history? Again, one can hardly point at one single issue that it all boils down to. Nonetheless, in her book Purity and Danger published in 1966, the social anthropologist Mary Douglas did, in my opinion, offer part of a clarifying answer. Dealing with the problem of why some things thought to have special religious significance are seen as sacred and others are seen as polluted and/or profane, her book offers an explanation for beliefs in ritual pollution. However, implicitly it also offers an explanation for how we organise our cultures and our societies.
Prohibitions on touching, using or even seeing certain objects or people may be rooted in a belief that such things are either “too good” for humans to have contact with or that they are considered impure, polluting and therefore in some respects dangerous. But, more important than what we put into the various categories, are how we categorise these things. According to Douglas, societies are likely to see things as “impure” when they are anomalous. With this term, Douglas refers to the state when things do not fit tidily into a society’s classification of the world. Consequently, in her theory Douglas claims that things which exist at the borders of society, i.e. on the boundaries between categories, are perceived as possessing both power and danger. For some purposes the power may be stressed, for others the danger. In both cases we may find a rule against contact with the marginal person or thing.
A widely cited claim stated in her book Purity and Danger is “Dirt is matter out of place”. This claim does in many respects sum up her theory. For, by claiming that something is simply “out of place”, she offers a fundamental explanation as to how we organise our societies: things are not considered dirty in and of themselves, but rather due to where they stand in a system of categories, which can include people as well as non-human classes of animate or inanimate objects.
"The lack of differentiation leads to alienation towards religions that traditionally have not been dominant in the live of most Western Europeans and Northern Americans."
As with all other theories, also Douglas can be criticised for offering a theory that by no means is waterproof. Nonetheless, I suggest leaving criticism aside and rather stopping for a moment with what her theory can offer. For what does she actually say? She says that in our societies, in our cultures, we organise our physical as well as mental surroundings. And by organising, we also classify.
Needless to say, religion has a particular potential for categorisation. For what is stronger than differing sacred from profane? What classification system can to a believer falsify or correct a system that differs that which is considered righteous within a divinely framework from that which is profane and – in perhaps brutally simple terms – wrong?
Religion does in other words contribute to organising society. Religion classifies. Religion labels. Religion tells right from wrong. This may on the one hand give solutions, explanations and answers. However, it may also clear the ground for conflict. For, with one classification system, one set of rights and wrongs, how are cultures with deviating classification systems met? How is it at all possible for two cultures with divinely rooted classification systems to negotiate, to make compromises, to be integrated into one another?
Religion is a double-edged sword with regards to its sociocultural surroundings. Through its categorisations and classifications, religion provides the believer with a cognitive aspect and thus shapes how the believer views the world, it does also inspire to action – and, not just any kind of action; it defines ways to act and ways not to act. In other words, religion differentiates right from wrong, both in thinking and in action. That is not necessarily a good starting point for successful cultural meetings.
For – how does one treat those who believe otherwise? How does a believer, i.e. someone who advocates a certain truth, relate to a non-believer, i.e. someone who either has not been introduced to this “truth” or – perhaps worse – someone who has been introduced to it but has rejected it? The list of tragic answers to this question is long, and explicates the duality of this aspect, namely that religion on the one hand strengthens the bonds between the members of a certain religion, while it on the other hand may contribute to pushing outsiders further away.
One aspect of religion in which several central dimensions are on display is that of religious ritual. A religious ritual is a symbolic act that can be described as representing religious meaning. Religious rituals are often confined to either sacred space or time – or both – and are, as the word implies, a ritual, i.e. repetitive, act that is intimately linked to the religious belief. When we talk of religious rituals, we often refer to rituals such as baptism, Christmas, puja, hajj or Bar Mitzvah, rituals that are neither necessarily controversial nor conflict-creating.
Need of Precision
However, in a world with tremendous demographic growth, followed by a radical development in movement across borders, cultures and faiths are no longer confined to geographically limited spaces. Rather, religion is increasingly transported beyond national borders, implying that the enactment of different religious dogmas and norms may occur in the same space, maybe even at the same time.
This increases the need for developing a more nuanced and thus precise usage of the concept of religion. We do, in other words, need to turn religion into a phenomenon we can deal with also within the political spheres of society. The lack of differentiation leads to alienation towards religions that traditionally have not been dominant in the lives of most Western Europeans and Northern Americans. To be more precise: the lack of differentiation turns Islam automatically into a threat to the West, as we lack the tools to deal with a religion that deviates from Christianity in its central tenets.
This is not to encourage the process of secularisation. Nor is it in praise of religion. Rather, it is a call for being more specific about what we talk about, particularly when we talk about such grave issues as the difference between peace and war. This is therefore not about choosing whether we want to be precise or vague in our choice of terminology – this is about admitting that there is a severe need of precision. Anything else can make the path between peace and war dangerously short.
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 The following is based on Harpviken, Kristian Berg & Hanne Eggen Røislien, 2005. “Mapping the Terrain: The Role of Religion in Peacemaking”, State of the Art Paper to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Aff airs,