02/12/2012 07:52 GMT | Updated 30/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Religious Conflicts: Phantom or Real?

On the one side, there is the constant refrain that the real cause of a particular conflict is not religion. When people are burning down each other's mosques, temples and churches, this can sound implausible. On the other is the impression, reinforced by the mass media, that religion is today's number one vector of the virus of hatred around the world. Well, steady on; it's not that simple. There is another story to tell.

The first pre-condition for any constructive conversation on the topic is the acknowledgement that mono-causal explanations for the creation of conflict are invariably wrong. What is important is how the different ingredients interact, and what are the consequences of the interaction. What exactly curdles the milk of human kindness?

The second precondition is the acceptance that what people thinks matters and feels matters, does matter. A conflict that is evidently about control of territory, scarce resources, political offices, pastoralists versus agriculturalists, incomers versus longstanding residents, is presented by those in it, and those reporting it, as a clash of religions. The outbreak presents itself to the world forum as religious pathology. Analysts then get to work seeking the "root" causes. The problem is that differences of religious affiliation in such circumstances have become precisely that, deeply rooted. That is why people burn down mosques, temples and churches, not taxi ranks and clinics - though in conditions of growing anarchy that may also happen.

The third is to admit that some conflicts reflect religion, as it were, as their primary colour. Despite the political complexities of the relationship between Ghandi, Jinnah, Nehru and the British, the terrible conflict caused by the partition of India 1946-1948 was about religious identities, Muslim or Hindu. When Christian demonstrators, concerned about the introduction of huddud provisions into civil shari'a law of a Nigerian state, returned from petitioning the Governor of Kaduna in 2000, inter-communal violence broke out as young Muslims fought young Christians. A major city that had been religiously integrated residentially, segregated itself into two religious enclaves.

Such conflicts not only present themselves as religious. Religion is causally meaningful from the beginning . If once ethnicity was the dominant gene in Nigerian conflict, in such circumstances it is now arguably religion. Boko Haram is the lethal mutation that now expresses itself.

This is different from, say, the recent Balkan conflicts. Calling Srebrenica a Christian massacre of Muslims is no more, nor less, inaccurate than describing the killing of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma as Buddhist massacres. A religious designation, anyone will intuitively sense, should be reserved for conflicts such as Kaduna and India during the partition.

Yet, it is difficult sometimes to grasp the extent of contemporary religious conflict because excellent global scanning and surveys vary in what is being logged. Some include conflicts that present as religious. Others only conflicts for which the religious dimension is arguably paramount. But what seems to characterise these early years of the 21st. century is that both are growing in prominence and geo-political importance, if not in number. The purely secular ideological conflicts of the 20th century, communism, versus national socialism, fascism and communism versus liberal capitalism, now seem hardly to exist beyond the fossilised horror of North Korea with it semi-divinised secular leadership.

Why this change has taken place is a topic that preoccupies sociologists and political scientists. The simple answer is that the great ideological survivor of the 20th. century has been nationalism and liberal democracy. And nationalism has been experienced in many countries as a failure and cause of disillusionment. In others, Russia and China, it has been a powerful aid to transition from communism. But in both instances religion as a source of hope, identity, meaning and belonging has benefitted. The true answer is surely more complex.

Another question which needs exploring is why, how, under what circumstances do conflicts that are not essentially about religious difference mutate into those that are. Yes, political manipulation is going to be a significant part of the answer but under what circumstances does this manipulation prevail. Where, and how, in the religious continuum of believing, belonging and doing does the doing become violent and directed at a "religious other". What sort of believing favours that outcome? What forces can be arrayed to block this transformation? This is a question to theologians and social psychologists alike.

Finally, we need to think about these questions outside the mindset of what the American cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls our WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) societies. A nice acronym; because globally such a mindset is far from normative around the world. People think and feel differently in different cultures. *

But it is too easy to make an uncomfortable religious problem disappear by pretending it is really a cultural one. Just because culture and religion overlaps, just because Religion as a terrain of study is admittedly a constructed product , does not mean it is illegitimate to ask about religion's role in conflict. Nor that it is impossible to differentiate between religious and non-religious features of cultures. The category "Religion" is a self-reflexive reaction to secularity and religious pluralism but that makes it no less real.

So the reality of different contending religions, in their singularity and particularity, cannot be removed from consideration, as if by magic, in some wider "clash of cultures". Religion underpins and informs most of these cultures. It is precisely the interpretation of the truth claims of different religions that can make for their intransigent and exclusivist character.

Exploring the question of religion's role in contemporary conflicts is not an end in itself. Rather it leads on to the question of how the different faiths can disagree constructively, and how interfaith dialogue can refine understanding of our disagreements - as well as building on our human commonalities for the Common Good. Answering that question would deserve a Nobel Prize.

*Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion. Allen Lane 2012 - for an elaboration of these themes.

This blog is part of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Religion & Conflict blog series. Click here to read perspectives from the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Norway and South Africa.