The role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding

Sara Silvestri and James Mayall


The role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding is complex, yet has often been depicted in binary terms. The report offers an overview of the relationship between religion and conflict and looks at the evidence on religion as both a driver of conflict and as a driver of peace. A more nuanced understanding of religion as a fluid system of variables based on contextual and historical factors, rather than as a static phenomenon, offers greater clarity on the (potential) role religion may have in conflict and peacebuilding. While religion can be a causal factor in conflict, it is important not to give it prominence in all instances.

The report synthesises contributions from various academic disciplines, and also draws on research and relevant publications from faith-based non-governmental organisations and DFID. Case studies identify the concepts, actors and arguments involved in conflicts which have shown some religious dimensions (Israel-Palestine, Mali and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the extent to which they were implicated in violence, peace or both. The report draws substantially on a body of literature addressing the relationship between religion, peace, conflict and diplomacy that emerged in the 1990s.

A number of findings emerge from the literature:

  • The vast body of literature and evidence strongly shows that religion plays an important role in both preventing and resolving conflict and peacebuilding. However, time is necessary to analyse the interface between different aspects of religion in order to critically engage with context and history.
  • Evidence does not indicate that particular religious traditions are more prone to violence or more likely to lead to conflict (or peace) than others.
  • There is inconclusive evidence on patterns or variables that can identify causes of conflict, faith-based terrorism or Islamic radicalisation.
  • Although research shows that religion can contribute to the escalation of conflicts, there is no fixed recipe for establishing which combination of actors, claims, external factors and religious features can drive or exacerbate tensions and violence where religious dimensions are central.
  • Recognising the complex nature of religion does not replace work required to address other conflict and peace-related issues such as deprivation, marginalisation, institutional and state failure etc.
  • In conflict where religion is found to be a strong causal factor the political manipulation of religion matters more than doctrine.
  • Involving faith in conflict resolution enables the various communities and actors involved to fully engage with peace and reconciliation processes in familiar terms with terms they are familiar with.

At the policy-level attention should be given to the enabling factors that make it possible for individuals, religious or political leaders, or communities to embrace particular discourses that justify violence. Addressing the role of religion in conflict and peace building requires going beyond consulting only with faith-based NGOs or religious leaders : (1) to ensure participation from across various segments of society, (2) to account for the less visible ways religion shapes everyday life, and (3) to prevent the burden of conflict resolution resting on faith-based actors alone.


Silvestri, S. & Mayall, J. (2015). The role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding. London, UK: British Academy.