The Rise of Religious Nationalism and Conflict: Ethnic Conflict and Revolutionary Wars, 1945-2001

Published date01 November 2004
Date01 November 2004
AuthorJonathan Fox
Subject MatterArticles
This study examines the role of religion in
ethnic nationalist conf‌licts and revolutionary
wars between 1945 and 2001, using the
Minorities at Risk (MAR) and State Failure
(SF) datasets. The results show that this role
changed over time, from religion being
unimportant or even a negative inf‌luence on
conf‌lict at the start of the period to becoming
an increasingly signif‌icant cause of conf‌lict
either in 1965 or the early 1980s, depending
on which dataset is analyzed.
The debate over the role of religion in
modern times has been ongoing for over a
century. The theory that a modern, scientif‌ic,
and rational society will replace the religious
society of the past dates back to luminaries
like Comte, Durkheim, Freud, Marx,
Nietzsche, Toennies, Voltaire, and Weber,
among many others (Appleby, 1994: 7–8;
© 2004 Journal of Peace Research,
vol. 41, no. 6, 2004, pp. 715–731
Sage Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA
and New Delhi)
DOI 10.1177/0022343304047434 ISSN 0022-3433
The Rise of Religious Nationalism and Conf‌lict:
Ethnic Conf‌lict and Revolutionary Wars,
Department of Political Studies, Bar Ilan University
This study examines the role of religion in ethnic nationalism and revolutionary wars between 1945
and 2001 using the Minorities at Risk (MAR) and State Failure (SF) datasets. It asks whether religion
is an important factor in conf‌lict and whether the level of this importance has changed over time. Few
previous quantitative studies on religion and conf‌lict analyze data from earlier than 1980. The analy-
sis of the MAR dataset shows that until 1980 religious and non-religious ethnic nationalism caused a
near-identical amount of conf‌lict, but from 1980 onward, religious nationalist ethnic groups were
responsible for increasingly more violent conf‌licts in comparison to non-religious nationalist groups.
The analysis of the SF dataset shows a rise in religious violence beginning around 1965. The earlier
date in the analysis from the SF dataset is attributed to the higher sensitivity of that dataset to changes
in the level of violence. These results have several implications. First, they show that religion can inf‌lu-
ence conf‌lict, but it is not the only inf‌luence. Second, the inf‌luence of religion on conf‌lict can change
over time. Third, religion’s inf‌luence on conf‌lict has been increasing. This contradicts modernization
theory and secularization theory, which were the dominant paradigms in the Western social sciences
for most of the 20th century and predicted the demise of religion as a relevant political and social force
in the modern era.
* I would like to thank Ted Gurr, Monty Marshall, and the
staffs of the Minorities at Risk and State Failure projects,
without whom this study would not have been possible.
The MAR dataset is available at http://www.cidcm.umd.
edu/inscr/mar. The supplemental data on religion are avail-
able separately in the links section of that website
The two economic variables used in the MAR analysis are
available at the United Nations Statistics Division website
at While the full SF dataset is
available at, the
modif‌ied version of the dataset used here is available at The author can be
contacted at An earlier version of
this study was presented at the April 2003 Israeli Associ-
ation for International Studies annual conference at the
Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
04 fox (ds) 24/9/04 10:58 am Page 715
Shupe, 1990: 19; Turner, 1991). In fact, this
paradigm was the dominant one in Western
social sciences, including political science,
international relations, and sociology, for
much of the 20th century. However, in
recent years, these assumptions have come
under question.
Also, while empirical studies of conf‌lict
have shown that religion continues to play a
role, they have generally focused only on
recent conf‌lict. Previous empirical studies of
religion and domestic conf‌lict, including
those by Ellingsen (2000), Fox (1997, 1999,
2000a,b,c, 2004), Laitin (2000), Rummel
(1997), Roeder (2003), and Reynal-Querol
(2002), have shown that religion inf‌luences
conf‌lict, but they do not assess when this
inf‌luence began and if there have been any
major changes in this inf‌luence over a long
period of time.1In fact, most of these studies
do not look at conf‌lict earlier than the 1980s.
The purpose of this study is to examine
one way religion can manifest in society and
politics over a longer time period: the nexus
between ethnic violence and religious
nationalism. That is, this study uses data
from the MAR dataset, along with data col-
lected independently, to assess the role of
religion in separatist conf‌licts between 1945
and 2000. Specif‌ically, I ask whether adding
a religious element to a separatist ethnic
conf‌lict makes that conf‌lict more violent,
and does this relationship change between
1945 and 2000? I then check these results
using the SF dataset for the years
The Predicted Role of Religion in
Modern Times
This section examines the debate over the
role of religion in the modern era. While
most of these predictions were meant to
apply to a wide range of political and social
phenomena, the empirical portion of this
study focuses on ethnic conf‌lict and, to a
lesser extent, revolutionary wars. Be that as it
may, the discussion of the literature on
religion in modern times necessarily takes a
broader view than the empirical section of
this study. Nevertheless, the broader issue of
the role of religion in today’s world is appli-
cable to the more specif‌ic issues of ethnic
conf‌lict and revolutionary wars.
For most of the 20th century, the
dominant paradigm in the social sciences on
this topic was that religion would have no
role in modern society and politics. The
political science version of this paradigm,
modernization theory, posits that processes
inherent in modernization should inevitably
lead to the demise of primordial factors like
ethnicity and religion in politics. These pro-
cesses include urbanization, economic
development, modern social institutions,
growing rates of literacy and education,
pluralism, and advancements in science and
technology.2While this literature tends to
focus on ethnicity, it is also clearly meant to
apply to religion (Appleby, 1994: 7–8;
Sahliyeh, 1990: 3–4). In contrast, seculariz-
ation theory, the sociological analogue of
modernization theory, does focus on
religion. It posits that the same factors cited
by modernization theory will lead to the
demise of religion, which is to be replaced by
secular, rational, and scientif‌ic phenomena.
However, the focus of sociological literature
is individual religiosity and social institutions
rather than identity and other political
Rather than having a theory as to why
religion was not important, international
relations tended to focus on factors that did
not include religion. Paradigms like realism,
journal of PEACE RESEARCH volume 41 / number 6 / november 2004
1Henderson (1997, 1998) shows that religious factors also
inf‌luence international conf‌lict.
2For a survey of the literature on modernization, see,
among others, Almond (1960), Apter (1965), Deutsch
(1953), and Smith (1970, 1974).
3For a survey of the literature on secularization, see, among
others, Beckford (1985), Berger (1969), Cox (1965),
Martin (1978), and Wilson (1966, 1982).
04 fox (ds) 24/9/04 10:58 am Page 716

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT