Skip to main content

The Dance Between War and Religion

Violent conflicts produce more religious citizens.

By Tom Jacobs


An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported suicide car bomb attack by ISIS militants in 2014. (Photo: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

No one living in the 21st century needs reminding that terrorism and warfare are often driven by religious fervor. But does living in a nation engaged in, or threatened by, armed conflict make people more religious?

Newly published research presents evidence that it does indeed.

Analyzing data from a large, worldwide sample, two Chinese psychologists report people whose countries are more involved with wars and similar conflicts experience higher levels of existential fear, which drive them to greater religiosity.

Previous surveys have found highly religious Americans tend to be more supportive of war, as well as of torturing one’s opponents. This raises a profound and troubling question: Could it be that armed conflict and intense religiosity are in a mutually reinforcing relationship?

“The relationship between war and religiousness may be bidirectional,” write Hongfei Du and Peilian Chi of the University of Macau. “War strengthens individuals’ religiousness (due to) their worries about war, while fundamental religious beliefs result in violent conflicts and war.”

People whose countries are more involved with wars experience higher levels of existential fear, which drive them to greater religiosity.

Du and Chi’s study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, used data from 82,772 people from 57 nations. As part of the 2010 World Values Survey, participants answered questions about their religiosity (including how often they pray and attend services), religious identity (whether they consider themselves a religious person), and belief in God.

They also indicated the degree to which they felt worried about “a war involving my country,” “a terrorist attack,” and “a civil war.”

The state of their home nations was determined by statistics from the Global Peace Index, which measured such things as “the number of external and internal conflicts fought” by a given country; its level of safety and security, including rate of violent crime; and its level of militarization, including military expenditures as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

Comparing a composite index of those factors with the aforementioned assertions of faith, the researchers found “people tend to be more religious when their countries are involved in wars, terrorists attacks, or other types of conflicts.”

This positive association was found for all three indicators (religious practice, religious identity, and belief in God), and was partially explained by war-related anxiety. As predicted by Terror Management Theory, if you’re fearful that you, or a loved one, could die in battle (or a terrorist attack), you’re more likely to turn to God.

Importantly, Du and Chi found violent conflict was associated with greater religiousness whether or not the war in question was religion-based. “Even war without religious involvement is associated with (an increase in) people’s religious practices and beliefs,” they write.

So war and terrorism, whatever their root causes, create a more fearful populace, much of which assuages this anxiety through intensified religiosity. And while most conflicts are not religion-based, many of the deadliest are (see: the Middle East), with righteousness often providing a cover of justification for more prosaic struggles over land or power.

That fighting-for-our-faith rationale is presumably easier to sell to a devout public. If that’s true in actuality, it suggests a troubling dynamic: Violent conflict increases religiosity, which in turn helps enable violent conflict.

The notion is certainly worth contemplating — or, perhaps, praying over.