Countries With Less Religious Diversity Have More Faith-Based Violence

Is it easier to love thy neighbor as thyself if he practices a different religion?

Chalk up a win today for pluralism.

On Friday, the Pew Research Center released a report on the countries with the most and least religious diversity, and the results—at least at first glance—are what you might expect. There's very little religious diversity in the Middle East and North Africa, where most people are Muslim, as well as in Latin America, where most people are Christian. By far, the Asia-Pacific region, home to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-religious people, is the most diverse part of the world. 

What's more surprising, though, is that some of the least religiously diverse countries also experience some of the most religious violence. According to Pew's recent analysis of religion-related social hostilities, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia, and Israel top the list of countries with the most conflicts motivated by faith, which include "armed conflict or terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons, or other religion-related intimidation or abuse." In terms of religious diversity, Afghanistan and Somalia are among the 10 least-diverse countries in the world, and Pakistan was also given a rating of "low" diversity. Israel and India are both considered only moderately diverse.

Take a look at these maps of religious diversity and hostility. In many places, they look like a mirror image, with the lightest countries on one showing up as the darkest countries on the other.

Global Religious Diversity

Pew Research Center, April 2014. Data are from 2010.


Religion-Related Social Hostilities Around the World

Pew Research Center, January 2014. Data are from 2012.

This trend seems to be the most prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Thailand have among the lowest levels of religious diversity and highest levels of religious hostilities in the world. Similarly, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen rank at the bottom of the global diversity ranking but at the top of the religious hostilities list.

On the other end of the spectrum, this relationship still holds, if to a lesser extent. Canada and Australia both have high levels of diversity and low to moderate levels of hostility. This is also true in certain African countries, like Benin, Ghana, and Mozambique, as well as in some small Latin American countries, like Cuba, Guyana, Suriname, and Uruguay.

There are some notable exceptions. China is incredibly religiously diverse, but the country has also experienced a significant amount of faith-based conflict. Many Latin American countries are pretty uniformly Christian and peaceful, although Mexico and Colombia are notable exceptions, with much higher levels of violence than the rest of the region. And many countries are somewhere in the middle: The U.S. has moderate diversity and moderate hostility, as do several European countries. 

Of course, these findings come with some limitations. The diversity study doesn't account for different denominations within religions, like Sunnis and Shiites in Muslim countries or Protestants and Catholics in Christian countries; apparently it was too difficult to gather enough data to make those distinctions. It's also impossible to make conclusions about cause and effect: Pluralism itself might help reduce violence, or countries that tolerate high levels of diversity might attract people less inclined to violence. And these trends may be related to overall patterns of violence and political instability in the world—in the past several years, some of the countries with the highest levels of religious affiliation have been hit hard by war, especially in the Middle East.

Still, the two studies reveal an interesting pattern: Spiritual consensus is not the key to peace or stability. And this seems to be true across faiths: The most violent, homogenous places include countries that are primarily Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian. It may not be true everywhere, but these data suggest something remarkable: Religious pluralism can be, and often is, compatible with peaceful societies.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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