Global study: Religion more amphetamine than opiate in protest movements

Protester decries mass killings after 2013 military coup in Egypt overthrowing democratically elected president.

Is religion an “opium of the people,” shifting focus from real-world concerns to the promise of eternal life, as the German philosopher Karl Marx once declared?

Or does it provide a means to challenge the status quo, particularly in cases where fundamental freedoms are at stake?

The answers to these questions have been debated over centuries.

Now, a new global study analyzing data from nearly 60,000 respondents in 45 countries provides important insights from the social sciences.

The key finding: People who are active members of religious groups are more likely to participate in protests.

And the likelihood of public protest by religious individuals is strongest in those countries that are the least democratic, the study found.

How much more likely?

Religious members in countries where religious freedoms are fully respected were just 9 percent more likely to engage in protests than nonmembers. On the other side of the scale, religious participants were more than 140 percent more likely to protest than nonmembers and people who never attend services in countries with the highest levels of restrictions.

In a world where religious freedoms seems to be under constant assault, the latest research suggests you can pressure a lot of people into submission a lot of the time, but faith provides many people with the strength to resist.

Faith emboldens rather than pacifies many among the masses, the research indicates.

Religious leaders protest against gambling in Estonia.

Faith matters

The research results may not surprise those who have observed movements such as the rise of liberation theology in Catholicism challenging authoritarian regimes in Latin America (the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was canonized on Sunday) or the role of Islam among supporters of the Arab Spring.

Sociologists Yun Lu of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, were in part motivated to do the global study to see if the religious growth amid repression they were finding in China was happening elsewhere.

They examined data from the sixth wave of the World Values Surveys conducted between 2010 and 2014, the 2011 Freedom Index created by Freedom House, and the Religion and State Project, Round 2 data. In all, the data set covered 58,955 respondents from 45 countries.

The World Values Surveys provided information on whether individuals had participated in four different types of non-violent protest in the last year; signing a petition, joining in a boycott, attending peaceful demonstrations or joining a strike.

The study reported in the journal Sociology of Religion found respondents who are members of a religious organization and are more frequent attenders are more likely to participate in protests.

“It’s not simply a Chinese thing,” Yang said. “It’s universal.”

They also found suppressing freedoms does not seem to work.

“The positive effect of religious participation is stronger in more repressive countries,” the researchers reported. “In other words, religious people in repressive countries are more likely to protest than their counterparts living in free countries.”

Divine calling

Lu and Yang said more research is needed to determine why committed religious individuals are more likely to protest, but some proposed reasons include:

• With their vast networks of volunteers encouraging involvement in activities from feeding the poor to caring for immigrants, religious groups nurture the capacity of their members to be involved in social affairs.
• People who participate in religious groups have greater access to resources and the ability to obtain protection than individuals.
• Placing restrictions on faith may make members more cohesive and resentful, and more likely to join in protest.

Still, there is also something more behind their motivation that is intrinsic to religion, Yang said.

For many religious people, the call to protest perceived injustice is part of “a divine calling,” a sign of trust in response to a supernatural being who they believe loves and cares for them.

The findings from the new study are also consistent with a growing body of research showing restrictions on religious freedom, often imposed on minority religious groups during periods of social tension, increase, rather than reduce conflict.

Restricting the freedoms of one religious group creates higher levels of tensions, increases the risk of violence and persecution and is associated with greater loss of freedom for majority and minority faiths alike, according to Pennsylvania State University sociologist Roger Finke, a leading researcher on religious freedom.

Whether it is China trying to impose militant atheism or Russia cracking down on minority religions, “Government suppression of religion has unintended consequences,” Yang said. “The better approach is to grant those freedoms, and they can become a constructive force in society.”

With enough spiritual capital, the latest research suggests, the non-violent and the humble also may inherit the Earth.

Image by Elizabeth Arrott/VOA, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Image by Marbella112, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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