The differentiation into three coping styles or mechanisms can be related both to the three essential factors in conflicts as described by the political and social sciences (Pelinka 2016) and to three fundamental dimensions of religion, which, despite the complex discussions about a definition of religion, nevertheless mark a consensus in research:
Conflicts often concern actual or felt deficiencies that cause suffering. These can be shortages of raw materials such as water, housing or food, but also immaterial goods such as access to education, social recognition, justice or freedom. The resulting experience of scarcity initially generates emotional reactions, which call for emotion-based coping strategies. Conflicts over material or immaterial goods break out regarding concrete cases and therefore call for problem-oriented coping, which aims at changing the conditions that lead to suffering and stress. Finally, conflicts are marked and shaped by interpretations and discourses, symbols and narratives that form the framework for disputes over the equitable distribution of contingent goods and the validity of convictions and values. These conflict factors as well as the respective coping mechanisms interact and overlap with each other and therefore constitute the dynamics and the complexity of conflicts. (Fig. 2).
As to conflicts involving religion, these often prove to be particularly complex because religion can become relevant not only in relation to one of these conflict factors but can also affect all of them. There is a broad academic debate on whether and how religion can be defined (Werkner 2016; Pollack 2018). Countless attempts at a definition have been discussed so far. However, a certain consensus is emerging on the distinction between different dimensions of religion. For the interdisciplinary analysis of conflicts involving religion an approach via various dimensions of the religious proves to be more meaningful than concrete definitions (Krech 2018). The polythetic conceptualization of religion pursued here combines functional and substantial aspects and distinguishes three main dimensions of religion (Kaufmann 1989; Saler 2000; Basedau 2016):
Religion addresses experiences and feelings of contingency (such as death, fate, illness, birth, sublimity, inevitability) and handles the way people feel and act through rituals and lifestyles.
Religion contributes to forming identities at both the individual and group level. In the social sciences, besides generation, social class, gender and ethnicity, religious affiliation is regarded as a breaking line in societies. These are the main categories of belonging and ascription that are used to mark people’s identities and along which conflicts are carried out.Footnote 8 Religious belonging, like other social identity markers, has the potential to serve or to hinder the integration in societies through collective obligation. Of particular importance for the understanding of social conflicts is the insight from intersectionality research that conflicts intensify when multiple breaking lines run in parallel. Based on this insight, a strong coping strategy would be to soften and cross such breaking lines (Frazer and Friedli 2015; Ullmann 2018), which can be done on emotional, factual and appraisal focused levels.
Religion influences how people understand the world by providing symbols, narratives, interpretations and teachings with rhetorical means and images. Worldviews and values are not only interpretations that refer secondarily to conflict objects. This is the false premise of those who believe that religion is principally exploited in conflicts and does not have the potential to cause conflicts. The opposite is the case: Religious—or even secular—convictions and values can themselves become roots or triggers of conflicts. (Fig. 3).
Given these dimensions of religion, it is important to understand how they interact and overlap in a specific conflict situation. This can be shown, for instance, by the case of religiously motivated male circumcision. It is a religious ritual which symbolizes the inclusion of baby boys in a specific religious group. As such it is part of a range of religious rituals and structures that are meant to convey identity and affiliation and to give guidance and orientation. It follows that circumcision is not a purely technical intervention that could be postponed until the boy has reached an age where he can decide for himself whether he wants to get circumcised or not. The contrary opinion of opponents of male circumcision might be legally sound and convincing but ignores the crucial ritualized purpose of the circumcision and is therefore seen as presumptuous and even insolent. From the perspective of members of the religion, the legal debate on whether circumcision can be identified as an (illegal) form of bodily harm completely misses the point; it is a ritual that forms identities and provides important narratives, images and values. Due to this strong dichotomy of perspectives and the mutual incomprehension it is unsurprising that the debate quickly turns into accusations of an archaic and barbaric human rights violation from one side and of antisemitism from the other. It shows that religion or religiously motivated behaviour not only can cause conflicts, but also that religion deeply affects how people view and assess certain instances or phenomena and that opposing views are seen as an attack on a certain religion overall.
Finally, different historical and present cases of coping with religious conflicts can be compared and evaluated regarding the different outcomes. Some forms of coping will prove to be more successful in particular conflict situations than others. Thus, the concept also has the potential to advance visions for the development of appropriate coping strategies. It can cross the border between pure descriptive analysis and the more prescriptive recommendation. Given this potential of coping as a travelling concept, we have to pose the question: How must the coping concept be specified and further developed when transferring it from individual to social or political conflicts, so that it proves to be a meaningful analytical tool in conflict research? The following aspects have to be considered:
When coping is transferred from individual to collective processes, several actors with their own coping styles and strategies automatically come into play. These different types of coping have to be analyzed individually, but also in their interaction. Therefore, different degrees of intensity of the intention of stress reduction will also play a role. This also leads to a greater role for problem-oriented and interpretation-focused coping than in individual psychology, where the focus is mostly on emotion-based coping.
The question of how the success or failure of coping strategies can be measured is more difficult to answer in social conflicts than in individual cases. In psychology coping is considered successful when the individual feeling of stress with regard to the balance between person and environment or their requirements and possibilities for action has been reduced; positive forms of coping lead to a better state of health on a personal level. Can this be transferred to groups and societies? And if so, how or by whom can this balance be verified? Is it true that only history can tell? And can history tell us at all?
When coping is applied to social and political phenomena, power issues become even more important than at the individual level. Power and authority not only play a role on the problem-oriented level, but in sometimes more subtle ways power questions are also of importance on the level of discourse, i.e., meaning-focused coping. Here the question of power arises as a question of sovereignty of interpretation and access to discourses.
In contrast to individual contexts, in social and political conflicts the various forms and acts of coping as well as the success of that coping must be described in a multi-perspective way with regard to many different actors, their intentions and power. A context-sensitive and actor-oriented conflict analysis will be guided by the following questions: Who acts in which way to reduce the stress caused by a conflict for oneself or for others? In which of the three coping categories—emotion-based, problem-oriented or meaning-focused—does the observed behaviour fall or are there mixed forms of coping? And how does this contribute to the dynamics of the conflict? This approach also facilitates the assessment of different coping attempts in view of similar conflicts.
As we have seen with the example of male circumcision, it is impossible to focus on only one dimension without affecting the other. Similarly, it is impossible on a social and political level to adopt a problem-oriented coping approach by, for instance, legally regulating the issue (or by deciding after consideration not to legally regulate the issue) without also deeply affecting the coping taking place on the level of emotions or meaning, such as the importance of certain rituals to strengthen bonds of identity. This in turn can lead to newly felt shortages, e.g., a lack of social recognition or religious tolerance, which again require some form of coping. The question then arises if these negative effects from the political problem-oriented coping on the levels of emotions and meaning can be limited or even avoided if the legal measures adopted are widely accepted as being fair and balanced.
This example shows that the distinction among the three types of coping, developed in psychology, can contribute to a precise analysis of conflict dynamics and thus may provide the precondition for the search for suitable coping strategies. But before we can move on from descriptive conflict analysis to the normative development and assessment of coping strategies for today’s conflicts with religious dimensions, a further analytical step must be taken in order to better describe the entanglement of individual and collective aspects of coping with conflicts. Therefore, we propose a further specification in coping styles, coping strategies and coping structures.