Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Last Updated: March 13, 2009

Although there is no universally agreed upon definition of religion and religious actors, a few definitional references may help lend understanding to the range of actors and topics covered by this sub-section.

Elements of religion

Some authors, such as scholar Gerrie ter Haar, identify four main elements of religion, each offering particular resources for peacebuilding: 1

  • Religious ideas (content of belief), which also often are defined as "a yearning for transcendence, for moving and reaching beyond the mundane, the spatial and temporal, the physical and contingent. . . . [Religion] implicitly or explicitly makes the claim that as human beings we are oriented toward a horizon beyond history";2
  • Religious practices (ritual behavior);
  • Social organization (religious community); and
  • Religious, or spiritual, experiences.
Another scholar, R. Scott Appleby, refers to similar components when he defines "religion as the human response to a reality perceived as sacred. . . . Religion, as interpreter of the sacred, discloses and celebrates the transcendent source and significance of human existence. So ambitious an enterprise requires a formidable array of symbolic, moral, and organizational resources. In a common formula: religion embraces a creed, a cult, a code of conduct, and a confessional community."3

Douglas Johnston, also a scholar, explains that religion implies "an institutional framework within which specific theological doctrines and practices are advocated and pursued, usually among a community of like-minded believers."4

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By contrast, spirituality transcends the normal parameters of organized religion, suggesting a less bounded and, at times, more far-reaching scope of human involvement.5 The addition of the spiritual dimension to a peacebuilding process can create access to the more deep-seated, affective base of different actors behavior, enabling them to examine critically their own attitudes and actions.

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This notion may also be found in discussions about religion and peacebuilding, particularly interfaith dialogues. In ways very similar to spirituality, reverence refers to "the shared devotion to high ideals. Reverence enables participants from different faith traditions to jointly affirm transcendent ideals such as honor, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and freedom."6

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Scholar Lisa Schirch defines ritual through three specific characteristics. "First, it occurs in a unique social space, set apart from everyday life. Second, communication operates through symbols and emotions rather than relying primarily on words or rational thought. In ritual, individuals learn by doing and utilize nonverbal communication. Third, ritual confirms and transforms peoples worldviews, identities, and relationships with others."7 It is important to note that rituals are not necessarily religious.

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Religious peacebuilding

This expression is sometimes used in the literature in occurrences when religious militants dedicated to nonviolence acquire technical and professional skills in prevention and early warning, mediation and conciliation, and other elements of conflict transformation.8

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Religious actors

Religious actors

Religious actors may be defined as "people who have been formed by a religious community and who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts."9

Religious authorities

This expression generally refers to "spiritual leaders and 'guides of the faithful.'"10 They occupy a position of authority in the religious organization or community.

Faith-based NGOs

Faith-based non-governmental organizations are "non-state actors that have a religious or faith core to their philosophy, membership, or programmatic approach, although they are not simply missionaries."11

1. See, David R. Smock, Religious Contributions to Peacemaking: When Religion Brings Peace, Not War (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, January 2006).
2. Damon Lynch, "Book Summary of the Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation by R. Scott Appleby," Beyond Intractability, 2000.
3. R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 8.
4. Douglas Johnston, "Introduction: Beyond Power Politics," in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, ed. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 4.
5. Ibid., 4.
6. Renee Garfinkel, What Works? Evaluating Interfaith Dialogue Programs (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, July 2004), 3
7. Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005), 12.
8. Scott, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 282.
9. Ibid., 9.
10. Ibid., 285.
11. Susan Diklitch and Heather Price, "The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Faith-Based NGO Aid to Africa," Development in Practice 14, no. 5 (2004): 662.

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