Could religion be a catalyst to cooperation in the Middle East?
As war rages in Israel and Gaza, new psychology research suggests that Israelis and Palestinians think that the other group’s religious beliefs support cooperation and don’t necessarily promote conflict.
The research, conducted in the West Bank and Israel before the war began, asked Muslim Palestinians and Jewish Israelis how they thought the other group’s belief in God influenced that group’s actions.
Participants said they believed members of the other group would be more generous and benevolent if members of that group had been prompted to think about God.
For co-lead author Michael Pasek, assistant professor of psychology at UIC, the takeaway is that religion shouldn’t be assumed to always exacerbate conflicts. In some cases, it could help make people regard the other side more positively.
“We often talk about religion in a conflict as something that is always going to make things worse,” said Pasek, who conducted the research prior to joining UIC. “The story isn’t so simple. We’re finding that not only does religion not always make things worse, but it can help make intergroup relations more cooperative.”
For example, in one scenario, the researchers asked Israeli participants to predict how much money a Palestinian would give to an Israeli if the Palestinian had been asked to think about God. Palestinians were asked the same thing in reverse. Both groups said they thought the person would be more generous if that person was thinking about God.
The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Co-lead author Crystal Shackleford, a postdoctoral scholar at Yale, said the findings could help people reframe conflict in critical ways by moving away from a rigid belief that the other side is motivated by what they think God wants them to do.
“When you frame conflict as coming from a belief in the Divine, it can put it beyond the scope of what’s negotiable and make things feel intractable,” she said.
While the fieldwork for this study, some of which was conducted on the ground in the West Bank, was done in 2019, the lessons feel very salient to Pasek today as the war in the region continues.
“I’m seeing a lot of people make very essentialist claims about how religion motivates actors in conflict,” he said. This leaves out all sorts of nuances about how people view the religious beliefs of the other side. “Our work suggests that religion might help to facilitate some of the very cooperation that it’s often assumed to be an obstacle to achieving.”
The other authors on the study are Allon Vishkin at Techinon-Israel Institute of Technology and Jeremy Ginges at the London School of Economics. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Religious Trust.