In humanitarian emergencies across the world, people commonly look to their local faith communities for support. But does religion help people and societies cope with and transition out of conflict and disaster, or is it ill-equipped, superstitious and fatalist, even creating conflict in the first place?

Despite frequent predictions that modernity would inevitably supplant faith, people continue to gather in religious communities, deeply connected through shared allegiance and identity. The persistence and resurgence of faith has led to a growing awareness of the role of religion in global affairs in the past two decades, with more global agencies recognizing that religion can no longer simply be overlooked. However, many humanitarian actors are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the languages, structures and operations of local faith communities.

My work as a faith and local community researcher has set out to pursue evidence and explore partnerships between agencies and local communities of faith. From a detailed review of academic and practitioner perspectives, it is clear that religion can potentially both support and inhibit specific humanitarian outcomes.

Local faith communities provide vital support for those affected by conflict, displacement and other emergencies. Their “embeddedness” within local communities can valuably situate local faith communities within established national and transnational networks, as well as often providing them with a better understanding of local dynamics.

The resources of faith, though, are not solely physical. As the psychosocial well-being of people is increasingly considered alongside their physical wellness, the role religious beliefs (such as “God is on my side”) and religious practices (prayer, worship, counseling) as key sources of coping and resilience have begun to be recognized.

But religion cannot be seen to universally promote positive outcomes such as resilience. Many are concerned that the very idea of religious communities, delineated by their view of the world, conflicts with a humanitarian commitment to impartiality and neutrality. Others argue that faith communities often lack necessary professional training, have vested local interests, and promote values of fatalism and inaction.

A key pattern emerging is that characteristics of faith – embeddedness, promoting divine explanations, etc. – can help or hinder humanitarian efforts. In short, faith is not homogeneous: religions are not “good” or “bad” for specific development outcomes such as resilience, but are complex and powerful phenomena, often at the centre of societies, that have the potential to support or obstruct the pursuit of such outcomes.

It is our hope that policies are formulated to recognize such complexity and deliver on the promise of engagement with local faith communities.

Author: Joey Ager is a Researcher at the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, a grouping of agencies and academics investigating faith in modern humanitarianism.

Image: A woman lights frankincense at Shwedagon pagoda in Myanmar REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun