A recent Best Countries international survey asking more than 21,000 people what they believe is the at the heart of global conflict, the majority of respondents pointed to religion.
Spiritual beliefs create an inherent "us vs. them" scenario, experts say.
"When societies shatter, they generally shatter along tribal lines. People are seeing themselves as irretrievably different from their neighbors," says Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published books on Islam and the conflict between religion and science.
Further, religion is part of people's identities, which can make it more difficult to handle criticism.
“Any beliefs that concern the sacred are integral to people’s identities,” says Andrew Tix, a psychology professor at Normandale Community College whose nationally recognized research focuses on religion and spirituality. “People differ in how much they’re threatened when the sacred is brought into question.”
How people respond to such questioning depends in large part on how tightly they hold onto their beliefs, a characteristic psychology measures in terms of 'openness to experience'.
Some people have found ways to “hold their beliefs more lightly and with a sense of mystery,” he says. They would score high on ‘openness,’ while fundamentalists who hold their beliefs with heavy conviction would more likely score low.
The stronger a person’s convictions in their identity – of which religion is often a key part – the more likely they are to be violent when their identity is threatened.
If rigid religious beliefs are a key contributor to global strife, the future could hold more conflict as opposed to less if solutions are not found:
Estimates from Pew Research Center predict that the worldwide population of religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from about 16 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2050. In the same time frame, the share of Muslims is predicted to grow from 23 percent to 30 percent of the world’s population.