Religious diversity key to social cohesion despite short-term challenges

Friday, 10 May 2019


While changes to religious diversity may lead to a short-term friction within communities, long term benefits are clear as society adjusts to multiculturalism, new research has shown.

Co-author and University of Newcastle Global Innovation Chair in Social Conflict and Cohesion, Professor Miles Hewstone, with colleagues from the University of Oxford, have conducted the most thorough analysis to date on the effect of religious diversity on human well-being.

Their findings reveal that, despite initial challenges as a result of a perceived ‘threat’ to existing groups, negative feelings around religious diversity dissipate and communities thrive within four to eight years.

“Our findings show that a lack of trust in ‘unknown others’ is key to understanding the short-term negative effect on quality of life brought by religiously diverse societies,” said Professor Hewstone.

“As time goes on and trust levels improve, quality of life also improves.”

Professor Hewstone said humans had evolved to react negatively to threats to homogeneity, as survival was dependent on cooperation and cohesion with those belonging to our ‘in-group’, and protecting each other from potential dangers represented by the unknown others in the ‘out-group’.

“Due to increasing globalisation, societies around the world are transforming from religiously homogenous groups, to increasingly diverse communities,” he explained.

A major concern highlighted in the study is the vulnerability of communities to populist and nationalist propaganda during the four-to-eight-year transition period.

“During this period, anti-diversity narratives will be particularly powerful, given that they will trigger some of our most basic human instincts,” said Professor Hewstone.

“Responsible politicians should be taking care not to prey on this vulnerability, and instead focus on encouraging trust and tolerance in their electorates.”

Despite the initial challenges, Professor Hewstone explained that human nature ultimately drives us to engage with a diverse group of people.

“While humans may initially reject diversity as a safety mechanism, they also have an impulse to engage in contact with other people and groups,” he said.

“Provided that people do engage with diverse others – and ideally, society in the form of government will encourage mixing over segregation – then the positive effect of diversity promoting contact will trump the negative effect of diversity driving down trust.

“Biologists and anthropologists have long believed that humans fared better than other species due to contact with ‘unknown others’, bringing about a variety of benefits that cannot be attained by ‘in-group’ interactions alone.”