A better understanding of religion is needed for responses to religion-related security challenges, shows research.

Poor religious literacy in the UK is a widespread and substantial problem which inhibits an effective assessment and response to religion-related security challenges, according to recent research into the relationship between religion and society.

"During the two-year project we explored two concepts that people find tricky: religion and security and how they interact with each other," says Professor John Wolffe. "What emerged is the importance of ensuring that responses to ongoing security challenges are informed by a more sophisticated understanding of religion and of the subtleties in how religious groups operate.

"Equally clear is that while people can see religion as a threat to security, very often it may actually be part of a solution to social and community tensions," says Professor Wolffe.

Religiously-motivated groups and individuals have played substantial roles in peacebuilding and conflict prevention. Such work tends to be under-reported. It is much easier – and superficially more interesting – to report and analyse a conflict that did happen than to assess the extent to which ongoing patient interventions have prevented one that did not happen.

The study dismisses any notion of a simple 'cause and effect' perspective whereby 'dangerous' or conflicted religious ideas lead people to violent action. Rather, research points to a complex combination of circumstances that can spark violence. Hence, seeking simple and short-term solutions is likely to prove counterproductive.

Lessons from the Northern Ireland experience need to be better understood in other parts of the UK, says Professor Wolffe. "It is significant in highlighting the counterproductive consequences of alienating whole communities by measures to control an 'extremist' minority; and of the long-term risk of achieving coexistence by segregation rather than integration."

The study points out that it is unrealistic to anticipate that secularisation will provide a long-term solution to religious conflict. In some locations, notably London, the decline in organised religion has halted or even gone into reverse. Committed religious minorities will persist, and are liable to have difficult relationships with wider society in a climate of widespread religious illiteracy.

Better understanding of religion is needed in policy thinking and among the public. Government needs to develop more effective mechanisms for taking religious factors into account in domestic and foreign policy development by, for example, establishing a unit/office which draws on insights from academia and religious groups. "This could be important as the UK looks to the wider world following Brexit," says Professor Wolffe.