There is no clear statistical relationship between either the presence or the absence of religious belief and conflict, according to the latest research report from the Institute for Economics and Peace carried out in conjunction with the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
The report, Five Key Questions Answered on the Link between Peace and Religion, provides a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between peace and religion. The report found that even at the extremes, the least peaceful countries are not necessarily the most religious and vice versa. 

The most peaceful countries are a mixture of both religious and less religious countries. For instance, 3 out of the 10 most peaceful countries in the 2013 GPI are more religious than the international average. At the other end of the scale 2 out of the 10 least peaceful countries have some of the lowest rates of religion attendance in the world, notably North Korea.    

Countries with more atheists are not more peaceful. The countries with the first and third highest percentage of atheists, North Korea and Russia, performed in the bottom ten for the 2013 GPI. If a country has greater than five per cent of its population as atheist then it’s likely to be either a communist or former communist state or from Europe. Of the 10 most peaceful countries in the 2013 GPI, only 2 countries have greater than 10% atheists. These countries are New Zealand with around 32% and Belgium at approximately 20%.

Rather than religious similarities, the least peaceful countries have political and regional similarities. The least peaceful countries are on average authoritarian countries and are located in the three least peaceful regions in the world: the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. For example, Malaysia is considerably more peaceful than neighboring country Myanmar. A major difference between these countries is that Malaysia is more democratic, whereas Myanmar is in its early stages of its democratization process. The government type therefore, appears to be a more significant distinguishing characteristic of peace, with full democracies and especially member states of the European Union having the best measures in peace, regardless of the levels of religion beliefs.

PictureSource: IEP, World Religion Project
Over two thirds of countries in the world greater than 95% of the population hold religious beliefs and high levels of religious belief can be found at either end of the GPI. Countries with the highest presence of religious belief also have vast differences in peace.

There is not a significant correlation between levels of religious belief and peace, with an r=0.14. Generally IEP considers a measure of at least r=0.5 to be significant. All correlations in Table 2 are extremely low, to the extent that no relationship was uncovered. Furthermore, the results are in divergent directions meaning that a linear connection between the presence of religion and peace is highly unlikely.

While 15 of the 20 most peaceful countries in the world have less religion than the international average, it does not follow that all peaceful countries have low religious levels. Iceland, for example, is the most peaceful country in the 2013 GPI but has relatively high levels of religious belief. In fact, 11 of the top 20 countries on the GPI have more than 90% of their population identifying with religious beliefs.

The overwhelming majority of people in most countries, including the most peaceful, have religious attendance rates of over 80%. Atheists are a small minority globally, and only a majority in five of the 162 countries analyzed, thereby limiting any explanatory effect on a society as a whole. 

AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin*
Restrictions on religious freedom in North Korea - which external observers rate as among the world's most severe - cannot be rated by the Pew Research Center because independent, on-the-ground observers are kept out of Kim Jong-un's secretive regime.

While this is a testimony to the methodological integrity of Pew Research, such paucity of information makes it highly problematic to assess the situation as Kim's regime claims to "enter a state of war" with South Korea and, by extension, with the U.S.

Nevertheless, the sources used by the Pew Forum to assess restrictions on religion in 198 other countries clearly indicate that North Korea's government is among the most repressive in the world with respect to religion as well as other civil and political liberties.

What do the sources say?

The U.S. State Department's 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom, for example, says that "Genuine freedom of religion does not exist" in North Korea.

The International Crisis Group describes the godlike status of Kim Jong-un: North Korean propaganda refers to the Great Leader as the 'brain' for the 'national body.' "North Koreans are indoctrinated to believe that 'freedom and national independence' are only possible by submitting to and supporting the leader - even if it means sacrificing one’s own life."

Human Rights Watch states that the government "does not allow ... religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and pervasive problems. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, for which it enslaves hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children."

For instance, in one of the rare cases coming to international attention, Amnesty International reports that in June, 2010, Mrs. Ri Hyun-ok, 33 years old, was publicly executed in the north-western city of Ryongchon (near the border with China) on charges of distributing Bibles and espionage. Ri Hyun-ok's parents, husband and three children were sent to a political prison camp in the north-eastern city of Hoeryong.

According to Human Rights Without Frontiers, "North Korea totally lacks religious freedom. Its religious delegations are made up of government officials. This way, the regime can claim that 'religious pluralism' exists in the country."

Freedom House observes that freedom of religion does not exist in practice. "State-sanctioned churches maintain a token presence in Pyongyang. However, intense state indoctrination and repression preclude free exercise of religion."

And the 2012 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) concludes that in North Korea there "continue to be reports of severe religious freedom abuses ... including discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity; and the mistreatment and imprisonment of asylum-seekers repatriated from China, particularly those suspected of engaging in religious activities, having religious affiliations, or possessing religious literature."

Photo: North Korean army officers punch the air as they chant slogans during a rally at Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, March 29, 2013. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong-un's call to arms.