Database of Religious History awarded largest grant for a UBC humanities research project

UBC’s Database of Religious History (DRH) project has received the largest grant to date for a single research project in the humanities at UBC—$4.8 million from the John Templeton Foundation.

Led by Dr. Edward Slingerland and Dr. M. Willis Monroe, the project aims to democratize knowledge about religious history, enabling scholars of religion from around the world to share their expertise with a global audience by contributing to the free, searchable database. Each contribution in turn makes the database more useful—and reliable—for everyone

We spoke with Dr. Slingerland about how he’s using the database to draw connections between religions around the world and how the database could be used by scholars and policymakers in the future.

What is the Database of Religious History and how does it work?

An online quantitative and qualitative encyclopedia is one way to look at it. You can use it as a reference source for the religious historical record—across the world, throughout history, back to the earliest archaeological evidence.

It turns qualitative knowledge, which is spread out over monographs and articles and all this material that you can never master yourself, into quantitative data that you can look at instantly. You can do a query on a question you’re interested in and say “I’m interested in answers to this question in this region,” or you can do it by keyword, or you can just browse people’s entries. You can get an instantaneous feel for what consensus—or lack of consensus—on a question is.

“We realized that the Database of Religious History could function as a new tool that, by converting qualitative data into quantitative, could give scholars an instant overview of their field, or an introduction to new fields.”
Project Director, Database of Religious History

Why is this tool needed?

Initially, the DRH was a response to the lack of a tool for analyzing history quantitatively. We wanted to have quantitative answers to questions—like whether a religious group has a “high god” or a particular type of ritual—so the original purpose of the DRH was to serve as a database for scientists who wanted to test hypotheses about the cultural evolution against historical data.

As scholars of religion and historians, we make generalizations about the religious groups and traditions that we study, and it used to be the case that we could make these pretty confidently because we could keep the entire field in our head. What’s changed is that, especially over the last 10-15 years, scholarship has exploded. It’s physically impossible to read everything. We’re still using the same method that our intellectual grandparents used two generations ago, and it worked for them because their fields were small, but doesn’t work for us anymore. I can’t even keep up the literature in English, let alone, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean… So, in addition to its original function, we realized that the DRH could also function as a new tool that, by converting qualitative data into quantitative, could give scholars an instant overview of their field, or an introduction to fields with which they are not familiar.

We also offer multilingual support—right now English, Chinese and French—and we’re hoping to expand to other languages. I think what we’re going to see is a much more diverse group of opinions represented than is typically the case in standard reference books.

How are you using the database in your own research?

We’re currently writing a paper on the taxonomy of religions. We have this algorithm that goes through and says, “Of all the religious groups that have been coded in the DRH, which sets of answers to these questions match up the best?”

And what you end up with is what’s called a dendrogram. It’s like a tree structure where you’ve got a split, and the groups that are clustered together are similar. And it’s really cool—it looks kind of like how a religious studies scholar would classify religions around the world.

The first big split is roughly between, you might say “Eastern” and “Western” religions, basically Mediterranean / Near East versus and East and South Asian religions. And the question that’s driving that clustering is, “Is there a belief in reincarnation?” And then in the Mediterranean / Near East group, there’s another big split. What you see is the Abrahamic faiths all in one branch because they’re all monotheistic, and then you’ve got Greek religion and all the other polytheistic groups in another branch.

So we’re showing that this really dumb algorithm that’s just using statistical patterns can reproduce, roughly, the way an expert would categorize religions around the world.

“Our hope is that contributing to the DRH will also become just a normative practice for scholars of religion in the same way that you'd be expected to publish in certain journals.”
Project Director, Database of Religious History

How might this database be used beyond academia?

There used to be this kind of sense that with modernization, religion was just going to fade away, and everyone would just become a secular consumer of resources, and it’s pretty clear that’s not the case. Religion still drives a lot of human behaviour.

Practically speaking, you can see this in things like vaccine uptake. We don’t have enough data to do this yet, but [with enough data] you’d be able to see things like whether or not religious beliefs or practices might be impacting people’s willingness to get vaccinated for COVID-19. If you were just puzzled as a policymaker why no one in a neighbourhood was getting vaccinated, you could discover what’s special about this neighbourhood—it could be a center for a particular religious group. The DRH could tell you this. Then, you can figure out if the beliefs of that group might contribute to not wanting to get vaccinated. That could be useful data that can help you shape your message when trying to enhance vaccine uptake.

What does this new funding mean for the Database of Religious History?

It allows a lot of exciting things to happen. We’re going to have five new postdocs on the project, and they’ll be tasked with making sure that their area of expertise is filled out completely, so that we can end up at the end of the grant with a sample of 8-10 regions of the world with in-depth and rigorous coverage.

Our hope is that contributing to the DRH will also become just a normative practice for scholars of religion in the same way that you’d be expected to publish in certain journals. If you’re an expert on X, you’d be expected to do an entry for the DRH, but we’re not there yet. And so, the creation of the postdoc positions is great because it will guarantee that we’ll have a certain number of areas that are complete, from early archaeological evidence to the present.