Religion Snapshots: Critical Thinking and an Analysis of Wikipedia


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally.

Note: the following is in response to a recent article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey on the topic of Wikipedia and representations of religion.

Steven Ramey: “The problem confronting many Wikipedia editors is that religion elicits passion,” writes Sarah Pulliam Bailey in her Huff Post article “Religion On Wikipedia Is A Recipe For Controversy As ‘Edit Wars’ Rage On.” (originally titled, “Wikipedia’s edit wars and the 8 religious pages people can’t stop editing” on Religion News Service) Her argument, however, best illustrates how analysis often reflects the expectations of the author more than something inherent in the topic. While many people (myself included) will argue that the elements that people identify as religious or sacred generate significant passion (perhaps because such labels work to invest particular items with special significance and are thus quite useful to many people, such as the owners of Hobby Lobby or anyone mobilizing people to defend a particular cause), the frequency of edits to Wikipedia articles does not place topics that Bailey identifies as religious in an exceptional position.

The original post outlining the top 100 edited articles on Wikipedia identifies other articles and categories that generate more passion, as measured by number of edits. For example, Bailey notes, “Former President George W. Bush is the most contested entry, but Jesus (No. 5) and the Catholic Church (No. 7) fall closely behind.” Looking only at the top ten, though, we find three popular entertainment oriented articles (List of WWE personnel (No. 2), Michael Jackson (No. 4), and Britney Spears (No. 10) and three political figures (Bush with Obama (No. 8) and Hitler (No. 9), compared to only two of Bailey’s religion topics. The three entertainment figures, furthermore, actually have the lowest overall ranking of these three categories, and musicians appear about twice as often as religions in the entire list. So, does popular entertainment generate more passion than religion? In fact, Mona Chalabi at notes that the WWE has more Top 100 edited articles than “any other single body” (however that is determined). So, does WWE generate more passion than any religious or political institution?

This discussion also illustrates the arbitrary nature of these categorizations. Bailey references global warming (No. 24) and Israel (No. 57) as “countries and topics with religious sensitivities.” Of course, we could also include Pope John Paul II (No. 82) as a political figure, if we wanted to expand the dominance of the political category, or Beyonce (No. 33) as a religious figure based on some recent discussions of Beyism. As with many forms of analysis, people can create a variety of arguments to illustrate what they prefer or already know to be the case. Recognizing this reinforces for me the importance of teaching students to think critically about whatever sources they use, whether Wikipedia, news stories, or academic articles.

Matt Sheedy: Discussing the role of Wikipedia administrators, who have more authority than mere “Wikipedians,” (i.e., those tens of thousands who have signed up as volunteers for the website) Sarah Pullman Bailey frames her discussion around the “edit wars” that take place between them, claiming that the regulation of Wikipedia pages–the 5th most trafficked site on the Internet–is particularly dicey when it comes to the topic of religion. 

While noting that the bulk of Wikipedians self-identify as atheists, Christians, Muslims, Pastafarians and Jews, listed in that order, (are there really more Pastifarians than Jews?) the article centers on the experience of Anthony Willey, a 29 year old physics graduate and self-identified Mormon, who states that his editing is not motivated by personal convictions but by “when people say things that aren’t true.” Instead of inserting his own “opinion,” he relies on “trusted sources,” citing Columbia University historian Richard Bushman as one example.

“Even if I don’t agree with something in his book, for the purposes of editing Wikipedia, it keeps me honest,” Willey said. “It makes it very hard for people to argue with me because when it comes to editing something on Wikipedia, it all comes down to who has the best source. If I’m promoting the view of the best source, I’m always right.”

While there are many problems that could be flagged in this statement, such as the presumption that “opinion” is somehow mitigated when relying on “trusted sources,” one thing that interests me here is the boundary that his statement suggests between editing standards and editing practices. A quick search on Wikipedia’s Editorial Oversight and Control page reveals multiple guidelines for would-be editors, such as the “Wikipedia: Five Pillars” and the “consensus-based ethos.” 

In one sense, this is encouraging since (in theory) revisions are made based on quantifiable standards that can be publically assessed for their value and (in theory) critiqued and improved upon over time. A discussion between Willey and fellow Wikipedian, John Carter, over the distinction between mythology and religion seems to reflect the “consensus-based ethos” at work, while Carter’s musings on the historical Jesus appears to align with guidelines contained in the “Five Pillars” (e.g., “We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them.”)

It would no doubt make for an interesting study to compare, say, the methods and demographics used in the construction of old encyclopedias with those of Wikipedia in order to better understand what basis for analyses are used, what “credentials” and cultural prejudices the editors hold and what normative assumptions circulate in regards to notion of “authenticity” and “religion”? On this last point, we can imagine the conditioning effect that the “edit wars,” in particular the policing of “hate speech,” have on the administrators in regards to their own assumptions about “truth” and “acceptability.”

Wikipedia has an ambiguous reputation among professors. On the one hand, it can be useful for a quick point of reference, such as gleaning a few talking points on string theory or getting a biographical sketch on Richard Dawkins. (He wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976; his father was a colonial administration in Kenya, where he was raised till the age of 8, etc.) While students are typically discouraged from using Wikipedia as a primary reference, since, among other reasons, its sources often change and the standards for their verification, selection and framing are hard to determine, it would be naïve to think that they aren’t influenced by it. After all, what comes up in the first few entries when you type “Mormonism” into a search engine? 

Perhaps it would be a productive class assignment (and some covert data collection too!) to get each student to look into one citation on the page for, say, Mormonism, and provide some basic data on the type of source (e.g., newspaper, blog, insiders’ testament, scholarly monograph, etc.), the author’s background and the basic thrust of the argument. Not only would this allow students to get a sense of the variety of sources, ideas and subject-positions involved in popular representations of religion, but it would also provide them with some hands-on collaborative experience in demonstrating how definitions are constructed, contested and modified in the most mundane of places.

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