Religious Diversity: Transitions, Intersections, Flashpoints, and Institutions

page 1 March 2016 coverThe following is the introduction to the March 2016 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted), written by Lori Beaman (University of Ottawa), who is the director of the Religion and Diversity Project. We wish to express our appreciation to Dr. Beaman for kindly offering to present this set of articles for this issue of the Bulletin in her opening piece. Although not covered in this introduction (which was designed to situate the RDP articles), we also wish to draw readers’ attention to the review essay by Michael Kaler on Jason Bivins’ recent book Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion along with the response by Bivins. We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Lori Beaman

University of Ottawa

The demarcation of religious diversity as something to be studied, regulated, or governed is inherently problematic, and thus as researchers we have a responsibility to critically engage with the implications of targeting religious diversity as an area of study. Yet religious diversity is a central preoccupation of states and civil society and is attached to questions of equality and social inclusion, pluralism, and social cohesion. Each of these terms is a minefield of ideological approaches and incorporates a wealth of policy and practical concerns and responses. All make claims on what it means to live well together. Moreover, increasingly the notion of religious diversity has come to include the nonreligious as well: the increase in the number of various “nones” (secularists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, the uncommitted, unconcerned, and indifferent) is significantly changing the religious landscape (some have described it as a seismic shift), posing new challenges to societies that are simultaneously witnessing increased religious diversity, a renewed presence of religion in the public sphere, and a growing number of those who belong to the under-studied category of “none.” The rise of the nones has also foregrounded the inadequacy of understanding religious identity using traditional categories and measures, as well as the challenges of over-emphasizing religion as an identity category. All of this makes for a complicated field of study and a moving target in terms of solidifying focus. This is the context in which the Religion and Diversity Project has developed and conducts its activities.

The Religion and Diversity Project is a seven-year research project involving thirty-seven researchers and five comparator countries (Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and France). We’ve also collaborated with scholars from Germany, Brazil, Sweden, and India, to name a few, in the course of our activities. The scholars involved are from a range of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, political science, and theology. We have a wide range of activities, from more traditional research projects to collaborations with policy makers and museums. We’ve been methodologically innovative and creative in our approach to research as well as knowledge dissemination. One of the major strengths of the project is that while we have from the outset named specific research goals and projects, we’ve also retained enough flexibility to respond to the very rapidly changing research landscape I’ve mentioned above. The primary intellectual strands of the project as well as the range of activities are described in the overview piece by our information officer, Tess Campeau in her “Facts and Figures Report” in this issue. As we have moved through the project it has become abundantly clear that Canada, along with a number of other Western democracies, is in a moment of transition in relation to religious identities. An increasing number of people are identifying as nonreligious, but there is little sense of what exactly that means. Moreover, even for many—those who claim a religious identity—there is limited participation in organized religion, which has been a standard measure for Christian majority countries. Questions about authority, individualization, and worldviews are at the forefront of research right now. Christianity remains embedded in social institutions even in countries in which formal participation has sharply declined. Tracing the subtle ways in which this residue shapes daily life, especially for minority religious groups who are not Christian, and for those who are nonreligous, requires a critical research approach. One of the key pillars of such research is the re-examination of measures of religious identity.  In their discussion “Measuring Religious Identity Differently,” Peter Beyer, Alyshea Cummins, and Scott Craig describe some preliminary results from an ongoing project aimed at recrafting measures of religious identity. As they point out, traditional measures include assumptions that limit their utility in terms of understanding religious identity. A key goal in that project has been to leave space for a more robust understanding of nonreligion. We are not alone in this endeavour, as scholars like Joseph Baker and Buster Smith in the United States, Linda Woodhead, Abby Day, and Simeon Wallis in the UK engage in projects with similar aims. As Beyer et al. point out, there is much to be learned about the nonreligious. Under this “identity” strand of the project we are also conducting another study which builds on a ten-year collaborative project let by Beyer. Drawing from a sample of one hundred participants in that study (the Immigrant Youth/Young Adults study) we are tracking shifts in their religious identities over the life course. Such longitudinal studies are rare and our hope is to deepen knowledge about identity shifts over the life course.

From a different perspective, the complexity of identity is illustrated by the results of the Religion, Gender, Sexuality and Youth study reported on here by Pamela Dickey Young, Heather Shipley, and Ian Cuthbertson. In our initial application we identified gender and sexuality as potential hotspots requiring intensified research attention. The findings of the project reported by Young et al. unpack some of the assumptions made about religion in the lives of young people, especially vis-à-vis gender and sexuality. Choice, negotiation, and engagement are words that characterize the youth-religion relationship in relation to gender and sexuality. This project has served as a methodological model in that we consulted with Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip and his team in Britain, using a modified version of their survey to develop a project in Canada that would stand on its own, but whose results could also be compared with the UK project. This strategy takes a value added approach: while each social context has its own peculiarities, we also live in a global world that requires a new approach: researchers must move beyond their own national contexts in seeking to understand the world we live in. Increased international collaboration and consultation is a necessary component in this.

Knowledge transfer is a key component of any research, and our project is no exception in its goal to disseminate results—where possible in an interactive manner. Both the media tips by Solange Lefebvre and Kim Knott and the innovative pedagogical approaches described by Cathy Holtmann and Nancy Nason-Clark address two important sites of dissemination—the media and the classroom.  In both settings there is potential for misunderstanding, “delicate moments,” and distressing outcomes. Both situations are key opportunities for researchers to transfer research findings. The Religion and Diversity Project will wind down during the next two years as our funding comes to an end. Our results thus far highlight the dynamic nature of the study of religious diversity and signal a need for continued engagement with a number of questions. Key debates include religious education and its utility in accomplishing a level of religious literacy that is helpful in facilitating living well together. Also emerging as an important area of study is the environment and human/non-human animal relations. All of this gestures toward new and emerging models of living with diversity in a complex future.

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