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Methodological Innovation in the Study of Religions: The Promise of Big Data

Panel Chairs: Frederick Tappenden, Brenton Sullivan | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

This panel introduces the Database of Religious History (DRH), the flagship initiative of the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium. The DRH aims to bring together, in a systematic and open-access format, data on religious groups from across the globe and throughout history (ca. the earliest archeological records to approximately 1500 CE). By utilizing robust, open-source technologies and best-practice software principles, the DRH constitutes a novel and innovative approach to historical and cultural studies. As a contribution to the scientific study of religion, the DRH offers data amenable to statistical analyses, thus providing tools for assessing diachronic religious innovation and adaptation, the testing of grand narrative theories of religious change, and for enriching and revitalizing traditional fields such as comparative religions, history of religion(s), and anthropology of religion. In addition to highlighting the DRH’s methodological potential, the proposed panel provides a summary of the overall project, in-depth discussions of the database initiative, an overview of the project’s suite of digital tools, and presentation of representative results-to-date.

Brenton Sullivan

The Religious Group: Demarcating the Unit of Analysis in the Database of Religious History

The unit of analysis for the Database of Religious History (DRH) is the “religious group.” Examples include churches, monasteries, religious communes, intellectual communities of authors of religious texts, sects and so on. The burden of defining a “religion” is lessened by asking the scholar contributing to the database to identify the target group and to isolate that group in space and time. The primary advantage of this approach is that the name(s) given to the religious group are secondary to the group’s attributes, which are also provided by the contributing scholar. What defines a religion, then, is not the name(s) scholars give it or even the name(s) adherents give themselves but rather the preponderance of or surprising lack of particular characteristics. The DRH, moreover, provides a program for identifying and analyzing the “polythetic, multi-factorial” definitions of religions described by Benson Saler (1993).

Frederick Tappenden

Digitising Historical Religions: Latium as a Case Study

The Database of Religious History (DRH) constitutes a major undertaking that will collect information on religious groups that span space and time, cultures and histories. In this paper I explore the challenges and potentialities of constructing the DRH within a specific geo-spatial region—namely, Latium. From the amphictyonic religion of Iron-Age Latium through the vicissitudinous polis-religion of Republican Rome to the Medieval cradle of western Christendom, Latium is marked historically by strong religious differences and intriguing continuities. Specific attention will be given to the problem of capturing long- and short-term variety and variation. In addition to detailing the conceptual and methodological challenges faced in digitally quantifying religious expressions that are known only through historically conditioned sources, this paper will also offer critical reflection on how digital humanities tools can supplement and complement traditional approaches in the humanities, particularly in the burgeoning field of comparative antique religions.

Michael Muthukrishna, Carson Logan

Studying Religion in the Digital Age: Technical Challenges and Solutions in Constructing the Database of Religious History

There are many challenges to designing a statistically-analyzable and human-readable database of knowledge that intends to grow over many decades. From a technical perspective, such a system needs to be able to handle hundreds of variables, millions of data points and potentially millions of users. From a user perspective, it needs to be (a) easy to enter data for experts from history, anthropology, and archeology, and (b) easy to search, manipulate and analyze the data for analysts from these fields, psychology, evolutionary biology, and other interested fields. The Database of Religious History (DRH) was designed with such challenges in mind. This paper explores the digital humanities dimension of the DRH. We provide a live demonstration of the DRH, demonstrate a case study for using it to study culture within an evolutionary framework, and show visualizations of the results-to-date. We also discuss the technical and human hurdles in creating the system.

Edward Slingerland

Bringing Religion into the Age of Big Data: A Massive Database Approach to Cultural Evolution

Functionalist theories of religion have a long history, being identified most prominently with early pioneers such as B. Malinowski or E. Durkheim. Traditionally, one of the main weaknesses of such theories has been the nature of the data used to support them, typically anecdotal and cherry-picked, and very much lacking in both geographical breadth and historical depth. In the broader field of cultural history, functionalist accounts of the relationship between socioeconomic factors and cultural change have always been plagued by a similar problem: lack of standardized, accurate and comprehensive data concerning human cultural forms. In contrast to existing anthropological databases (e.g. HRAF, SCCS), which are dominated by stateless or minimal-state societies and consist largely of single (and typically recent) data-points, the Database of Religious History enables the testing of such functionalist theories against the historical record. The historical depth of the database will—unlike static databases—allow the discernment of dynamic patterns of sociocultural evolution of time.


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