Our Campus: Dr. Edward Slingerland brings together big data and religious studies

When Dr. Edward Gilman Slingerland, professor in Asian studies and religion at UBC, got a book from a student back in 1998, he had no idea it would completely change the way he studied religion.

After a bachelor degree and a master’s degree in Chinese, Slingerland had just finished writing his PhD dissertation in Religious Studies at Stanford — or so he thought. Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, founders of the conceptual metaphor theory, turned out to solve a lot of the theoretical problems he had encountered while writing his dissertation. Slingerland ended up rewriting it completely.

“[Philosophy in the Flesh] just changed everything for me,” he said. “ When I ended up publishing [my dissertation], it was looking very little like my [first] dissertation, and that’s the beginning of this move toward science.”

Today, this student’s gift represents a pivotal moment in Slingerland’s career. It sparked his growing interest in scientific methodologies, but “always with the idea of bringing it back to the field I work in” — early Chinese philosophy and comparative religion.

This idea of introducing scientific methods into the study of religion is at the core of one of Slingerland’s newest projects, the Database of Religious History (DRH). The DRH functions as an online encyclopedia of scholarly knowledge on religious cultural history structured and visualized in time and space. It is the first of its kind and, like with most great inventions, Slingerland stumbled across the idea by accident.

In 2012, Dr. Slingerland was part of a team of UBC professors working on an interdisciplinary study about the evolution of religion and morality. In order to test their hypothesis against the historical record in a reliable and scientific manner, Slingerland and Dr. Mark Collard — an archeology professor currently working at SFU — came up with the idea to create a database. After a few years of brainstorming, data gathering and technical development of the database, it has been functioning professionally for about a year and a half.

The database is a response to the larger issue of information overload in academia.

“There is a new journal in China, in my field, like every month ... It is simply physically impossible for me to read everything that’s published,” said Slingerland. He argued that due to this overload, it has become impossible to make generalizations based on scholarly intuition.

“Back when fields were kind of these old boy networks, were kind of small, intuition worked because you actually knew everyone,” Slingerland said. “… They all knew each other, personally. They would meet twice a year and smoke cigars, drink scotch and talk about stuff.”

Now that academia is getting bigger, the DRH works to replace these personal ties. Scholars fill in questionnaires that allow only one of four answers: “Yes,” “No,” “The field doesn’t know” or “I don’t know.” It is challenging to reduce complicated qualitative knowledge to a checkbox, but it makes it possible to identify patterns, and compare and visualize huge amounts of data over time and space in the blink of an eye.

“UBC is going to be a mecca for people who want to study religion from a scientific perspective.”

— Dr. Edward Slingerland, professor in Asian studies and religion at UBC

To ensure reliability of the data, the DRH project has gathered a team of around 33 editors, with different areas of expertise. Yet it is the DRH’s philosophy to be radically open — anyone who is either a scholar or a graduate student can contribute to the database.

“The closest thing to something like [the DRH] right now is the Oxford Handbook, and the way you get in the Oxford Handbook is that you went to grad school with the editor,” Slingerland said. “I think [the DRH] is going to democratize the production of consensus. Because now everybody is going to be represented, and not just those who went to Harvard in 1980.”

The database is not just for scholars, as it is a publicly accessible resource and has recently also made its way into the classroom. One of the editors, a Christianity expert at the University of Miami, lets undergraduate students answer part of the questionnaire as their final test. Under the editor’s supervision, the students’ entries can even be published on the DRH.

“It is a good example of how people are using it in ways that we never anticipated,” said Slingerland.

The DRH is also expanding rapidly. Right now, there is just one questionnaire based on religious groups, but another questionnaire focused on geographical location rather than group is going live soon. A Harvard research group will also launch its questionnaire and data on mystical religion, concerning themes like witchcraft and werewolves, on the DRH around November.

The DRH team is also working on finding a way to add more qualitative data — text, pictures, videos and other imagery — to the database. There are even plans to publish the DRH and its questionnaires in other languages, to level the playing field between scholars in an English language-dominated context.

As he works towards making contributing to the DRH the norm for academics, Slingerland is also busy negotiating with UBC about the project. He is trying to see whether UBC can be the DRH’s institutional home, ensuring financial support for the project in the future.

“We need something permanent, we need to know that we’re not going to run out of grant money and all this data is going to get lost because we can’t keep the database up,” he said.

Slingerland and UBC have also been working with units across campus to establish a new BA in the study of religion within the next two years. It would be established independently of the classical, near Eastern and religious studies department, and would take a scientific and interdisciplinary approach to religious studies.

“We [UBC] now have the highest concentration of people who are part of the science of religion in the world,” Slingerland said. “UBC is going to be a mecca for people who want to study religion from a scientific perspective.”