Researching Religious Plural Spaces: Examining Activist and Participatory Methodologies in the Study of Religious Plurality and Interfaith Dialogue

3 April 2023

Written by  Maurisa Zinira

Research on religion calls for various ranges of novel subject material and methodology. According to the dynamics of religious cases across faith communities, attention to this variety is crucial. Religious issues frequently involve players from different social backgrounds with a variety of competing interests, making them sensitive and complex. Therefore, in hopes of fostering a thorough comprehension of the subject at hand, it is important to take into account the best approach to understand these problems.

In response to this demand, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD) Paramadina and the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) offered an enhancing research skills workshop for researchers and activists in the field of religious pluralism. Researchers, academics, and activists were invited to the one-day workshop, which took place at UGM on February 16, 2023 to share experiences and expertise on the best way to conduct research on religion. The workshop with the theme "Researching Religious Plural Spaces: Examining Activist and Participatory Methodologies in the Study of Religious Plurality and Interfaith Dialogue" consisted of four sessions to explore in-depth insights about current challenges in studying inter-faith dialogue and religious pluralism.

Research on Religion:  Development and Various Challenges

The development of the study of religion continues to show significant progress, particularly in terms of its expanding interdisciplinary approach models and the increasingly diversified field of study. The study today covers not only theology, but also various phenomena that arise from religious practices. With various cross-disciplinary scholarships, the study of religion currently addresses a variety of religious themes such as those involving human experience.

Before evolving into what it is today, the study of religion underwent a long history of development. Discussions about the formal and material aspects of religious studies are ongoing and form different trends in each period of thought. At the beginning of its development, religious studies were first more advanced on the European continent and in its diaspora. Max Muller, who first used the term "science of religion," was one of the pioneers in this research. Muller separated the science of religion into two categories: 1) comparative theology, which examines the theological distinction across diverse religions, and 2) theoretic theology, which blends theology and religious philosophy to describe the conditions that may be encountered by religious communities. The science of religion—as Muller proposed— examines religion through a few stages, beginning with language, passing through mythology and religious knowledge, coming to the discussion of human thought. Muller attempted to bring language towards belief system to develop a tradition of religious philology.

The material and formal aspect of the study has long been the subject of debate. At the beginning of its development as a discipline, religion was often studied from a structuralist and functionalist standpoint. This approach then prompts various questions about the issue of representation. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for example, disapproved of several attempts to generalize and essentialize the essence of religion, in particular with the us vs. them framework, which positions the researcher as an outsider who appear to lack empathy for the community being studied. Issues of this kind continued to be of concern and debate until the 1970s, when slowly there was a shift in the pattern of study that began to include the voices and experiences of minority groups including communities of faith and women.

In addition to conventional texts, research on religion has now expanded to use a greater variety of data sources, such as radio, television, the Internet, etc. Research methodologies are also diversifying with more concern on studying issues of religious "authority" and "truth" within the framework of power and domination. The emergence of postmodernism has also affected the transformation in which the “science of religion” moved in the direction of interreligious studies and autobiographical narratives that insert scholars into narratives to undermine the us/them dichotomy between the researcher and the subject being studied.

In addition to the issue of representation, the study of religion often faces a range of difficulties. These include funding, access to resources, socio-political contestation, and lack of researcher’s capacities. The outcomes of a study are significantly affected by such technicalities. Therefore, a researcher is required to adapt and negotiate to the local research settings as well as to come up with creative strategies to advance the investigation of the problem under consideration. The capacity of researchers to find alternatives is a crucial precondition in determining the success of a study due to differences in the level of difficulty developed in the field.

Researching Religious Pluralism: Lessons from the Field

Religion is currently of interest not only to scholars of religion, but also to scientists from a variety of scientific fields, particularly sociopolitical science. This cannot be isolated from the fact that religion permeates numerous spheres of life and generates diverse effects. The issue at hand is how this phenomenon may be explained through scientific inquiry. What are the appropriate methods for comprehending the situation in the field, and how do researchers avoid research biases?

Various questions regarding research on religious diversity are the concern of the LSE which established a joint program with ICRS and PUSAD Paramadina to host a workshop on religious research, inviting academics, researchers, and activists to share their experiences and jointly develop a method of religious research  that constructively engages with religious communities on a variety of themes that support environmental, interfaith, and conflict resolution initiatives. The workshop is practically divided into four sessions covering 1) plurality and institution: the role of society and research institution, 2) plurality and rights: conflict resolution and the role of religion to foster positive approach, 3) plurality in the environment: religious diversity in the face of environmental challenges, and 4) plurality in an age of social media: contested religious authority in the era of global religious debate. 

The session topic that comes up the most often is the restricting nature of the terminology used in research. As concepts like "pluralism," "climate change," and "radicalism" are not neutral, they can be interpreted in a variety of ways and affect the reliability of the findings. The word “religion” as well is not neutral. Therefore, researchers should really take into account the term they use. If used properly, the discussion that emerges from such theoretical discussion can be an effective tool for fostering productive insights that can be applied to advocacy efforts.

The workshop also showed that researchers frequently struggle with problems of access and identity. In the field, data extractions are often hampered by a lack of access to relevant data particularly if the research involves controversial topics and substantial distance between researchers and informants due to contrasts in their identities. Researchers frequently face the difficulty of earning people's trust in this setting that leads to concerns regarding research ethics, especially when academics deal with problems of representation because lack of an insider’s perspective may lead to biased findings.

In addition to those constraints, the workshop also discussed funding, methodology, and the complexity of situations. To develop other approaches (complementary methods) for religious research that can be employed by many researchers in many places with many different study focuses, the workshop summed up exploration of numerous issues in the subject. These will then be jointly developed to find the best way to study religion and how it can be used to foster global peace.

Such initiatives necessitate the collaboration of a number of stakeholders, including organizations, academics, researchers, and activists. LSE stated that for peace to be peace in a global society, collaboration between universities is essential. Particularly in a pluralistic society, there are many worldwide concerns relating to the place of religion that must be addressed jointly. World peace should not be achieved by erasing differences nor supposing that all religions are similar. It is necessary to establish a worldwide environment where individuals are comfortable with differences. Universities can contribute to this area by teaching the next generation to be more empathetic toward one another and be receptive to the fact of pluralism.