Our blogs posts in February and March feature public scholars working across various media who are pushing for creative, inclusive, and ethical means of representing the ancient world. All of these individuals will be presenting at our upcoming colloquium, “Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement and Ancient Mediterranean History”. This colloquium asks how we as educators inside and outside the academy can more effectively participate in public discourse about the ancient Mediterranean. How do we engage in responsible public scholarship that is more inclusive of past diversity and modern audiences? We’re excited to feature the work of several public scholars who are creating innovative and compassionate answers to this question.
To start off, what is the Database of Religious History (DRH)? What are its objectives and who are its main audience?
The Database of Religious History is an online open-access database that provides a platform for the large-scale study of historical evidence and trends in religious experience from the earliest evidence (our earliest entry dates to the Neolithic) to the present day (Fig. 1). This platform provides opportunities for unprecedented academic collaboration and is committed to rigorous scholarly standards and a deep appreciation for interdisciplinary work in the sciences and humanities.
The DRH began as a flagship initiative of the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC) at the University of British Columbia, but is now an independent academic initiative whose infrastructure is based at the Department of Philosophy at UBC (where our lead PI, Professor Edward Slingerland, is based) with partners and collaborators from all across the globe. Previously funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the DRH is presently funded through 2024 by the John Templeton Foundation.
While its original objectives aimed to investigate the interaction between religion and cultural evolutionary models in history, the project now addresses a wider array of research questions and is open to infinite possibilities in research directions. Previous publications by the DRH team have covered topics such as pedagogy, ecology, and cognitive sciences. We can even use the data from the DRH to address region-specific issues; for example, the DRH team recently completed a re-analysis of Walter Burkert’s work on the Greco-Roman mystery cults. As an open-access database, anyone can make use of the DRH, from advanced academics, to undergraduate students, to educators, and to any member of the public. We also invite entries from specialists (from anywhere in the world) in any approach of religion (e.g. history, archaeology, anthropology, cognitive sciences, digital humanities, sociology, philosophy, religious communities, etc.) to sign up as “Experts” and contribute data to the DRH.
How can people use the DRH for research? How is it like or unlike a more traditional encyclopedia?
The database is structured around individual answers to sets of questions, unlike a traditional encyclopedia or Wiki which consists of written entries on a particular topic. Each answer is generally binary in nature (“Yes”, “No”, “Field doesn’t know”, or “I don’t know”) and is fixed spatially and temporally (i.e. it has a date range and a polygon on a map). Questions include “Are supernatural beings present?”, “Is there a supreme high god?”, or “Do supernatural beings mete out punishment?”. Each entry that an Expert contributes consists of a long list of these questions called a “Poll” (Fig. 2), and there are currently three types of Polls: Religious Group, Religious Place, and Religious Text, with a Religious Object Poll currently in development. In addition to the answers, Experts also provide a written description of their topic, qualitative comments, images, as well as bibliographies for further research.
Researchers can read the Poll entries individually but they can also use our Browse and Visualize (Fig. 3) tools to query entries, tags, comments, and regions to examine trends in any aspect of religion stored in our database. They are given a map visualization of their query and can use the Animate feature to see how the map changes over time. They can visualize the data either as polygons on a map or as a heatmap. They can also choose a “Table” view that gives them detailed information about the individual entries, experts, and comments relevant to a given query. The DRH team has published many articles on analyses conducted on the stored data, but it is not only our team that can do this; users can also request our data via email (although we are currently developing a Download feature for this) for their own analyses.
Unlike traditional encyclopedias, handbooks, or edited volumes, our data is not static but constantly updated, and our infrastructure allows for both small-scale and large-scale analysis. Visualizations are also stored and can be shared and revisited to see how interpretations and theories change over time; this embodies a trend towards “reproducible” research. The data can also include multiple perspectives on the same topic as an Expert can answer a question more than once and a different Expert can create an entry on the same topic but with different answers.
The DRH employs experts on religion from many different backgrounds, both inside and outside the traditional “academy”. How does the DRH expand our ideas of who gets to have a voice in the creation and curation of data?
As an open-access database, we welcome scholars from all backgrounds to contribute to and make use of the DRH. Any scholar who is an expert on any aspect of religion is welcome to sign up on the DRH website, select the appropriate Editor, and contribute data. Since the inception of the project, the DRH has been adamant that our data has to be globally sourced. We currently have 38 individuals from around the world serving as Editors and hundreds of international experts (493 as of March 2023) actively contributing entries (1008 as of March 2023). The DRH site and poll interface is also available in multiple languages, which allows scholars to contribute in their own native languages, helping to loosen the hold of English on scholarly publishing and level the playing field a bit between native English-speaking scholars and other scholars around the world.
We also have 6 full-time postdocs (myself among them) at UBC actively recruiting Experts to contribute to the DRH. It is our responsibility to recruit specialists for our respective coverage areas, and due to the fact that we are early-career academics ourselves, we are in a good position to invite contributions from voices that are not as prominent in traditional academia, such as those of other early-career academics, contingent faculty, minority groups, and scholars from outside the West. We also currently pay an honorarium per entry to compensate our Experts for the time they dedicate to contributing data and expertise.
Although we have general guidelines in who to recruit (usually PhDs and advanced grad students) we also recruit qualified experts who are not in traditional university contexts (e.g. indigenous elders, members of religious communities, archaeologists from local administrations, etc.). Regardless of whether our Experts come from university or non-university backgrounds, their entries go through the same formal editorial review and each published entry is given a DOI and can count as a editor-reviewed publication.
The infrastructure of the database allows for multi-vocality, as different Experts can create entries on the same topic but with different points of views in their answers and comments. Although, as Editors, we do provide some gatekeeping to ensure some standardization in the way that certain questions are understood, that gatekeeping is light and we allow competing opinions to exist in our database.
What are the main challenges in creating an essentially open-source, crowd-sourced encyclopedia that aims to be rigorous and scholarly in its outputs?
Unlike crowd-sourced online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, each entry goes through a scholarly review process, as mentioned above. In an area of study as diverse as the history of religion, which spans a vast array of disciplines with their own academic jargon, the understanding of certain questions can be interpreted differently by scholars in different fields, and so some questions are answered differently by individual Experts based on their own interpretations. It is the job of our Editors to make sure that our Experts understand the intent behind each question but also allow for differing interpretations of the questions. We have tried to minimize our use of jargon in the questionnaires and to take a broad approach to complicated concepts such as “religion”, a term whose definition no one can agree on. We acknowledge the need for nuanced answers and emphasize the difficulty in arriving at any definitive answer in the historical record. For this reason, we encourage our Experts to make use of the Comment feature on the questions, as they can explain why they chose to answer in a certain way. These comments provide useful insight not only to interested readers but also to those using DRH data in any sort of analysis. We also encourage different Experts to contribute entries on the same topic, perhaps because they would like to contest another Expert’s answers or to provide a different perspective.
There often seems to be a pendulum swing in scholarship between big-picture quantitative history and the minutiae of closer, qualitative readings of the past. With such a mass amount of information, how does the DRH bridge interests in quantitative “Big Data” approaches with the ability to see real people and experiences behind these large trends?
Both qualitative and quantitative lenses are used simultaneously in the DRH, as the entries contributed by our Experts contain both. They are quantitative in terms of the binary answers given, but also qualitative as each entry contains written descriptions and comments, images, and sources for further reading added by our Experts. Both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the DRH entries are searchable through our Browse feature. Papers published by our group often involved large-scale analysis and focused cultural and historical detail. Both frames are necessary for a fuller understanding of the history of religion.
How does the DRH adhere to the principles of responsible scholarship in presenting the religious histories of peoples around the globe and throughout history in its objectives and outcomes?
As mentioned above, the DRH serves as an open-access platform with collaborators and users from all over the world. It has always been the goal of the DRH to be accessible internationally and to challenge the dominance of the English language in scholarship. In addition to English, the website and polls are currently available in French and Chinese, expanding soon to include Spanish and Arabic, and we will continue to add languages over time. Our very multilingual team of Editors encourages Experts to provide the written parts of their entries in whatever language they feel most comfortable in writing. We recognize that significant scholarship is thriving outside the West in a multitude of languages, perspectives, and methodologies, and so we actively recruit all over the world. Although currently, many of our experts come from North America and Western Europe, a large number of our experts come from other areas, and as the website is developed in more languages, we hope for our DRH community to grow even more global. We are fortunate enough to be able to offer honoraria for each completed entry as our collaborating experts come from different financial situations. For many early-career academics, for example, there is often a certain degree of financial instability, and we hope that the honoraria we provide can remove some barriers to participation in our project.
Where can people learn more about the DRH? And how can people contribute to it?
Everyone can learn more about the DRH on our website (religiondatabase.org). Contributing is fairly simple: you just click on the “Get Involved” button and then “Sign Up as an Expert”. After filling in all your information, you will just need to select an Editor who supervises your research area. Once an Editor has approved your account, you can start a Poll entry right away. If you don’t know what entry you would like to do first, you could contact one of our Editors, who are all listed on our website and can help guide you in picking a topic, as they would know what religious groups/places/texts would be appropriate for the database. For example, I am one of the Editors for ancient Greek entries, so if you would like to do, for example, an entry on a Greek sanctuary/cult/inscription/text, you could send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can guide you through signing up on the website and completing an entry.
In addition, we are always looking for Editors who specialize in areas not yet covered. So if you would like to become one of our Editors who oversee an area of your particular expertise (this area can be geographic, temporal, or by subject matter), please email our associate director, Willis Monroe, at email@example.com.
My name is Gino Canlas and I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Database of Religious History at the University of British Columbia. I am a specialist in ancient Greek religion (particularly in sanctuaries and other ritual spaces) and I have been conducting archaeological fieldwork in Greece since 2009. I wrote my dissertation on the role of sanctuaries in the identity formation processes of ancient Thessaly at the University of Alberta (defended in 2020) but am glad to be home in Vancouver where I grew up. Although this entry is written in my voice, I am grateful to Edward Slingerland, Willis Monroe, Ian Randall, Andrew Danielson, Matt Hamm, Julian Weideman, and Diana Moreiras for their comments and additions.