November 26, 2012

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is Honourary Secretary of the BASR.

Nicholas Campion is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, and Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture. His research interests include the nature of belief, the history and contemporary culture of astrology and astronomy, magic, pagan and New Age beliefs and practices, millenarian and apocalyptic ideas, and the sociology of new religious movements. He is a member of the international executive committee of the conferences on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena (INSAP), and editor of Culture and Cosmos, a Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy. His most recent publications include Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions (New York University Press, 2012) and Astrology and Popular Religion: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement (Ashgate 2012).

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained its director for the last 44 years. He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions. Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions.

Tim Jensen is Associate Professor, Department of The Study of Religions, University of Southern Denmark, Odense. Since 2005, he has also been General Secretary of the International Association for The History of Religions (IAHR). His interests concern the role of religion in education, law, politics and the media, secularisation and of the study of religion in Denmark. He publishes widely; some recent relevant examples are ”The Muhammad Cartoon Crisis. The Tip of an Iceberg” (Japanese Religions, Vol 31 (2), 2006, 173-185) and “RS based RE in Public Schools: A Must for a Secular State” (Numen, Vol. 55, No. 2-3, 2008, 123-150). Tim’s full profile is available here, and the IAHR’s page is here.

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University. She works on contemporary religion and the ‘secular sacred’, and their interrelationship. She developed a spatial methodology in The Location of Religion (2005) which she has used subsequently to interrogate the ostensibly secular public spaces of health, education, urban contexts and the media. Other works include Diasporas: Concepts, Identities, Intersections (co-edited with S. McLoughlin, 2010), and ‘Changing faces of religion and media’, with Jolyon Mitchell, in L Woodhead and R Catto (eds), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012).

Dr Marion Bowman is head of the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and part of the Belief Beyond Boundaries Research Group with Jim Lewis and Daren Kemp. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements. Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000).

Wouter Hanegraaff is a professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam. He has written extensively on many topics among them New Age, Gnosticism, Magic and last but not at least Western Esotericisim. He is currently president of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and member on the editorial board of AriesNumenReligion Compass and Esoterica. His latest book is Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and forthcoming is Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).


Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences.



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