Why do we need the DRH? We’ve gotten along fine without an online, quantitative encyclopedia of religious history so far.
All of us, as historians, make generalizations about the historical record (e.g., “The early Chinese put ancestor worship at the center of their religious practices”). We tend to leave such generalizations un-referenced and unsupported.
We at the DRH believe that this is a hangover from a time, not that long ago, when scholars could hold in their head a fairly accurate representation of their entire field. This is because fields were small. Things have changed radically, however, just within the past decade. Journals have proliferated, scholarship outside the West has become increasingly important, and we have now reached a point where arguably no single human being can keep up with all of the scholarly developments in her field. More static repositories of scholarly opinion, such as edited volumes, handbooks, etc., simply move too slowly to keep up with changes in the field, typically being updated only every 5-10 years, if that. Moreover, they are dependent on single gatekeepers, or a small handful of gatekeepers.
The DRH is designed to be a community resource for religious historians, a centralized, constantly-updated, open access repository for the state of the art in scholarly opinion on religious history. Its minimal gatekeeping also facilitates broad reach and inclusiveness: only qualified experts can contribute, but they can volunteer themselves from anywhere in the world, rather than having to be known to and selected by a single editor or small group of editors. The result should be a much more comprehensive and diverse snapshot of scholarly opinion in any given field.
What does it means to “complete a survey” for a “religious group”? How is one to define a “group”?
We have compiled a list of questions (a survey) that target specific areas of any given religious group's organization (membership, group size and structure, scriptural traditions, and religious architecture), beliefs (in a supernatural being, in the afterlife, etc.), practices, and institutional structures (educational systems, calendar, etc.). The questionnaire is the same for every religious group in order to standardize our data sample, but we do understand that some questions will be more or less relevant to any individual group of religious practitioners. We ask that you answer as many questions as possible, but you may leave questions blank or respond that the "field does not know" when non-pertinent questions arise. Apostasy, for example, is very important for some religious groups, and not important at all for others; in the case of the former, you will likely want to provide lots of information, while a simple response indicating that apostasy is not important will suffice in the latter.
When you consider the "group" for your entry, you will want to choose one that is sufficiently circumscribed both spatially and temporally that you will not feel compelled to make many exceptions or multiple answers for single questions. (Multiple answers are indeed possible, where changes occur in space or time, but if you find yourself needing this feature to differentiate between two contemporary sub-groups living in the same space, you should consider separate entries for each. We're happy to help with this!) A "group" should have a fairly stable number of members through the time period you have chosen (preferably a span of less than 200 years), few if any divergent beliefs in supernatural beings, and the same religious practices. When you name your group, a very descriptive name seems to work best, for example "Alexandrian Christianity (late second century)" or "Ancestral Cult of the Han".
Read on for concrete examples
How can I boil down my very detailed knowledge about this religious tradition into a series of check boxes? How can I shoehorn my tradition’s specific religious conceptions into these English-language, pre-set categories? Isn’t this reductionistic and crude?
Clicking boxes for "present", "absent", and "field doesn’t know" in many ways goes against everything we value as careful historians and linguists. We are used to nuancing our answers, and emphasizing how difficult it is to arrive at any definitive answer concerning the historical record.
Nonetheless, we typically have opinions on the topic, and being forced to click a box has two important consequences. First, it sharpens the mind: if push comes to shove, which would I click? Second, it standardizes our knowledge and makes it available to others in entirely new ways. The quantitative aspect of the DRH (the binary answers, ideally accompanied by more nuanced comments) represents an alternative way to represent the thick, qualitative knowledge we historians possess. By its very nature it will miss much of the wonderful texture and detail of our normal work. The pay-offs, though, are many.
First of all, the distilled historical data in each entry is standardized and therefore analyzable using very powerful statistical techniques, which may allow us to see new patterns that are not visible to any individual historian’s qualitative intuitions. (Does the label “Buddhism” actually pick out any coherent set of practices or beliefs? Are there universal patterns in folk religions across the globe?) This quantified data can also be coordinated with all sort of other quantitative data—social-political variables, population statistics, ecological variables, agricultural productivity, you name it—to explore potential causal connections with a rigor never before possible. Of course, this will only produce reliable results if this simplified data is boiled down intelligently, sensitively, and as accurately as humanly possible, which is why we are asking the experts themselves to do it.
In addition, standardizing our knowledge of the historical record allows historians, students and the general public to get a quick snapshot of the state of consensus on any given aspect of religious cultural history. This is crucial for anyone hoping to make responsible, accurate generalizations about the historical record in our age of information overload.
In response to comments and requests from our contributors, we are also hoping to increase the qualitative richness of the entries in the DRH. We strongly encourage comments on any and all of the questionnaire answers, and are exploring tools to allow DRH users to search and explore the entry commentaries more efficiently. We are also encouraging contributors to include both print and on-line resources, primary and secondary, that would allow browsers to delve more deeply into the relevant historical content. More powerful bibliographical tools, and tools for integrating on-line repositories of texts and archeological artifacts, are on the horizon.
For many of these variables, different scholars would give you different answers. How are you going to deal with scholarly difference?
We encourage you to note points where scholarly disagreement exists in your comment box while still checking one of the available answer boxes. The database is also designed so that alternative responses to a single question can coexist side-by-side, giving users a snapshot of the state of scholarly consensus (or lack of consensus) on any given topic. We are also hoping that scholars who disagree with existing responses will be motivated to contribute their own answer sets in order to have their interpretations represented in the database, a process now facilitated by our "Challenge Answer" button.
We are taking a broad approach to the concept of "religion" in order to capture as much religious behavior throughout the world and throughout history as possible. The Oxford English Dictionary's definition 5b offers the closest approximation: "a pursuit, interest, or movement, followed with great devotion." Under this definition, both groups who have complex belief systems and those who focus more on practice and ritual at the expense of belief will be welcome. We hope to encompass groups who adhere to structures traditionally considered "religions" as well as philosophical traditions.
The DRH is described as a “quantitative and qualitative” encyclopedia. Where’s the qualitative content?
The long-term vision for the DRH is for it to consist of a core of standardized, quantitative data (the set of check-box answers in the entries filled out by experts) that will anchor related qualitative data. At the moment, this related qualitative data consists primarily of the recommended sources for each entry, as well as the comments attached to each quantitative answer. A key development goal is allowing experts to, in addition, create links in their entries to outside, qualitative material, including secondary sources, primary texts (ideally accessible on-line) and images. We have found that many experts have their own collections of digital resources, whether texts or images, that they have trouble organizing or making easily accessible to the larger scholarly community. We are therefore working in a suite of tools that would allow experts to create their own, parallel databases of digital content that could not only be linked to entries but also serve as stand-alone resources. We are also in discussion with organizations that curate large collections of digital material related to religion to make their content accessible through the DRH.
That very much depends upon the nature of your religious group, how much of the questionnaire is relevant and answerable (we ask you to simply skip sections that are irrelevant or outside your expertise), and the extent to which you want to include rich comments (we encourage you to do so). Our current best estimate is it will take you 3-4 hours to answer all of the priority questions for a given religious group, with comments, and more like 4-5 if you delve into the "Additional Questions" attached to each section. Doing this in one sitting may be onerous, so it's probably best to save your work frequently and come back to the site when you have a bit of spare time. Ideally, we are hoping that experts can complete their entries within 3 months.
All of the funding for developing and running the DRH has, to date, come from a grant awarded to UBC by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), supplemented with some funds from UBC itself. The DRH will always remain completely open to contributors, and in early 2017 will be opened to the general public, completely free of charge. It will never be put behind a paywall and will remain an academic, non-profit initiative responsive to its users’ needs. As opposed to contributing to an edited volume, academic handbook, or other more traditional mode of knowledge dissemination, no one will be making a profit on your work on the DRH, which will be shared freely with anyone with an interest in the subject.
We are currently inviting contributions and are able to give honoraria to those scholars able to complete their entries within 90 days.
By contributing, you’ll have early access to the entire database data before it’s made fully public, which may provide opportunities to do some interesting and novel research. You can also add a CV line for an encyclopedia entry (considering the time investment required, this is not a bad deal, since actually writing an encyclopedia entry would take longer), as well as credit on the website.
At a broader level, we think this project represents not only an exciting new way to do historical analysis, but a novel, and badly-needed, type of resource for the religious studies community. (See FAQ 1, Why Do We Need the DRH?) We hope that historians will contribute because they will recognize that the DRH can be useful for the Religious Studies community, an innovative, powerful platform for both research and pedagogy.