Faith in all fairness


Lori Beaman and research group

For social science researchers exploring the contested ground between religious belief and society, these are volatile times. Take, for instance, Quebec's controversial Charter of Values. Or same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church.

“It’s a field that’s not for the faint of heart,” says Lori Beaman, a professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. “You have to be prepared to think about some weighty and contentious issues, and emotionally charged issues as well.”

Beaman and her colleagues in the Religion and Diversity Project have no reluctance to venture where others fear to tread. The project brings together 37 academics to build knowledge on issues relating to religious diversity from a variety of perspectives: religion, law, communication, sociology, history, political science, education and philosophy.

“This research program aims to present diversity not primarily as a problem but as a resource,” says Beaman, the project’s director, “and to propose strategies for equality that will advance knowledge and enhance public policy decision-making.”

Beaman has the somewhat unusual distinction of having a law degree and a PhD in sociology, and having conducted research in the areas of religious freedom and religion and violence against women. So it is little surprise that when she proposed the project to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), her desire was to study religious diversity through as many lenses as possible. “I realized that the research I was looking at couldn’t be done by a lone scholar,” she says.

The Religion and Diversity Project began in 2010 with $2.5 million of funding from SSHRC, spread over seven years. Beaman has since built an intellectual ecosystem with researchers from more than 20 universities worldwide, some 80 students and postdoctoral fellows, policy-makers, and partners such as human rights commissions.

The research is focused on four strands: religious identity; how religious expression is “defined and delimited” in law and public policy; gender, sexuality and religious freedom; and alternative strategies for managing religious diversity.

Beaman sees the project as an opportunity to address some of the public anxiety that now swirls around religion. One challenge, she says, is to avoid focusing exclusively on the negative. There are many ways people of different beliefs cooperate to ensure fairness, yet such stories rarely attract media attention.

Another hurdle is to find a way to measure religiosity without a Judeo-Christian bias. Standard measures include religious service attendance and incidence of prayer. “To researchers, the religious field is not quite so obvious anymore,” says Peter Beyer, professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa and a member of the project. “You can’t get away with that old stuff. You have a disproportionately large number of people who don’t behave according to the old measures, so they just fall off the table and don’t count as religious. Well, maybe we’re not asking the right question.”

After much testing, Beyer and the team developed a Web-based survey that is as open-ended as possible yet still reveals the part of peoples’ identities that could be termed “religious.” It was not as simple as it sounds, since they had to check all their assumptions and personal biases at the door. “We had to unthink our ways of doing things,” he says.

For University of Ottawa law professor Pascale Fournier, another project team member, the challenge has been to overcome suspicion. One of her studies involves interviewing Muslim and Jewish women in the Middle East going through divorce. She found that women would refuse to participate if the interviewer was not of their faith.

“That was our a-ha moment,” says Fournier. “I didn’t think it would be such a big challenge going in… The [divorce] issue is so negative in their culture, so there was suspicion.”

To work around this difficulty, Fournier hired a Jewish student who grew up in an Orthodox family to conduct interviews in Israel, and sought out people raised in regions such as North Africa, Pakistan and Malaysia to lead interviews with Muslim study participants.

Fournier experienced the flip side of suspicion closer to home. When Quebec’s Charter of Values was proposed in 2013, the media frequently called on her to offer her perspective, and she saw first-hand how divisive the issue of religious diversity is in Canada.

“In Quebec, I was perceived as pro-Canada, multiculturalist, a self-hating Québécoise,” she says. “When I did interviews outside Quebec, I was seen as defending the Quebec idea of wanting immigrants to integrate into society with shared values, as opposed to the multiculturalism in the rest of Canada where immigrants live in their own communities.”

Despite such research challenges, Lori Beaman is gratified that religion and diversity is on the public agenda. When she first undertook studies in the field in the mid-1990s, “no one really cared. Law, political science, sociology, it was pretty marginalized… There was a lot of discussion within the discourse of multiculturalism that religion was largely absent. It wasn’t that religion was absent from peoples’ lives but that it was ignored by policy-makers, lawmakers and scholars. That’s what has shifted.”


by Alan Morantz

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