A new online tool, the Database of Religious History (DRH), can help scholars of cultural evolution tackle tough questions in their field. It would particularly enable theorists to test their hypotheses against data, says Edward Slingerland, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and director of the DRH.

October 13–14, SFI External Professor Scott Ortman (University of Colorado Boulder) and Slingerland hosted a two-day workshop at the Santa Fe Institute to train a group of researchers to use the database.

As most of the research on religious traditions is niche and qualitative, “there’s no way to tell if the ideas of the scholars are wrong,” says Ortman. The database addresses this problem by implementing multiple vetting mechanisms. First, experts in the field create its entries — and their peers can disagree with the contributions through comments. All entries contain a poll — a set of questions and answers under various subheads, which allows users to delve deeper into a topic or investigate specific aspects of it. “You’re actually getting structured data about the historical record in a way that really doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Slingerland.

The database, established in 2012 and recently funded by a major grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is still relatively new. “A lot of people don’t know about it,” says Slingerland. “We want to show people how it can be useful for them.” At “Coding the Past: The Challenges and Promise of Large-Scale Cultural Databases,” experts from disciplines such as anthropology, religious studies, history, and archaeology received first-hand experience using the database. They learned to craft entries, design polls, and perform advanced analyses. The organizers hoped the workshop’s stimulating atmosphere might kick-start a few collaborations. For example, archaeologists and anthropologists could join forces to gather data about places that the database doesn’t cover extensively.

The organizers also get feedback from the participants about the project. “A goal of the meeting was to have people pose questions they want to learn using a tool like this and see how well it currently captures the relevant data for those questions,” says Ortman. Slingerland is keen on finding how the polls are faring: “Are there questions missing that they would like to see there? Are some of the questions ambiguously worded in a way that makes it hard to understand?” 

If adopted widely, the DRH could potentially revolutionize the field of religious history. “I hope people see how tools like the DRH allow you to zoom out and see big patterns across space and time, and how that can be a really useful tool,” says Slingerland.