2018/06/01 | Research | Humanities & Society

"Research on Religion must answer societal questions"

What does it mean to be "religious" in the modern pluralized world? This is just one of many questions which will be discussed from 17 to 21 June at the international "Multiple Religious Identities" conference at the University of Bern. Jens Schlieter, Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion at the University of Bern, is convinced that religion is neither a thing of the past nor of distant places.

By Nathalie Matter

How do you personally define "religion"?
The hardest question right off the bat! Personally, I would associate religion with individual and communal ways of coping with everything that humankind can’t control — particularly mortality and finiteness. The problem is that any definition of religion constitutes a theory in the briefest form. If we start, as we have done, from the function of religion, then concepts of god, gods, transcendence, or morals and ethics come second. This despite the fact that they are very central in many traditions. In any case, a definition of religion should also include non-monotheistic traditions such as the Buddhist traditions — otherwise it is useless.

What is the difference between a religious identity and membership of a specific religion? Is atheism also a religious identity?
The British sociologist Grace Davie, who will deliver a lecture at our conference, already spoke in 1990 of a trend towards "believing without belonging". Belief as an expression of religious identity has declined less sharply than denominational belonging to a community. At the same time, there is also "belonging without believing". Many people who belong to a church are distant or even critical. This also applies in Switzerland. The question of how atheism or "non-belief" can be described in a religious studies context is a subject of intense discussion. Even if some atheists make their case with almost religious zeal, in the opinion of many persons it isn’t a religion. Atheists seldom follow non-belief as a communal practice. They associate very different things with atheism. But it is true that without religion there would be no atheism.

What are the challenges for international religious research today?
The challenge is to question traditional beliefs. For example, we often hear that religion is largely a thing of the past for us and takes place somewhere distant. There, far away, however, religiously charged conflicts are the order of the day. Religion is not compatible per se with a modern country with cultural diversity, or even with science. Naturally, this depicts an image much too simplified here as there. This is demonstrated by the results of international research on religion which will be presented at the conference.

The European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) is meeting in Switzerland for the first time. Why?
The European Association for the Study of Religions is the European umbrella association for all national professional societies for research into religion and religions. Since 2000, different locations have hosted the EASR annual conference. We are able to welcome the conference to Switzerland for the first time, something we are delighted about, in part because religious research has grown in importance in Swiss universities. It is being organized by the Institute for the Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies in Bern and the Swiss Society for the Study of Religion (SGR-SSSR).

The topic of religion is also hotly debated on the political stage. What significance does the conference have for politics?
With the conference topic of "multiple religious identities", we are reacting, among other things, to the strong polarization in the field of religion which often assumes rigid religious identities. However, there are seldom clear religious identities at the level of individuals, communities, traditions, or entire nations. Individuals simultaneously describe themselves as religious and secular, for example, or are at the same time Christian and Buddhist in their practices and beliefs. Questions such as whether Islam belongs to Europe, or whether Switzerland is still a Christian country are only rarely answered on a sound scientific basis, unfortunately. Questions of identity are eminently political. For precisely this reason, it is important to conduct research into how identities are formed and how they become the norm. Good research can only thrive if strong preconceptions and political interests are put aside.

What questions must research on religion ask in the future?
Research on religion should answer societal questions and explore the role of religion in relation to concrete conflicts or its importance in the latest migration processes. But doing that it should not lose sight of the grand theories and the global context. I wish to see future researchers of religion(s) to do more than just providing answers to current questions using social science methods. Actually, religious traditions spread globally at an early stage, follow a globalized agenda, and had a mutual influence on one another in many respects. Historical research into this interconnectedness is also important. Here, it is helpful to pose and answer central questions such as that of the increasing decline in the importance of religion for more than just modern western societies.


Jens Schlieter is the acting director of the Institute for the Science of Religion at the University of Bern and has been Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion since 2009. He studied Philosophy, Comparative Religion, Tibetology and Buddhist studies in Bonn and Vienna. He went on to be a research associate at the University of Munich (LMU) and in Bonn. From 2005 to 2009, he was an Assistant Professor at the Institute for the Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies at the University of Bern.

Prof. Dr. Jens Schlieter
Institute for the Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies, University of Bern
Direct line: +41 31 631 59 76 
Institution phone number: +41 31 631 35 81
Email: jens.schlieter@relwi.unibe.ch

EASR annual conference “Multiple Religious Identities”

For the first time, the prestigious annual European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) conference will take place in Switzerland, organized by the Institute for the Science of Religion at the University of Bern. More than 500 researchers from around the world will discuss current central issues from 17 to 21 June 2018 in Bern: Does individualism in the global modern age contribute to the fact that an ever increasing diversity of religious practices and fellowships is emerging? What does it mean to be "religious" in an increasingly secular and plural world? How do we take into account the fact that people are increasingly following and practizing teachings and practices from different religions at the same time?
Alongside this, the focus is on the theories and methods of research into religion and religions themselves—right down to the question of what "religion" is.

Institute for the Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies

In the Institute for the Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies at the University of Bern, offers two disciplines in the research and teaching: Science of Religion and Central Asian Studies. The research at the Institute thus covers Buddhist traditions in Tibet, Mongolia and India on the one hand, and also theoretical questions on topics such as religion and community, or on near-death reports as an expression of religious experiences in the modern age.


Nathalie Matter is a PR/Media editor in Corporate Communication.