The Critical Analysis of Religious Diversity

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Lene Kühle, William Hoverd, Jørn Borup
International Studies in Religion and Society
  • Boston, MA: 
    , June
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Critical Analysis of Religious Diversity is not only the title of the reviewed book but also the name of a research project (whose acronym is CARD Network) focusing on theoretical and methodological issues concerning a phenomenon which is becoming an increasingly visible aspect in contemporary societies. The book covers a large spectrum of research, both geographically and methodologically, and the reader is guided by a general overview and three specific introductions identifying connections between methodological issues and empirical research. In such a way the leading group of the research project gives a sense of unity to the book, which offers heterogeneous approaches to the issues of religious diversity

For the editors, Lene Kühle, William Hoverd, and Jørn Borup, the first aim of the book is to develop a “reflexive understanding” of methods applied to researching religious diversity, and of the implications of methodological and epistemological choices. The different authors highlight how scholars use the expression “religious diversity” and what that term means for them. However, the most important contribution of this book is not the answers it provides but the questions it raises.

First of all, there exists the a tension between “religious pluralism” and “religious diversity.” Often diversity refers to the description of the heterogeneity within a society, while pluralism has a normative connotation as a positive evaluation of that diversity. Although it is possible to define pluralism as a meaningful diversity, we have to consider that “the distinction between religious diversity as descriptive and pluralism as normative appears slippery. Religious diversity as (for instance) defined as the coexistence of religious communities appears to be a descriptive concept, but it could also be seen as normative if the opposite of coexistence is ‘conflict and war’ or ‘parallel societies’” (Külhe and Hoverd, 4-5). In other words, when we detach from a situation of clashes among religiously-defined groups and from a pillarized society, diversity acquires significance.

Since diversity implies counting and taking differences into account; another important point is what and how to count. Researchers should assess the degree of religious diversity taking into account only the so-called “big five,”—Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; or should they have to consider also folk religions, the religiously unaffiliated, and other religions such as Bahai’s, Jains, Sikhs, Shintoists, or Taoists? (Martin Baumann and Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, 190). And what about internal sub-groups, frequently connected with another kind of diversity, for the most part ethnic or cultural, such as the various South African Christian denominations (Marian Burchardt, 275-276)? Or the differences between Euro-American convert Buddhists and the Asian immigrant cultural Buddhists (Jørn Borup, 142-143)? And also, while census is undoubtedly a powerful instrument for comparison and longitudinal studies, can it correctly outline the new religious diversity of the 2010s (Hoverd and Kühle, 73)?

Religious diversity continuously changes, not only in its range and dimension but also and above all in its social and political meaning. In classical Greco-Roman era, tolerance of religious diversity was uncontroversial and the absence of serious conflicts concerning religions until the spread of Christianity caused the lack of “the need for a theorisation of the idea of toleration” (Mar Marcos, 109). To take into consideration non-modern and non-western contexts helps the reader understand that narrative choices about religious diversities, hierarchies and relationships between harmony and plurality (Stefania Travagnin, 147-171), unity and diversity (Borup, 128-146), are not neutral but can shape reality and not just its representation.

As Peter Beyer notes, the Westphalian model is often unreflexively adopted, when we think about religions as states: crystallized, mutually delimited, without empty spaces or overlaps. We have to be cautious with the idea that it is possible to divide the world into states or different religions in much the same way. The Westphalian model implies that a country or a city is religiously diverse when more “recognized religions” are present. According to Beyer, although this model entails that we usually think of people as “being adherents to normally just one of these religions, or not at all” (27), at the same time we understand that “there is, perhaps a great deal of, ‘religiousness’ outside these bounds of the religions. . . . We tend, however, to use different concepts to talk about this ‘out of bounds’ religiousness (28).”

This analysis is strictly connected with the theoretical essay of Andrew Dawson, which affirms that contemporary societies are characterized not by “fixed diversity” rooted in “relatively stable and religiously exclusive ethno-cultural identities” (86), but by “dynamic diversity”, the core of which is the “transition of religious diversity from being a simple objective fact (that different religions are co-present) to having subjective significance (as a possible religious option for me)” (Dawson, 96).

It is impossible to give an account of other important methodological issues which this book deals with, but I have to point out that the final chapter offers a reach check-list as an “important resource for reflexive praxis when it comes to the study of religious diversity” (Külhe, 295). To corroborate the strong methodological value of this book, the check-list is available on the CARD Network website.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Doriano Saracino is a Researcher at the University of Genova, Italy.

Date of Review: 
January 13, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lene Kühle is Professor WSR at that university. She has published widely in English and Danish on religious diversity, Muslims in Denmark, radicalisation and religion in public institutions.

William Hoverd is Senior Lecturer at Massey University, New Zealand. He has published widely on religion in New Zealand. Wil was a DFAIT post-doctoral fellow at the Religion & Diversity Project, at the University of Ottawa, Canada in 2011/2012.

Jørn Borup is Associate Professor at that university. He has conducted research and published in Danish and English on Buddhism (East and West), religious diversity, spirituality, and religion and migration.

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