Tribal religions in Africa. Buddhist traditions in Japan, Korea, and Sri Lanka. Christians who are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal or Lutherans.
The knowledge that exists about religions and religious groups is overwhelming--even for historians and theologians. That is why researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada have set out to make a huge internet-based database of all the world’s religions.
It has become a worldwide project backed by $30 million in funding.
"It's a huge step forward," says lead-scientist Professor Anders Klostergaard Petersen, from Aarhus University, Denmark. “Once the database is complete, a researcher can make a targeted search and know where to go for a complete religious and cultural history of any particular topic. We’ve never been able to this before.”
In the project, more than 50 researchers from around the world have contributed information to the database on specific religions, by responding to almost 200 questions on that religion's beliefs, rituals, and followers.
The project is set to finish in 2018, but Petersen believes it could easily take 10 to 20 years to gather all existing knowledge of Vishnu, Zeus, Allah, and all the other deities.
However, scientists will be able to use the database well before this:
"The hope is that over the next few years it will contain information on all religions, from the earliest religions, right up to the present day. As we begin to build the database, we can start to use it for research purposes. Then we’ll really be able to start comparing religious groups," says Petersen.
The project aims to answer some of the big questions about religion, culture, and society.
The overall goal is to find out how religions may help societies to work together.
It is precisely these issues that Associate Professor Tim Jensen from the University of Southern Denmark is interested in. The Canadian project should enable a more scientific approach to studying religions:
"Many ordinary people may also benefit from the database: Today, many people are interested in the impact of religion on, for example, war, conflict, and social cohesion, and that's what the database will answer," says Jensen, who is not a part of the project.
He does not know whether the database will provide revolutionary new knowledge, but nonetheless, he believes that it could give a good overview of the world’s religions, some of which, we have little information about:
"As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before, and anything that can improve our overview and the amount of [available] data and knowledge is great,” says Jensen, who describes the project as providing a generalist overview based on expert knowledge.
The preliminary data should be open for public access by late 2015. You can read more about the database here and see the video below.