Talking about the unsayable

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Is religion simply a subject of research like any other – like language is in linguistics or business is in economics? No, it is not, says sociologist of religion Detlef Pollack, and explains why: "Believers claim that sacred books, rituals, prayers, symbols and images give them access to a transcendental being. Religion deals with the inaccessible, that which cannot be recorded by science", says Pollack, who teaches at the University of Münster. "Therefore, in religious research we are not studying religion itself, but communication about religion."

Religion – a private matter or a political issue?

Talking about the unsayable
Religions are researched as a social phenomenon.

It is precisely this talk about religion that has become more audible – and more controversial. For example, the question of whether Muslim teachers should be allowed to wear a headscarf during lessons has regularly been the subject of public debate for years in Germany. And the issue of whether Islam can be seen as part of German culture is something that is argued about not only in the pub but at the highest political level, especially during election campaigns. After all, Germany has been home to a sizeable number of Muslims ever since the 1960s. According to a study conducted by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, they accounted for somewhat less than six percent of the population at the end of 2015.

Research into three millennia of faith

The public debate about religion and faith addresses social conflicts that are brought about not only by globalisation and migration, but also by religious fundamentalism and religiously motivated terrorism. In short, religion has become a political issue. Since 2007, this relationship between politics and religion has been studied at the cluster of excellence "Religion and Politics in Pre-Modern and Modern Cultures" at the University of Münster. Involving 200 researchers in 20 disciplines and from 14 countries, it is one of the largest and most wide-ranging research collaborations in Germany. Within the framework of the Excellence Strategy initiated by Germany’s federal and state governments, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has just approved further funding for the cluster until 2025. One topic that the researchers are exploring is the relationship between religion and violence. "In our research, we look back over three millennia and can see that violence has been a feature of religion throughout its history, and that this applies to all religions", says Pollack, the cluster of excellence’s spokesperson.

Religions are changing

Tolerance has also been a feature of religion throughout its history, however. The theologian and sociologist of religion Karl Gabriel in Münster has been looking into the question of how the Catholic Church learnt to accept that people should be free to choose their religion. After all, for centuries it had insisted that it was in possession of the only genuine truth. As Gabriel and his colleagues are able to show, the answer is to be found first and foremost in the religious oppression that the Catholics suffered during the Nazi era, and in their positive experiences with democracy following the Second World War. These played a crucial part in the Second Vatican Council’s decision in 1965 to revise a dogma, giving rise to the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

Numerous centres of religious research

The past two decades have seen researchers pay growing attention to religion as a social and cultural phenomenon. Other centres of religious research have emerged alongside the cluster of excellence in Münster, such as the Forum for Interdisciplinary Religious Studies (FiReF) and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, both in Göttingen. At the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, doctoral students and fellows are studying the relationship between religion and social change. Meanwhile, the focus at the 2010-founded Academy of World Religions (AWR) at Universität Hamburg is on the dialogue between religions.

A team of researchers there is engaged in a project entitled "Religion and Dialogue in Modern Societies" (only in German). They are exploring a dialogical theology based in particular on interreligious approaches. Theoretical ideas are linked to an empirical study with a view to discovering how adherents of different religions communicate with one another in their daily lives. To this end, the researchers are surveying people in Hamburg and other multi-ethnic cities in Germany, Sweden and Norway – where faith may be an individual choice yet religion becomes a social issue when people are living together in a community.

Academy of World Religions (AWR)

The Academy of World Religions at Universität Hamburg explores exchange between the major religions. The theologies of Alevism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism are not regarded as a series of separate faiths but are viewed in terms of how they relate to one another. The AWR wishes to scientifically anchor and teach interreligious dialogue. Thus interreligious competence is one of the core qualifications that students acquire during the master’s programme in "Religions, Dialogue and Education", as do future teachers of Islamic and Alevi religious studies. In addition, the AWR is keen to promote the interreligious approach in society by staging events such as the "Long Night of World Religions". > Academy of World Religions