“Conservative” and “liberal” – they’re words we hear every day, so we know what they mean, right? Well, in a religious context, we’re not so sure. For example, does “conservative” religion refer to Biblical literalism or to strongly held beliefs and inward conviction? What about liberal religion – open-mindedness and social justice, or lax theology and moral relativism? How do these contrasts and variations differ across cultures and religions? Is it possible to understand ones religious-ideological opponents well enough that they can tell get "get it" and yet still disagree? The purpose of the Institute's Spectrums Project is to provide insight into these questions.
The Spectrums Project operates under the leadership of Boston University researchers Drs. Wesley Wildman (philosophy, theology, and religious studies) and Catherine Caldwell-Harris (psychology). It is an ambitious attempt to investigate how ideological spectrums manifest themselves in religious settings. The project has three phases: a literature review, an empirical study (including the development of survey instruments), and a real-world educational laboratory.
The research literature review phase of the Spectrums Project entails the creation of a bibliography of sources relating to ideology in politics and religion. The working bibliography includes hundreds of entries, the vast majority of which are journal articles in psychology, political science, religious studies, and the scientific study of religion. Other sources include books on psychology and politics, philosophical texts, and research instruments (i.e., surveys) for the determination of placement along political and religious ideological spectra. There are ten bibliographical subcategories in all, ranging from “Fundamentalisms” to “Empirical Psychology and Cognitive Science on Religion.” An entire category is dedicated to the effects of parental corporal punishment on children’s ideological development.
Following a thorough survey of extant research, the Spectrums Project is devising and testing a new research instrument that yields a multidimensional profile of religious ideology, as well as a robust assignment of respondents to a position along a spectrum of religiously ideology. The multidimensional character of the instrument yields deep insights into what “conservative” and “liberal” mean within a religious context, as well as how various dimensions of ideology interact with each other. For example, are people who are religiously conservative also likely to be politically or fiscally conservative? One might think the answer is an easy “yes,” but current evidence suggests that the answer to this question is more complicated and qualified. Also, is the liberalism-conservatism construct in religious ideology a one-dimensional two-poled spectrum or a two-dimensional space of possibilities? Spectrums Project researchers are shedding light on these and other equally thorny questions.
The third phase of the Spectrums Project involves “translational research” for use in real-world classroom and student-community settings. Ideological conflicts can present serious impediments to communication and learning in educational environments, particularly in seminaries and other religious training venues. Spectrums Project researchers hope that the insight and knowledge gained through the project’s initial phases will generate concrete, useful tools for educators and administrators working to confront ideological challenges in the classroom.