The Spectrums Project is an ambitious attempt to apply what is known about ideological spectrums in politics and morality to the field of religious beliefs and practices. The Project’s goal is twofold: firstly, to deepen understanding of why human beings adopt a spectrum of religious and theological viewpoints; and secondly, to discover strategies for mitigating the problems associated with religious extremism and polarized religious discourse. IBCSR’s main partner in this project is Dr. Catherine Caldwell Harris in Boston University’s Psychology Department. The project’s post-doctoral fellows are Dr. Aimee Radom, who recently completed a dissertation on a related topic, and Dr. Ravi Iyer, who also works on YourMorals.org.

As the United States has become more ideologically polarized over the past 30 years, academic interest in conservative-liberal divisions has increased substantially. At the same time, a parallel stream of research has investigated the concept of religious orientation, continuing a line of research that began in earnest with Gordon Allport’s work of the 1950s and 1960s. While numerous researchers have noted correlations between various conceptions of religious orientation and personality characteristics known to be associated with measurements of political ideology such as right-wing authoritarianism (Altemeyer), prejudice (Allport), and death salience (Beck), relatively few papers have been published focusing on the ideological spectrum as applied exclusively in the religious domain. During everyday speech it is common to refer to “religious conservatives” or, somewhat less commonly, “religious liberals,” yet it seems that we have only a hazy idea of what such categorizations might actually mean or how to measure them.

Under the aegis of the Boston University School of Theology and the Center for Mind and Culture, the Spectrums Project team set out to design a research instrument to measure and interpret religious ideology along a conservative-liberal axis, with the ultimate goal of deploying the instrument in two ways.

First, with regard to the special interests of the Boston University School of Theology, the aim is to use the instrument in seminary classrooms in order to gain a clearer understanding of the diverse ideological positions represented in incoming classes. On the basis of the newly sensitive understanding permitted by our project’s survey, the aim is to develop strategies for (1) mitigating tensions that arise within the School of Theology student community due to religious ideological differences, and (2) enhancing the awareness and competence of future professional religious leaders in handling ideological tensions alive and well in most religious communities.

Second, the uses of such an instrument extend far beyond the seminary setting. Religious ideology is strikingly salient in contemporary world affairs, American politics, and society-wide debates on topics as diverse as education, birth control, and homosexuality. Indeed, there is virtually no sphere of modern life that is not influenced by the ideological commitments people draw from, and bring into, their religious lives. A clearer understanding of the ideological spectrum in religion would be of substantial value for the continued investigation of ideology, its leaders, and its interconnections with, and influences on, other elements of contemporary world societies.

Funding for the Spectrums Project

Funding from the Spectrums Project has come from several sources:

  • Boston University School of Theology
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • Center for Mind and Culture
  • Doug & Gay Lane Foundation
  • Lakeside Foundation

History of the Spectrums Project

The project began in 2007-8 with research for two books published by Dr. Wildman with Rev. Dr. Stephen Chapin Garner: Lost in the Middle? & Found in the Middle! (both published in 2009). The purpose of these books was to articulate the psychology, sociology, politics, history, theology, and ethics of moderate Christians, who are aware of the left-right spectrum of religious ideology but identify with neither extreme.

In 2008-9, Dr. Wildman established the Liberal-Evangelical project, to support moderate Christians and congregations that intend to be radically inclusive and yet still clearly Christ-centered in their worship and practice. Apart from having practical benefits for a certain target audience, the Liberal-Evangelical project served to test the theory underlying the two books published around the same time.

The implication of this early work was that the conceptual framework for interpreting religious ideology was robust enough to apply to real lives and interesting enough to explore further. So, on May 2, 2009, Dr. Wildman hosted the first Spectrums Conference. The purpose of the conference was to evaluate the feasibility of studying religious ideology in more detail, in relation to as many academic disciplines as might have something to say about it, and hopefully in a way that would generate a conceptual framework for interpreting religious ideology that crosses cultures and religions.

The consensus of the conference attendees was that there was something of great value to investigate here. So, with funding from the Center for Mind and Culture’s Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion and Boston University’s School of Theology, Dr. Wildman put together a small team of research students to construct a preliminary bibliography building on the discussions of the first conference. The two years stretching from May 2009 to June 2011 were spent enhancing and annotating the bibliography, learning how to articulate the project in a persuasive way, recruiting an excellent research team, obtaining IRB approval for a pilot study, and seeking greater funding to take the project forward.

Two doctoral students—Connor Wood and Nicholas DiDonato—continued work on constructing and annotating the richly multidisciplinary and fairly comprehensive bibliography. In periodic meetings throughout 2010-2011, working with psychologist Prof. Catherine Caldwell Harris, the team constructed a novel theoretical framework for interpreting the religious ideology spectrum, testing it against the extant literature from one discipline after another. The team also drafted a large question pool for a survey instrument to measure and make sense of religious ideology. We defined a protocol for administering the survey. In March 2011 we obtained approval from the Boston University Institutional Review Board to pilot the survey.

Prior to piloting, however, with the conceptual framework and question pool in place, we sought to test and criticize what we had built as vigorously as possible. To that end, we convened our five consultants in the second Spectrums Conference and worked intensively through every aspect of the proposed survey instrument. After that consultation, we made revisions to the conceptual framework and the question pool.

In July 2011, postdoc Aimee Radom joined the team, thanks to funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. That funding was part of a grant awarded to Boston University School of Theology Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore. This marked the beginning of a two-year period of full funding for the project, and the work intensified accordingly. The team piloted the survey instrument and the associated administration protocol. We then launched into statistical analysis to test the central constructs and the individual questions in the over-sized question pool.

We have emerged from piloting and analysis with a first-draft version of the Multidimensional Religious Ideology Scale, which we affectionately call the MRI. We have also refined our protocol for administering the survey and affiliated questionnaires. As of January 2019, after numerous rounds of piloting and refinement, the project’s central research publication is under review and we are ready to take the MRI into the wider world.

The Project Bibliography

The Spectrums Project Bibliography represents the core of our research effort because it comprises the publications from which we have derived the conceptual framework for the MRI and against which we have tested it. There are over 703 items as of December 2011, and the bibliography is still growing. Here are the individual collections within the bibliography.

  • Commentary & Philosophical Analysis [14 items]
  • Demographics – International [7 items]
  • Demographics –USA [12 items]
  • Empirical Psychology and Cognitive Science on Politics [202 items]
  • Empirical Psychology and Cognitive Science on Religion [134 items]
  • Fundamentalisms [80 items]
  • History, Social Studies, and Sociology [96 items]
  • Morality and Ethics [45 items]
  • Parenting, Corporal Punishment, and Family Dynamics [14 items]
  • Political Science and Religion [99 items]

View the bibliography here.

Project Team

Wesley J. Wildman (Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies, Scientific Study of Religion) is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University. He holds a PhD in philosophy of religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His primary research and teaching interests are in philosophy of religion, theology, ethics, and the scientific study of religion. He is particularly interested in what light can be shed on religious behaviors, beliefs, and experiences from the biological and human sciences. He is co-founder of the Center for Mind and Culture as well as the Center’s Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, a research institute dedicated to the scientific study of religion. More information is here.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris (Psychology) is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University. She holds a PhD in cognitive science and psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests are broad and encompass diverse aspects of language processing, including second language acquisition, emotional aspects of language, and word recognition. Her teaching interests span cross-cultural psychology, cognitive science, psycholinguistics, cognitive development, developmental psychology, and individual differences. She has recently expanded her interests into the area of religion where she has done innovative research in atheism and the religiosity of people with autism-spectrum disorders.

Aimee S. Radom (Psychology) recently finished her PhD in counseling psychology and religion at Boston University. Her dissertation used structural equation modeling to explore differences in cognitive and personality style among religious conservatives and religious liberals. Aimee joined IBSCR in March 2011 as a postdoctoral research fellow, where she is currently working on the Spectrums Project.

Ravi Iyer, Ph.D., is an active researcher at the University of Southern California and a data scientist at Ranker. Ravi loves to use data to study intangible things such as values, ideology, and happiness. He blogs regularly at PoliPsych.com and is a director of CivilPolitics.Org. Ravi is working on the Spectrums Project within the Institute. For more information about Ravi, see Google Scholar.

Connor P. Wood is a doctoral student in the Division of Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University, having completed a master’s degree focusing on religion and science at Boston University’s School ofTheology. His research interests include the potential adaptive functions of religion, religion and health, and the public understanding of issues in science and religion. He is an IBSCR Lindamood Fellow and an editor for the IBCSR website. He joined the Spectrums Project in May 2010.

Nicholas C. DiDonato is a doctoral student in the Division of Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University, having completed a master’s degree focusing on religion and science at Princeton Theological Seminary. His research interests include how Christian beliefs and practices need to be reconceived in light of developments in the physical and human sciences. He is an IBSCR Lindamood Fellow and an editor for the IBCSR website. He joined the Spectrums Project in September 2010.

Project Consultants

Dino P. Christenson (Political Science) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University, where he specializes in the study of American politics and quantitative methods. His research focuses on voting behavior, campaign dynamics, political sophistication, public opinion and interest groups. He has broad methodological interests, including survey and experimental research, longitudinal data models, Bayesian models, social network analysis, automated text analysis and causal inference. He is also the co-organizer of the Research in American and Comparative Politics Workshop (RAC). He holds a master’s degree in social sciences from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in international studies from the Università degli Studi di Trento in Trent, Italy, and a PhD in political science from The Ohio State University.

Shiela Greeve Davaney (Religious Studies and Contemporary American Politics and Religion) joined the Ford Foundation in 2007, and is presently working on an initiative to increase the public presence and effectiveness of diverse religious perspectives dedicated to social justice. In this role, she encourages a rigorous and informed public engagement of religion and its role in the public sphere. Her grant making focuses on developing justice-oriented faith-based groups, coalitions and leaders, diversifying and enhancing media coverage of religion, and supporting related research. Previously, Sheila was the Harvey H. Potthoff Professor of Christian Theology at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Sheila holds masters and doctoral degrees in theology and study of religion from Harvard University. Her major scholarly work has focused on historicism, pragmatism and feminist thought.

John T. Jost (Political Psychology) is Professor of Psychology at New York University. His main research focuses on the theoretical and empirical implications of system justification theory, which addresses the holding of attitudes that are often contrary to one’s own self-interest and therefore contrary to what one would expect on the basis of theories of self-enhancement or rational self-interest. He is also involved in research projects on stereotyping, prejudice, ideology, intergroup relations, social justice, and political psychology. John is Editor of the Oxford University book series in Political Psychology and has a special interest in the underlying cognitive and motivational differences between liberals and conservatives, that is, the psychological basis of political ideology. He holds a master’s in philosophy from the University of Cincinnati and master’s and doctoral degrees in social psychology from Yale University.

Valerie A. Lewis (Sociology) joined the Saguaro Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government under the direction of Robert Putnam as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2009, where she worked with the Putnam-Campbell group (authors of American Grace) on an analysis of contemporary American religion. She was recently offered a lecturer position at Dartmouth College. She holds masters and doctoral degrees in sociology from Princeton University. Her research interests include urbanization and development, race and ethnic relations, urban sociology, demography, poverty and inequality, and more recently, religion. Her dissertation used a mixed-methods approach to examine how slum residents in India are disadvantaged in health and education; her subsequent research broadly examines the consequences of concentrated stigma and inequality.

F. LeRon Shults (Philosophy and Theology) is Professor of Theology and Philosophy in the Institute for Religion, Philosophy, and History at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway. He has written or edited 11 books and published over 40 scientific articles and book chapters addressing religion and human life in the context of the contemporary human and physical sciences. Shults holds a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, a PhD in education from Walden University, and a PhD in theology and philosophy from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has also served as a Research Fellow at Oxford University and Rijksuniversiteit Gröningen.

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