An SFI workshop gathers to build tools to quantify the role of music and ritual in world religions. (image: "Nuns" by Mikhail Nesterov, 1893)

Music and rituals are a common element in religions around the world. Researchers would like to know more about how these practices have evolved over space and time and the role they play in human cultural evolution. 

But answering these questions quantitatively is difficult because most of the scholarly information on the subject is locked up in books, journal articles, and the minds of individual experts. 

A group of scientists gathering for a June 10–14 workshop hopes to change that through a new poll they are building for the Database of Religious History. Founded in 2012, the database allows users to explore religious groups, places, and texts through an encyclopedic interface while providing the ability to visualize and analyze complex correlations. The Santa Fe Institute has hosted two previous meetings to help expand the scope of the database and train experts to use it. 

The new poll will enable researchers who study aspects of religious rituals to turn their qualitative expertise into data that can be analyzed in ways that were previously unfeasible. For example, SFI External Professor Thalia Wheatley (Dartmouth College) wants to use the ritual poll to test theories about the role of communal eating or singing in the ongoing battle between pathogens and the human immune system. 

A DRH poll is essentially a structured, hierarchal questionnaire for religious history scholars that is designed to standardize and quantify historical data, making it possible to compare and analyze religious phenomena across different times and cultures, explains SFI External Professor Marco Buongiorno Nardelli (University of North Texas). Buongiorno Nardelli, a composer and physicist, is co-organizing the workshop with DRH director Edward Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia. They hope the poll will be online and ready to collect information by the end of the year.

Through the poll, the researchers intend to capture detailed data on the specifics of religious rituals, including the size, frequency, setting, purpose, and supernatural entities involved. Additionally, the poll will help document elements like music, art, mind-altering substances, food, and dance. 

“Once the ritual poll is filled out and we have all this data, it will enable us to visualize things and do much more sophisticated correlation analyses, looking at how one variable relates to another across different times and cultures,” Buongiorno Nardelli says. 

Slingerland describes the implications of the new poll as extending far beyond the immediate field of religious studies. “The data we collect can be correlated with ecological, climate, and other spatial-temporal datasets to investigate broader questions about human evolution and cultural dynamics,” he says. “For instance, researchers could explore theories about how ritual practices influence social cohesion and conflict.” 

As a researcher who studies the complexity of music, Buongiorno Nardelli says he is intrigued about the possibilities of using the new poll to look at the emergence of various aspects of music from a sociocultural point of view. 

“Music has always played a role in religious rituals,” he says. “I am very interested in learning about how contemporary ideas and abstractions in music emerged from the practice and celebration of religion.”