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Religious research hub launched at UWaterloo

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  • June 21, 2024

Stirred by hearing so often over the years that many people know nothing about the Canadian religious landscape, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme pitched some University of Waterloo colleagues the idea of forming a new scholarly institute on religion. 

Wilkins-Laflamme, who teaches in the University of Waterloo's Department of Sociology and Legal Studies, an affiliate of UWaterloo, co-opted Galen Watts (also from the sociology department, and Carol Ann MacGregor, vice president academic and dean for St. Jerome’s University, an affiliate college at UWaterloo, and together conceptualized the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Societal Futures (IRCSF).

The three Waterloo-based sociologists envision the IRCSF developing into a preeminent research hub examining religion, spirituality and emerging faith communities and practices in Canada.

“(We) want to get the word out about what is really going on — the good and the bad — and provide a more balanced view of various religious traditions and their role in Canadian society,” said Wilkins-Laflamme, the director of the IRCSF. She added that this new non-partisan academic body endeavours to empower both resident and visiting scholars to share knowledge with faith leaders, media, researchers and interested members of the public.

MacGregor, an associate director of the newly founded organization alongside Watts, said one of the IRCSF's appeals from St. Jerome’s perspective is its potential to quench a thirst for illumination and intel.

“There are so many stakeholders, particularly in the Catholic world — folks who work in schools, non-profits and Catholic health care — who are hungry for information and data rooted in rigourous, methodological approaches that help them understand the people and communities they serve,” said MacGregor.

At least at the outset, the IRCSF will focus its efforts on four thematic areas of research:

  1. “Religion data trends in Canada and internationally, including on religious and non-religious diversity”;
  2. “The new social and political boundaries of religion, spirituality and culture”;
  3. “Religion and spirituality in schools”; and
  4. “The realities and futures of Catholic life in Canada”

Watts hopes the studies, seminars and other projects produced by the IRCSF can perform “a public service” by correcting misconceptions and, ideally, building bridges of understanding.

“My sense among our students here at the University of Waterloo is that there is not only a religious illiteracy, but a lot of misconceptions about the nature of religion and its role in Canada today and in the past,” said Watts. “There is an ignorance about religion’s formative role in shaping Canadian public and private life. I do hope the institute can offer a useful forum for information and increasing understanding of religion in all of its forms and all of its diversity in Canada.”

Wilkins-Laflamme added it would be worthwhile for the institute to explore the coexistence between a large agnostic or atheistic population with members of various faith traditions.

“How does that work well, and when does it not work well,” said Wilkins-Laflamme. “What do we want to avoid to (dodge) conflict or violent outcomes? In my work, just understanding the dynamics of the different groups is a key part of that. It is to dispel some of those basic stereotypes that may be partially true but are not in many ways or just part of the picture.”

The IRCSF’s work began with the launch of its various social platforms. Wilkins-Laflamme, MacGregor and Watts will post interesting findings and trends. Watts is developing some launch events for the fall, including a panel discussion to introduce the institute and a hybrid seminar about the state of religion and sociology in Canada featuring foremost experts in those two fields.

In addition to developing a robust roster of visiting scholars, the IRCSF leadership hopes for students to become important contributors to the institution's scholarship.

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