Religion is key in groundbreaking research

Ambitious programme of Spinoza Laureate Birgit Meyer

15 September 2015

On 14 September 2015 Birgit Meyer announced her plans during the award ceremony of the NWO Spinoza prize. Her ambitious 8-year research programme ‘Dynamics of Religion’, aims to reposition religious studies.

Birgit Meyer will invest the Spinoza grant in an 8-year research programme ’Dynamics of Religion in Diversifying Societies’Birgit Meyer will invest the Spinoza grant in an 8-year research programme ’Dynamics of Religion in Diversifying Societies’

The spring of 2015 was highly memorable for the Utrecht Professor of Religious Studies Birgit Meyer. Within a period of two months, she received both the KNAW Academy Professor Prize and the NWO Spinoza research grant. This means that she has a total sum of 3.5 million to spend on research of her choice. “It is a very large amount of money: 3.5 million euros. I see it as my duty to achieve something big with this investment,’ explains Professor Meyer.

Highly topical research

Trained in religious studies and anthropology, Birgit Meyer focuses in her research on material and bodily expressions of religion. With her research group she studies religious buildings, sculptures and clothes, but also the role of objects and sensoria and emotional dimensions of religion. During the first years of her career, Meyer mainly studied Christianity in Africa. Thanks to a NWO Pioneer-grant she investigated the link between democratization, access to modern media and the new public role of Pentecostal churches. Since then she has broadened her focus to religion in the Netherlands. ‘Until the 1990s it was widely assumed that religion was disappearing from our society. But particularly in the last 10 years religion as a social phenomenon is very much alive and kicking here.’

A broad transdisciplinary collaboration

In the Netherlands, subject areas such as religious studies and theology have been suffering cutbacks for many years. A recently published KNAW report, co-authored by Meyer, recommends to give a new face to the academic research of religion as a diverse, dynamic and global phenomenon. ‘I would like to use my award money to contribute to this. I myself work from an anthropological perspective. But the kind of research that I have in mind can only be conducted with a broad, transdisciplinary team of researchers from the humanities and social sciences.’

The new research programme by Birgit Meyer will build on her current HERA projects, a.o. the study of public displays of the originally Surinamese Winti religion in the NetherlandsThe new research programme by Birgit Meyer will build on her current HERA projects, a.o. the study of public displays of the originally Surinamese Winti religion in the Netherlands

Eight years, four themes

The programme Dynamics of Religion in Diversifying Societies consists of four themes. Two years will be spent on each theme – one after the other. 'The first theme concerns the material culture of religion,' explains Meyer. ‘That focus evolves around about objects, sculptures and buildings. In so doing, I will pursue the research lines developed in the transnational Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) projects Currents of Faith and Iconic Religion. As part of these HERA projects we are, for example, looking at new uses for empty church buildings, but also at new public displays of the Surinamese Winti religion in a Dutch setting.


The second theme is entirely new to Meyer. ‘I would like to concentrate on the relationship between food and religion. For instance, there is currently a great deal of controversy about ritual slaughtering in the Netherlands. But also in Africa there are many fascinating cases of conflicts about the use of food in a religious context. For example in Ghana where traditional religious practices such as making sacrifices and the pouring of libations (with alcoholic drinks) to the ancestors are challenged by protestants.’


Comparing Africa and the Netherlands is key in this programme. ‘I have always been interested in Africa. I have done a lot of fieldwork there myself. It is fascinating to compare the situation here in the Netherlands with Africa and to pay attention to how these two regions are intertwined. In Africa there is a longstanding experience with a heavily diverse religious field. To us this is a relatively new phenomenon. We can learn so much about the way in which they have dealt with conflicts.’

A different perspective

During the final four years of the programme, Meyer will focus on the body and address topics such as religious modes of dress and circumcision. And finally, text: ‘I deliberately chose text as the last theme. It is usually the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about research on religion. But we will have a different perspective on texts if we have first concentrated on other, explicitly material matters.’

African partners

Once the programme has been completed, she hopes to have achieved various goals. Apart from gathering knowledge about religion, the second aim is to introduce a different way of working in religious studies. ‘I strongly believe in the transregional and transdisciplinary approach. We must abandon the traditional view that we visit Africa as westerners, do our research and publish after we return. African researchers must take part on an equal footing. Within this context, I have many positive experiences with NWO’s SANPAD-program. And soon my first South-African PhD candidate of the NWO programme Cultural Dynamics will obtain his doctorate.

Repositioning the study of religion

In addition, Meyer aims to give a conceptual boost to religious studies as a whole. ‘In eight years’ time we should have a new framework for repositioning religious studies in our day and age. For me, this new interdisciplinary approach more or less began with the NWO programme The Future of the Religious Past. Much of my work that followed was inspired by the discussions I had during that wonderful programme. Religion is one of the major issues of our time. My research into religion will be placed in the centre of the humanities and social sciences.’

Source: NWO