The Digital Turn in Religious Studies

26 September 2023

The Digital Turn - an existential shift within the humanities that transforms human experience - is also influencing Religious Studies. In this blog by Lieneke Timpers (Leuven) you can read what this shift means for Religious Studies and what the discipline's specific needs are in this regard.


With the introduction of ChatGPT the tension between ethics, AI, and data was again thrown into sharp relief. Last April the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, together with the KU Leuven Data Science in the Humanities project, organized a workshop to address this tension from the perspective of theology and Religious Studies.


The workshop on Chatbots, led by Dr. Wouter Biesbrouck (KU Leuven), focused on the ethical challenges and opportunities faced with the public use and availability of automated chatbots such as ChatGPT, addressing issues of privacy, copyright, but also ways in which such chatbots can be put to good use. Largely attended by systematic theologians and ethicists, the workshop encouraged hands-on experimenting with ChatGPT, as well as a few other research tools. The second workshop was led by Dr. Nina Lamal (Huygens Instituut) on Transkribus, a popular online tool for transcribing handwritten sources relevant for historians and biblical scholars. Finally, Dr. Ernst van den Hemel (Meertens Instituut) and Michiel de Clerck (LIBIS) led a workshop focusing on the basics of scraping and analyzing data from the internet using iCandid, a tool developed by LIBIS and at the full disposal of KU Leuven researchers.


The three workshops were very well received. Participants noted that there were more possibilities with the tools than they were aware of, as well as the fact that the workshops specifically focused on Religious Studies and theological research. The experience of the workshop leaders with the tools was appreciated, as well as the hands-on focus, allowing users to immediately start using the tool. A number of participants indicated that they would have liked to be able to attend more than one workshop, and that the workshops could have been longer.

Digital Turn

As a research infrastructure for Religious Studies, RESILIENCE aims to develop and produce more of such trainings and workshops, which not only introduce digital tools and services, but ensure that they are tailored to Religious Studies specifically. Such developments should be viewed within the wider context of the field of the Digital Humanities. Pioneered by the Jesuit Roberto Busa, whose Index Thomisticus can be considered the first computing tool built for the humanities, this field is part of what is often termed the Digital Turn – an existential shift within the humanities that transforms human experience. The digital world is such a shift – it can be considered an unprecedented evolutionary transition, introducing wholly new categories of thinking which are unrecognizable to previous human experiences. Digital technologies are no longer something external to the human experience, but they have become part of who we are and how we experience the world.

Response from Digital Humanities

The digital humanities formed an early response to this shift, combining computer applications with humanities research, education, and dissemination. Defined as a “[…] a set of loosely related methodologies and projects that stretch across fields and disciplines and even across sites of knowledge production […]” the Digital Humanities welcomes and shelters all academic discipline relevant to the humanities, focusing on what a field does, rather than its ontology.[1] Its aim is to seek an integration of tools, data, and services into the humanities, in service of the humanities.

Discipline-Specific Approach

Theology and Religious Studies however, face unique challenges in meeting the digital turn, that require discipline-specific approaches. One of the themes of the day was to show that such an integration is something which the field of Religious Studies both lacks and needs. Research conducted by RESILIENCE has shown that scholars in Religious Studies face a number of unique issues in their field that underline the need for an integration of the digital turn into ReligiousSstudies, and simultaneously make it more difficult. Religious Studies faces both a cultural and a temporal plurality: its scope includes historical and contemporary contexts, as well as a diversity of ethical, social and political systems. This leads to an unusual high variety of sources: textual, visual, oral, material, which in turn requires a methodological pluralism in which the use of mixed-method strategies and exchange of good practices is essential.

Unique Needs of Religious Studies

What we can see is that the main challenge which Religious Studies faces arises from the interdisciplinarity and plurality inherent to its object of study: the phenomenon of religion as a facet of the human experience. For Religious Studies, digitality is not only a new conceptual or hermeneutical lens, but an existential shift impacting the methodological and epistemological underpinnings of our field. None of these challenges by themselves are unique to Religious Studies: historians also deal with a plurality of historical periods and cultures, while anthropology and sociology also face multiple research methodologies, including the emic and etic research perspectives. Religious Studies however, is unique in needing to incorporate the digital humanities across all of these subdisciplines, while still maintaining the traditional scope of their field. In the context of the digital turn this is both a challenge and an asset: while it faces issues unique to its field, it also offers opportunities enabled by its interdisciplinary character.

RESILIENCE aims to facilitate and catalyze precisely those opportunities – essential for the future of Religious Studies.

Lieneke Timpers, KU Leuven

A more extensive version of this article can be found at Theology Research News Louvain

[1] Reed, Ashley. “Digital Humanities and the Study and Teaching of North American Religions.” Religion compass 10, no. 12 (2016): 307.