Does religion make life better?

25 July 2018
Professor Joseph Bulbulia in the Maclaurin Chapel
Professor Joseph Bulbulia in the Maclaurin Chapel

"Understanding what religion does for people is critical to understanding human behaviour at all levels, from individuals to social groups to nations," says Professor Joseph Bulbulia.

This is at the centre of his work as an interdisciplinary scholar whose desire to find out how spirituality affects people has led to a research career that spans the humanities and social sciences.

He is a member of the central management team for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS), an ongoing longitudinal study of over 30,000 New Zealanders. He is also a co-investigator for Puluto, a database of Pacific cultures built specifically to understand the role of spirituality across the cultural history of 116 Australasian societies.

Joseph was appointed the Maclaurin Goodfellow Chair in Theological and Religious Studies at the University of Auckland in late 2017. He sees this appointment as an opportunity to foster better integration across those disciplines that study humans by promoting collaborative, transdisciplinary approaches to the study of religion, and to improve public understanding by fostering links with government and the community.

"One of our big hopes over the next few years is to estimate the economic contributions of churches, temples and mosques in our neighbourhoods."

Theological and Religious Studies at the University is ideally suited to these interests because it takes a broad view of religion, from specific faiths to the role of religion in driving historical, social, political and cultural change.

Joseph's connection with the University goes back to 2010. This is when he began collaborating with Professor Chris Sibley, Professor Russell Gray and Professor Quentin Atkinson in the School of Psychology on major externally-funded projects investigating the social impact of religion in New Zealand and across the Pacific.

Currently, Joseph's main research focus is in building capacity for investigating the causes and consequences of moral cultivation across adulthood.

"Philosophers have long held that virtues hold the key to the greatest human happiness but must be practised. Testing these claims has proved challenging because nearly all relevant data sets, such as national censuses, do not track individuals over time, or ask the right questions."

The team is extending the NZAVS to tackle these issues, mailing out the new survey to 10 percent of adult New Zealanders this year. Joseph says repeated responses from the same people in the years ahead will help us to understand what really mattered to this generation of Kiwis.

"Personally, I don't think that will be chasing after money. I reckon how we looked after each other will be the difference maker. We'll just have to wait and see."

Professor Joseph Bulbulia's appointment was made possible through the generosity of the Richard Maclaurin Goodfellow Foundation.

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