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Can Britain’s multi-faith society learn from the religious beliefs and practices of global seafarers?

Religion in multi-ethnic contexts a multidisciplinary case study of global seafaring

THE ways in which seafarers negotiate diverse beliefs and practice - and the role of religion in promoting or disrupting social harmony - is the subject of a new half a million-pound research project involving an academic from the University of Chichester.

Dr Graeme Smith, Reader in Public Theology, will work with a team of researchers from the University of Cardiff on a project called, Religion in multi-ethnic contexts: a multidisciplinary case study of global seafaring. The project is possible thanks to a £550,000 grant from the Economics and Social Research Council

“In what some think of as an increasingly secular society the significance of religion could be regarded as waning,” said Dr Smith. “However, in fact there is also wide-spread evidence that some social and political conflict is motivated by religious difference.  In light of the threat to social harmony from belief and practice it is critical that the social sciences return to religion as a centrally important issue and understand its impact on social cohesion.”

The research will, according to Dr Smith, make an important contribution to society’s understanding of how multi-faith groups peacefully co-exist, and what factors may disrupt or threaten harmony in religiously diverse populations. The project focuses on seafarers from different countries and from multiple faiths who live and work together on ships and in ports.

In the context of the challenging social circumstances where they live and work - confined in relatively small spaces on board working cargo ships and largely isolated from wider society – the team will explore how seafarers understand their own spirituality and that of their colleagues and how they manage and experience religious beliefs and practices.

Dr Graeme SmithDr Smith added: “Traditionally ports in the UK and US have provided chaplaincy and welfare services to international seafarers of multiple faiths in an effort to meet a variety of spiritual and social needs. These past and present services will be a key area of investigation for the research.”

Archival data will be collected charting the historical development of chaplaincy in ports in the UK and US.  Contemporary chaplains will be interviewed in order to understand how they practice their ministry today.  In this way it will be possible to understand how religious welfare organisations and work have changed over time.

According to Dr Smith, the project has three fundamental aims.  First and foremost, it will better inform us of the welfare and spiritual provision offered by organisations working in ports.  Alongside this it will provide a better understanding of how traditional and non-traditional religions and spiritualties are expressed, experienced, and negotiated in ports and in multinational residential workplaces. Finally it will explore the evolution of religion in limited but important situations outside congregations and formally designated religious sites.

He added: “We aim to add to academic understandings of contemporary 'religion' and its diversity as well as to study religion and spirituality beyond expected locations – such as churches and religious communities.”

The study itself will be undertaken in four ways:

  1. Examining historical material about the development of religious services across UK and US ports,
  2. Interviews with organisations which fund port-based ministry,
  3. Investigating chaplaincy in-action at ports,
  4. Examining the spiritual or religious practices, needs, and expressions of seafarers.

“This bi-national case study will be conducted by a multi-disciplinary team of sociologists and theologians,” added Dr Smith. “The results will be of practical value to seafarers and those attempting to meet their spiritual and religious needs; of academic value to scholars of religion and the workplace; and of general value in raising awareness of a vital but neglected area of modern economic life.”

To find out more about Dr Graeme Smith www.chi.ac.uk/staff/dr-graeme-smith or alternatively for more about the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of Chichester at www.chi.ac.uk/theology.