Amber Curtis

Amber Curtis serves as assistant professor in Clemson’s political science department.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Completing a book is a daunting task, and most authors start this long process without knowing if there are interested readers at the end of it. Luckily for Amber Curtis, assistant professor in Clemson’s political science department, the Global Religion Research Initiative is so interested in her in-progress book on religious identity that they’re paying Clemson to give her two semesters off in order to finish it.

The initiative, a part of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society, recently awarded Curtis with an academic year teaching-and-service leave fellowship that will provide funds to reduce her teaching responsibilities so that Curtis can complete her book, “Religious Identification in Global Perspective.” The book will draw on original survey data Curtis will have obtained from nine countries spanning six world regions.

Curtis’ goal is to reveal why a person does or does not identify strongly with religion, especially relative to how strongly they identify with other kinds of identity including nationality, race, gender, class or political affiliation, to name a few. Curtis said she hopes her book will create a clearer picture of why religious identity is so contentious and how it gets politicized.

“As a researcher I’ve always tried to get to the heart of why there are so many divisions when, I think, we all have more in common than we realize,” Curtis says. “If we can discover what causes people to identify a certain way, we may be able to help bridge some religious divides and help policymakers understand how religious identity shapes political behavior.”

Curtis sees her book as significant because it will address three limitations in previous research in the area of religious identity. First, it will examine how psychologically attached someone is to their religious identity, regardless of whether they affiliate with an organized religion or not.

The book will also provide data that investigates the causes of variation in how strongly people see themselves through the lens of religion. Finally, it will offer a cross-national perspective that covers all major religions and moves beyond the heavily Western focus of existing studies.

Although her research won’t be finalized until the summer, Curtis is encouraged by her findings so far. She said her data suggest that even across different countries and religions, people tend to land on one end of a spectrum or the other; they either highly identify with religion or they don’t identify with it at all.

Even more revealing, according to Curtis, is that the groups that seem to have the most in common don’t necessarily belong to the same religion. Her data suggest that the people who identify highly with their religion have more in common with one another than they do with someone of their own faith who identifies with their religion less.

“This suggests that a Christian who identifies as highly religious actually might have more in common with a highly religious Muslim than they do with someone of their own faith,” Curtis says. “These hidden connections truly fascinate me, and I look forward to discovering where more common ground exists on other measures I’m studying.”

According to Jeffrey Peake, chair of Clemson’s political science department, leaves such as the one afforded by this award are rare in the discipline, especially for pre-tenure faculty. Peake sees Curtis’ fellowship as a career-defining moment that also has the potential to impact the future of the discipline as a whole.

“A book such as this one will firmly establish Dr. Curtis as an expert on the study of religion, identity and how these critical concepts relate and affect politics in nations across the globe,” Peake said. “The book has the potential to set the research agenda on these topics for years to come.”

Eric Muth, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences that is home to the political science department, said a fellowship such as this one is critical in allowing faculty the time and academic freedom to pursue discovery. Muth and Peake both admire Curtis’ work in this area, which reveals commonalities between several fields represented in the college, including sociology and psychology.

“This fellowship demonstrates the quality of scholarship through which junior faculty like Dr. Curtis are elevating Clemson’s national reputation,” Muth said. “We look forward to what her research will reveal on a subject that touches the lives of everyone across the globe.”