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  • Tanya Popova

Four metaphors to explain what we’re hoping to achieve with the Glimpse Project

The Glimpse Project is an initiative from Neighbourly Lab and the Woolf Institute. Its aim is to show the common-ground in what different people yearn for or believe about God/spirituality/whatever. And to find a way to map these beliefs, irrespective of whatever religious tradition people come from, and irrespective of whether they say they’re atheist or religious or unsure or don’t care. For more about what we’re trying to achieve see this primer here.


The first step in this is Project is to try to develop a “One Perfect Question” which can elicit this information from everybody about the object of their Spiritual Yearning or religious-belief. We are applying for grant-funding from a major academic Research-Foundation to carry out this development-phase.


The method is to combine intuitive-ethnography and data-science. There’s more about this experimental method here.


When we explain the Glimpse Project to new audiences (school-classrooms, friends, academic-partners etc.) we end up using different metaphors to explain what we’re trying to do.


Here are the various metaphors we’ve used so far. One or other might resonate particularly for you? Let us know.

  1. Different sports

  2. Suitcases at the airport

  3. Funeral

  4. Sexuality


1. Sports look very different from the outside: but similar outputs for the people who play them.


People playing sports look very different to one another. A cyclist in her lycra, a golfer in his knitwear, a boxer with his satin-shorts, a skier in her goggles and bobble-hat.


If all you saw was the outside you’d assume there was no overlap or commonality in what they’re doing, or how what they’re doing is making them feel. But in fact there’s massive commonality in these “outputs”.


So this metaphor is useful for explaining our input-output dissonance. Religions look different (often different in wild or odd ways) in what you can see, but the cognitive effect for the people to who play the sports is pretty similar:

And so the metaphor with religious-practice: its visible inputs appear very different (and often very odd to outsiders). Whereas its outputs (eg the way it makes participants feel, or the social-dynamics associated with it) are probably very similar.


In fact with the inputs to religion, their differentness is exacerbated by the fact that outsiders tend to pay disproportionate attention to whatever is least familiar to them. Perhaps this is natural product of cultural curiosity or simplification (just in the same way that I know that Belgians like waffles and Spanish people like tapas). Here are some examples of religious practice looking very distinct.

The metaphor extends to the intra-differences within a religious-tradition or a sport. These distinctions are barely visible to outsiders but are meaningful to insiders. In the Church of England, experts (eg priests) will perceive great differences (eg guitar-music v organ-music; or saying “you” or “thou”. And similarly, any two different golfers will look askance at each other’s knitwear or form judgments based on their brand of golf-ball.


2. What’s in your suitcase? Carousel and the x-ray


If you stand at the carousel at Heathrow airport and look at the suitcases going past on the belt, some of the suitcases will look all-the-same and some will look very different.

It turns out that what’s inside those suitcases (which obviously you can’t see) is pretty similar. There’s a “common set of common things”. Every holiday-maker in their suitcase has:

  • Underwear

  • A toothbrush

  • A phone-charger

  • Some pills

  • Sunglasses

Yes – everyone’s underwear is a bit different, and their toothbrushes and especially their teddy-bears... But the point is: there’s a common grammar to most of what’s inside each person’s different-looking suitcase. So for religions: different practices look different from the outside, but when we get to “look inside” the heads of what people believe, we’ll find that there’s great variety, but also we’ll find clusters and themes that can order this variety.


3. Piecing together different people’s experiences of a person who’s died


You’ve probably been in these conversations that take place after a funeral, where you talk to other guests there about the person who’s just died. Everyone shares their different “take” of the person who’s just died.


But when all these are aired, a new composite picture of the person emerges. And perhaps that picture has greater accuracy and fidelity than any individual’s conception? Here’s a made-up example about a Ken who’s just died:

Mostly these different takes will fit together – in some cases they might clash. Where they clash is probably more revelatory than where they neatly fit.


And the method here of eliciting these responses is similar to how the Glimpse Project works. Each person follows a common-grammar (in this case, starting “for me, Ken was ________) and each person shares a short, single conception of Ken.


4. The dismantling of restrictive categories, like with sexuality/gender


In the UK, there’s a (exciting positive) social-change which is that each individual can make sense of, or describe, their sexuality in whatever way they wish. This is, in our view, an exciting and positive change.


It lets people understand their sexuality on their terms, without having to feel boxed into a particular category. It’s become a normal feature of sexuality that it may be fluid or contingent.

Inevitably, we do try and then frame all this fluidity and ineffability into categories - above is from the US Government or here’s a list of 29 sexualities from Unite, an advocacy org.


So with spiritual beliefs: in a similar way to sexuality (perhaps?), “it’s complicated” for most of us. And each individual should have space and tools to express their position on their terms, rather than being “normed” into pre-set categories.


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