Religious Studies research

View recent research projects by Religious Studies staff and students in the School of Art History, Classics, Religious Studies and Museum and Heritage Studies.

Recent developments in religious studies research

Our Religious Studies staff are dynamic researchers with world-class reputations, and are active in a range of projects supported by major international funding.

Exploring cultural differences through Buddhism

The big question for Michael Radich is what do we have in common that makes us human?

MichaelOne thing keeps Associate Professor Michael Radich awake at night. “My principal cause of sleepless nights is waking up at 2am with too many ideas.”

Associate Professor Radich, who is in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies, works on the history of Buddhist ideas and their reception in China. It’s hard to imagine how many lifetimes he would have to live through to follow up all his interests, but he certainly can’t be accused of slacking off in this one.

Associate Professor Radich’s areas of research have included the transmission of Buddhism from China to India, the translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese, the works of the Indian missionary-monk Paramārtha, the early rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine of ‘Buddha nature’.

Many Buddhist texts have not been translated into English: studying Buddhism, says Associate Professor Radich, has given him an excuse to learn new languages. Among living languages, he speaks or reads Mandarin, Japanese, German and French and is now learning Italian and te reo Māori; among dead languages, he uses classical Chinese, classical Tibetan, Pali and Sanskrit.

If that’s not sufficient linguistic variety, Associate Professor Radich also taught himself rudiments of the programming language Python as part of an ambitious ongoing project to use computer-assisted techniques to help solve questions of authorship in canonical Chinese Buddhist texts.

Nor is it all about Buddhism. In addition to his PhD from Harvard University, Associate Professor Radich has a degree in musical composition and a diploma in clarinet performance, and worked as a translator and interpreter at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. He is interested in psychoanalysis, anthropology, central Asian history and the cultures and languages of the Pacific; in his free time, such as it is, he writes poetry and solves cryptic crosswords.

Joseph Bulbulia's latest published research in national and international press

Joseph Bulbulia and researchers from the University of Auckland's School of Psychology, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and Victoria University, wanted to test the link between how unequal or hierarchical a culture was and human sacrifice.

Washington Post and New Zealand Herald

Two exciting new projects

Shariah-compliant speed dating in Malaysia and Islamic (Inter)Faces of the Internet: Emerging Socialities and Forms of Piety in Indonesia.

Eva Nisa is currently working on two research projects: First is a project which commenced in November, 2014 when Eva was completing her second post-doctoral fellow at the University of Amsterdam. In this project, Eva focuses on Shariah-compliant speed dating in Malaysia, delving into the question of to what extent this form of dating is acceptable or controversial, and exploring which parties either propagate the issue or consider it controversial. Eva’s second project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund and is titled “Islamic (Inter)Faces of the Internet: Emerging Socialities and Forms of Piety in Indonesia”. This research project is being conducted in collaboration with two scholars from Austria and focuses on contemporary religiosities and the use of the internet, particularly social media. The project analyses the penetration of the internet and how this has led to the fragmentation of the traditional authority of ulama (Muslim scholars). The project also examines how internet applications have become the new platform for Indonesian Muslim youth to engage in demonstrating their politics of identity as Muslims.

Year in Germany on Prestigious Humboldt Fellowship

In 2015, Michael Radich spend the year at the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of Hamburg in Germany. He was supported by a prestitious Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Researchers from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This award is an honour relatively rarely achieved by Australian or New Zealand researchers. During his time in Germany, Michael was hosted by hosted by Professor Michael Zimmermann, an authority on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Michael used the time to complete research on Paramārtha's coctrine of "pure consciousness" a key concept in the history of Buddhist doctrine in China; and to kick-start a major new project to reassess the authorship and dating of classical Chinese Buddhist texts, using new computer-assisted methods he has developed in collaboration with his colleague, Wellington programmer and Digital Humanities research Jamie Norrish. During the same time in Europe, Michael also gave lectures at the Universities of Oxford, Vienna, Kyoto, Chicago, and in Hamburg itself, and participated in research workshops in Taiwan, Kyoto and Hamburg.

New Zealand Attitude and Values Study (NZAVS) longitudinal study

The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) is a 20-year longitudinal national probability study of social attitudes, personality and health outcomes. The NZAVS is led by Dr Chris Sibley, and is unique to New Zealand. Associate Professor Joseph Bulbulia has been awarded NZD $769,000 in a highly competitive  Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grant to enrich the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) coverage of religion and spirituality at the level of communities across New Zealand. Associate Professor Joseph Bulbulia (Principal Investigator), Dr Geoff Troughton (Assistant Investigator), and Associate Professor Chris G. Sibley (School of Psychology, University of Auckland) have also been awarded a prestigious Templeton World Charity Foundation Grant (NZD $614,816). You can read more about both grants and the associated studies.

Marsden Grant for Study on Missionaries and Peace in 19th C New Zealand

Geoff Troughton has won a 3-year Marsden grant to study the role of peace and peacemaking in early nineteenth-century missions to New Zealand. The first Protestant missionaries to New Zealand often emphasised the peaceable character of Christianity, and promoted peacemaking practices. There is evidence that such emphases were particularly strongly promoted in New Zealand, and parts of the Pacific. However, this peace dimension has often been neglected in analyses of the missions. Dr Troughton's study aims to undertake a close examination of missionary peace ideologies, and assess the significance of this emphasis for early New Zealand history and for the wider missionary project.

Marsden Grant for Transforming Hinduism

Rick Weiss, has received a three-year Marsden Grant for his research on Transforming Hinduism. He will examine important projects of Hindu religious innovation in nineteenth-century South India. These projects entailed re-imagining caste, gender, ritual practices, and sources of authority. Weiss's principal aim is to consider the impact of colonial and missionary forces on the ways that Hindus reconceived their traditions at the beginning of the modern era. By emphasising non-elite responses to colonialism, this research will challenge prevailing scholarly narratives of the development of contemporary Hinduism.

Religious studies research publications

A Distant Mirror: Articulating Indic Ideas in Sixth and Seventh Century Chinese Buddhism edited by Lin Chen-kuo and Michael Radich

In this book, an international team of fourteen scholars investigates the Chinese reception of Indian Buddhist ideas, especially in the sixth and seventh centuries. Topics include Buddhist logic and epistemology (pramāṇa, yinming); commentaries on Indian Buddhist texts; Chinese readings of systems as diverse as Madhyamaka, Yogācāra and tathāgatagarbha; the working out of Indian concepts and problematics in new Chinese works; and previously under-studied Chinese evidence for developments in India. The authors aim to consider the ways that these Chinese materials might furnish evidence of broader Buddhist trends, thereby problematizing a prevalent notion of “sinification”, which has led scholars to consider such materials predominantly in terms of trends ostensibly distinctive to China. The volume also tries to go beyond seeing sixth- and seventh-century China primarily as the age of the formation and establishment of the Chinese Buddhist “schools”. The authors attempt to view the ideas under study on their own terms, as valid Buddhist ideas engendered in a rich, “liminal” space of interchange between two large traditions.

The full text of the whole book, or individual chapters, can be downloaded free of charge from the publisher, Hamburg University Press

Radich cover2

The "Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra" and the Emergence of "Tathāgatagarbha" Doctrine by Michael Radich

Famously, tathāgatagarbha doctrine holds that every sentient being has within the body a womb for Buddhas, or an embryonic Buddha – the potential for full buddhahood. Previous scholars have seen this doctrine as originating in the Tathāgatagarbha-sūtra. In this book, Michael Radich argues that rather, the Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra is most likely our earliest extant tathāgatagarbha text. Radich then argues that tathāgatagarbha ideas originated as part of a wider pattern of docetic Buddhology – ideas holding that Buddhas are not really as they appear. Buddhist docetic texts are clearly troubled by the notion that Buddhas could have flesh-and-blood human mothers. The Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra is one such text, and tathāgatagarbha functions as a better substitute for imperfect human maternity: rather than a putrid, painful human womb, buddhahood springs from a “womb” inherent in every sentient being, which promises final liberation from flesh altogether.

This book should interest readers concerned with the history of Buddhist ideas, gender in Buddhism, the early Mahāyāna, the cult of the Buddha’s relics, and relations between Buddhist ideas and practice.

The full text of this book can be downloaded free of charge from the publisher, Hamburg University Press

New Zealand Jesus: Social and Religious Transformations of an image 1890 - 1940 by Geoffrey Troughton

Geoffrey Troughto's major study, New Zealand Jesus: Social and Religious Transformations of an Image 1890-1940 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2011), is the first historical analysis of New Zealand images of Jesus. This book uses a wide range of sources to examine ways that New Zealanders thought about Jesus during a period of significant change and modernisation. The resulting analysis provides insights into the character of New Zealand religion and its place in the nation's history and culture.'


The Spirit of the Past: Essays on Christianity in New Zealand History (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011) edited by Geoffrey Troughton and Hugh Morrison.

This collection of essays offers fresh insights into debates about the role and influence of Christianity in New Zealand history, and makes available some of the best new research into the history of local Christian ideas, practices and institutions.

Recipes for Immortality

Recipes for Immortality: Medicine, Religion and Community in South India by Richard S Weiss

Oxford University Press has published a new book by Rick Weiss, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies. InRecipes for Immortality: Medicine, Religion and Community in South India (January 2009), Dr Weiss asks how practitioners of traditional siddha medicine maintain their popularity in the modern world. While biomedicine might alleviate a patient's physical distress, siddha doctors offer their clientele much more: affiliation to a timeless and pure community, the fantasy of a Tamil utopia, and even the prospect of immortality. Recipes for Immortality makes the case that medical authority is based not only on physical effectiveness, but also on imaginative processes that relate to personal and social identities, conceptions of history, secrecy, loss, and utopian promise. While shedding light on their lives, vocations, and aspirations, the book also documents the challenges that siddha doctors face in the modern world, both from a biomedical system that claims universal efficacy, and also from the rival traditional medicine, ayurveda, which is promoted as the national medicine of an autonomous Indian state. Drawing on ethnographic data; premodern Tamil texts on medicine, alchemy, and yoga; government archival resources; college textbooks; and popular literature on siddha medicine and on the siddhar yogis, Dr Weiss presents an in-depth study of this traditional system of knowledge, which serves the medical needs of millions of Indians.


How Ajātaśatru Was Reformed: The Domestication of "Ajase" and Stories in Buddhist History by Michael Radich

The story of Ajātaśatru is important to the history of Buddhism, psychoanalytic theory, and notions of modern Japanese identity. This, the most comprehensive study of the story to date, covers primary sources in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese (classical and modern), and modern scholarship in English, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin; and spans over two thousand years of Buddhist history, from India, via China, to contemporary Japan.

New Rights

New Rights New Zealand Myths, Markets and Moralities by Paul Morris and Dolores Janiewski.

This book is an important study of the growth of the New Right in New Zealand in the years 1984 to 1999. Its value arises from the way it focuses on the global context of the economic and moral programmes for change in the 1980s and 1990s, aiming to provide a more accurate picture than that given either by those who see the reforms as part of the play of global capitalism or by those who see them in terms of local personalities and agendas.

Religious studies postgraduate student research

Religious Studies has a thriving programme of postgraduate study, and PhD studies are a particular strength. Our students pursue a wide range of research projects. Read more about our students and their fascinating work.

Religious studies staff and their research specialties

Full information about past and current research by our staff is listed on  individual staff pages in the school's staff directory.

Prof Paul Morris

Contemporary world religions, world's religions after 9/11, Judaism, including the Holocaust, diaspora and the state of Israel, Hebrew language, the relationship between religion and dying/death, religion and personal and cultural identity, theories and methods in the study of religion.

Dr Joseph Bulbulia

Evolutionary psychology of religion, philosophy of religion, religion and the emotions and ritual theory.

Dr Michael Radich

Medieval Chinese Buddhism; the early Mahayana; Buddhist doctrinal history; religion and the body.

Dr Rick Weiss

Tamil Hinduism, religion and colonialism, healing systems, South Asian religion, 19th century Tamil literature.

Dr Geoff Troughton

Religion in New Zealand society and history, contemporary religious change, missionary Christianity, religion and peacemaking, religion and welfare, history of Christianity.

    St. John's visiting scholar in religion

    The St John’s Visiting Scholar programme is a partnership between St John’s in the City Presbyterian Church and Victoria University. The aim of the programme is to bring distinguished scholars of religion to New Zealand, to share their scholarship with the local academy in conversation with the broader public. Read more about past and upcoming visitors on the programme.

    Peace Conference 2015

    From 18-20 November 2015, Victoria University of Wellington hosted a conference for critical reflection on Christian contributions to peace and peacemaking in New Zealand. The conference provided an opportunity to evaluate Christian contributions historically, and to think theologically about the relationship of peace to Christianity; and aimed to stimulate thinking about the character and significance of peace in the life and vision of New Zealand churches. Read more about the conference here.

    Conference: Sharia in the Asia-Pacific: Islam, Law and Politics, 2015

    In August this year the Religious Studies Programme hosted a symposium entitled: “Sharia in the Asia-Pacific: Islam, Law and Politics”. Scholars from Malaysia, the United States, Brunei Darussalam, Australia and New Zealand engaged with the concept of Sharia in its many dimensions, including the philosophical, legal, and political. Read more about the conference here.

    Conference: New Trajectories in the Study of Development 2016

    "New Trajectories in the Study of Development", hosted by Religious Studies, Development Studies and Cultural Anthropology, Victoria University of Wellington, will be held on 24 May 2016. Read more

    Conference: Woven Together? 2016

    With assistance from UNESCO and Victoria University of Wellington, a conference entitled "Woven Together? Christianity and Development between New Zealand and the Pacific" will be held at VUW from 9-10 June 2016. This conference seeks to examine Christianity as a development actor by investigating the roles that Christianity has played in influencing development and humanitarian practices, ideologies, rituals, networks and imaginations in the Pacific. The conference will also probe the flip-side of this relationship; namely, the ways in which development and humanitarianism have influenced and reshaped Pacifica Christianities. Read more about the conference here.

    Trinity Newman Library Collection

    The Trinity Newman library is a small, dedicated collection of books and reference works in the fields of Christian theology, history and ethics, and in Christian studies generally. Read more about the library here.