Gary Bouma was Australia’s pre-eminent sociologist of religion and a major contributor to sociology worldwide. A professor at Monash University, he held the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations – Asia Pacific from 2005–21 and directed or participated in scores of national and international research projects on such topics as religious pluralism, religious tolerance, and religions’ role supporting multi-cultural societies. He authored or edited over 30 books and 360 articles, including the path-breaking Australian Soul (2006). He was the Chair of the Board of Directors for the 2009 Parliament of World Religions and also an ordained Anglican priest. To all these roles, he brought a deep commitment to social justice and to religious and cultural pluralism.
To say that Gary worked across borders is a considerable understatement. He did not seek to erase those borders, for he valued pluralistic diversity. Instead, he worked to foster communication between people on all sides of them. I first met him at meetings of various international scholarly societies, where he was well known for keeping us “yankocentrics” aware that religion is done differently in different parts of the world.
From his Australian vantage point, he could counter three of the main stories that afflict our intellectual discipline. One of these is the story that religion is disappearing — what we traditionally call “secularization”. A less insightful reading of Australian religious statistics could support that story, but Gary pointed out that it could do so only if it ignored major parts of the Australian religious landscape. He reminded us yokels that Australian religious culture is more relaxed than American, and that religion comes in many forms inside and outside religious organizations. He taught us to look for those plural forms; many of us learned to do so.
Gary similarly opposed an alternative story: the claim that those religions that thrive do so by becoming more ‘conservative’. This is the ‘story of fundamentalisms’ and a huge boogeyman in contemporary American sociology, due to the current political alignment between White Evangelical Christians and the right wing of the Republican party — an alignment that allows progressives to write off religion tout court. Gary showed us that Australia is not following that pattern. National religious culture matters, and what happens in the U.S. is not what happens in the rest of the world. Again, he taught us to look for variety, not for a single trend.
The third major ‘story’ in our sub-discipline is the ‘story of religious markets’, specifically the claim that religious trends can be explained using rational-choice economistic models. Gary pointed out that reductive modeling of any kind only works when you limit the phenomenon you are trying to study to what your model can mirror, throwing away the rest. Gary was not one for restrictive definitions. Nor was he one for throwing away people’s religious possibilities.
Gary was generous. He shared much with me as he did with many others. Before COVID stopped our traveling, we would have long talks when we met at conferences. I often looked on him as an elder brother who as able to see things that I did not. Neither of us wrote letters. But we saw each other at U.S. and European conferences and each time I came to Australia. I had hoped to do so again at the 2023 ISA World Congress in Melbourne, where Gary lived. He left too soon for that. But he left much good behind him, personally as well as intellectually. Vale Gary. We miss you.
— Jim Spickard, 2021-2022 ASR President