Better get to know the International Society for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture, Part One

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Better get to know the International Society for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture!

We want to thank the ISSRNC and its officers and members for taking the time to share their perspectives on ISSRNC’s history and prospects as an organization, the thinking underlying the design of, “Religion, Science and the Future” the ISSRNC 10th Anniversary Conference (CFP PDF), and the state and future of the study of religion and the environment.

Ipsita Chatterjea: What is the ISSRNC’s origin tale?

Bron Taylor: The ISSRNC emerged from conversations I had with several scholar-friends in the mid 1990s during which we expressed a desire for extended, interdisciplinary discussion of and collaboration on the religion/nature nexus, which we had found difficult at large, annual conferences. These conversations planted a seed that morphed into the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, a project that brought together a critical mass of scholars.

I wanted to explode the conversation by making attention to “religion and nature” draw on the widest possible variety of disciplines and methodologies, while focusing on the wild diversity of religion and nature-related perceptions and practices (both chronologically and geographically), including social phenomena that might not, at first glance and without some theoretical unpacking, be considered to be religious phenomena. Jeff Kaplan suggested that, with his experience editing encyclopedias and my background in religion and nature scholarship, we orchestrate the project that became the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. By the time of its publication in 2005, the encyclopedia had exploded – to twice its originally envisioned size – to 1.5 million words and 1000 entries penned by 520 contributors.

As we completed the encyclopedia, we began working toward the creation of a new journal and scholarly society many of those involved in the encyclopedia felt that investigations into “the natural dimension of religion,” to borrow a phrase from Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion in America, should continue. While developing the encyclopedia, I had been working closely with anthropologist Kristina Tiedje on the society idea. With Kristina as co-convener, in 2005, we issued a wide-open invitation to interested scholars to attend an initial planning meeting, indicating that we would cover on-site expenses for whoever could manage to attend. Meanwhile, Laura Hobgood and I studied bylaws from a variety of academic societies and crafted drafts of them for consideration at the meeting.

Twenty scholars attended the meeting held in Cocoa Beach, Florida in August 2005; A list of attendees and further details are available. The meeting assumed a mythic reputation because Tropical Storm Ophelia, which briefly also became a Hurricane, hovered 80 miles off-shore, making nature powerfully felt. Through a sometimes-intense discussion we worked on bylaws and refined our mission statement. The most difficult issue, which was eventually amicably resolved, had to do with whether the Society should be a scholar-activist organization or one that would eschew taking eco/political positions. The decision was made that the society would eschew taking political stands in order to welcome scholars with all points of view on religion and nature related issues. This decision has not precluded society members as individuals, in society meetings and publications, from advancing provocative arguments and perspectives.

IC: Who are you people?!

Sarah Pike : We are an interdisciplinary and international scholarly organization composed of scholars from all stages of their careers. Our Board of Directors includes scholars from the United States, Europe, Africa and South America in disciplines including anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, and biology and our conferences have included participants from most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Our officers are Mark Peterson (University of Wisconsin – Central College), President-Elect; Evan Berry (American University); Kristina Tiedje (University of Lyon, Mayo Clinic Graduate School), Treasurer. Our current Board of Advisors includes members nearing retirement as well as doctoral students and we particularly value and are excited about the contributions of scholars in early stages of their academic careers.

IC: What does the ISSRNC do and how does ISSRNC do it?

BT: Out of the discussions at our initial planning meeting in 2005, we came up with the statement: “The mission of the Society is to promote critical, interdisciplinary inquiry into the relationships among human beings and their diverse cultures, environments, and religious beliefs and practices.” This is what we put into practice through the scholarship we support.

Luke Johnston: The ISSRNC is the only international membership organization focused on the nexus of religion, nature, and culture. We have conferences (on average about every 18 months), and produce an affiliated Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. In addition, we are an affiliate of, and have co-sponsored conferences and events with other organizations, such as the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), and the African Association for the Study of Religion (AASR).

All of the efforts that go into producing conferences, co-sponsored panels at conferences, and the production of our affiliated journal are volunteer positions. If this is your area of concern or expertise, we invite you to contribute! We are always searching for scholars with broad interests, genuine enthusiasm, and a sense of intellectual adventure.

IC: How has the ISSRNC and the study of religion and the environment changed since the groups’s founding in 2005?

Evan Berry: Over the past decade, the study of religion and environment has opened up in exciting new ways to include inquiries that reach beyond established scholarship on ecotheology and implicit religiosity. Emerging research on religious responses to climate change and on culturally particular forms of environmental activism are perhaps the most important examples of this shift.

BT: One of the biggest changes is that a global community of scholars has had a distinctive series of conferences to work on various aspects of religion and the environment, and this has energized publications in the subfield addressing everything from sustainability to popular culture. Soon after our inaugural conference, Kristina Tiedje orchestrated our second conference “Re-enchantment of Nature Across Disciplines: Critical Intersections of Science, Ethics, and Metaphysics”, which was held in 2008, co-sponsored by CIGA UNAM and held in Morelia, Mexico. Kocku von Stuckrad, who was the Society’s second President, organized the third conference at the University of Amsterdam, “Religion Nature and Progress” in 2009, and played a key role in the 2010 conference held in Perth, Australia, “Living on the Edge.” There were additional meetings in Rome (the Vatican Museum), Malibu, and most recently Cape Town. All of these gatherings had their own distinctive character and demonstrated the Society’s international commitment and outreach.

IC: Could you talk about international representation within the ISSRNC membership and this summer’s panels at the 2015 IAHR Congress? Are you seeing more women participating than in years past? Are these valences of diversity and others reflected in the subjects and methodologies taken up in the presentations in August?

SP: The ISSRNC is an affiliated association in the IAHR, which means that this year we send a delegate to IAHR’s International Congress. We are also co-sponsoring a panel session with the international research group, “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as a Cultural Resource,” which is based in Oslo, Norway and includes scholars from Norway, Germany, South Africa, France, Ghana, Canada, the U.K, and the U.S. ISSRNC Board member David Haberman and I will participate in the panel, “When Rocks and Plants are Persons: Ritual Innovation and a Reassessment of ‘Animism.” We will use our specific case studies on Sami festival-goers, Hindu pilgrims, Canadian farmers, and American radical environmentalists to analyze and test recent re-assessments of animism and the ontological turn in the social sciences.

Women have taken a prominent role since the founding of the ISSRNC and two of the four ISSRNC presidents have been women. The society is committed to working towards a gender balance on our Board, among our officers, and at our conferences, as well as increasing ethnic and geographic diversity among our membership.

BT: Beyond being an expressed goal of the encyclopedia, international diversity is a critical component of how the ISSRNC works and the editorial line of the JSSRNC. We committed to becoming as international as possible – our name expressed our strong intention in this regard. Our subsequent history attests to significant success – even though we aspire to become even more robustly international in the coming years.

My impression is that most, if not all of the society-interested scholars from Europe, such as Kocku von Stuckrad, felt very strongly that the Society should not take normative positions lest this erode its credibility and yield a less diverse society. With others from North America, I agreed with this position because, as I argued at Cocoa Beach and my subsequent introduction to the society’s journal, in any scholarly society it is important to create venues for taboo free enquiry, to ensure that all voices, including contrarian ones, are welcome. But as might be expected in a more religious culture, some of the American scholars were reluctant to let go of their hope that the society might promote positive environmental and social change by taking concrete political stands on pressing issues related to religion and the environment. Through our discussion most agreed that there were plenty of venues where religiously motivated scholar-environmentalists could and would express themselves and promote their political views and goals.

IC: For each of you personally, what have been your favorite ISSRNC sessions, or session moments, or most memorable (famous, infamous or formative) moments?

Whitney Bauman : Some of the most memorable moments have involved hearing from leading thinkers such as Donald Worster, Carolyn Merchant, and Marc Bekoff reflect on the theme of “religion and ecology” from within their own disciplines. In addition, the locations of the conference have meant that each one has a bit of a different audience and feeling. The conferences do a good job of privileging the terroir of a given place.

BT: I agree with Whitney that our keynote speakers have been top tier and a part of their value has been to expose scholars from their own specific disciplines to some of the luminaries who take other approaches to religion/nature phenomena. The inaugural conference had an especially memorably roundtable in this regard, with many of the reflections published in the initial issues of the society’s journal. These included Steven Kellert, Stewart Guthrie, Roger Gottlieb, and Sarah McFarland Taylor.

IC: In 2016, the ISSRNC will observe its 10th anniversary and stage “Religion, Science and the Future.” What prompted this theme and the topics taken up in the underlying CFP?

WB: With “climate change” underway, imagining what types of worlds we might help co-create becomes a task of utmost importance. We will need renovations in our understandings of our place within the rest of the natural world, and technological advances that help us to bring about different ways of relating to one another and the rest of the natural world in order to both mitigate and adapt to effects of a changing planet. This conference will hopefully help us to think together and add to the possibilities for becoming with the rest of the planetary community.

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