Religion and Extinction Network

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of PRHS


This network seeks to increase understanding and stimulate debate about the relationship between religion and the 'sixth mass extinction' - the current phase of anthropogenic loss of biological life on Earth.
Reflecting increased awareness and public concern, the subject of extinction (including human extinction) in all of its cultural, social and ethical configurations has emerged as a pressing concern within the broader field of environmental humanities, demanding a radically cross-disciplinary approach. To date, the contribution from the study of religion has been marginal or, at best, couched within much broader discussions about diverse cultural values, ethics and practices. Religious traditions and theologies from around the world carry profound historical legacies of interpreting, observing and responding to the loss or fear of loss of life on a mass scale, including the phenomenon of species extinctions. For example, creation myths and apocalypses concerning both plenitude and the annihilation of creation; theological perspectives on the status and value of nonhuman animals; rituals and beliefs relating to death, life and rebirth; and practices of mourning and lament. It is also demonstrable that social and individual practices of human responses to extinction, such as public acts of commemoration, and rituals of lament and protest, borrow increasingly from diverse religious and spiritual traditions.
The overarching questions that this network seeks to address are:
- What are the religious and theological dimensions of contemporary understandings of 'mass extinction' in all its contested scientific, ethical, political and cultural interpretations?
- How is religious thought and practice impacted by public perceptions of, and encounters with, the phenomenon of mass extinction?
- What is the role of religious and / or 'spiritual' belief and practice in public responses to mass extinction, from acts of mourning, lament and commemoration, to resistance and protest?

Via a combination of academic research and discussion, and interactive public engagement exercises, this network will facilitate the first dedicated contribution of religious studies to the nascent field of extinction studies in the arts and humanities. Further, it will allow that scholarship to be mutually informed by the experience and understanding of extinction in the public sphere and across diverse cultural contexts. The network will fund the following events, spread over 24 months:
- Three colloquia, held at Birmingham University (with remote conference facility for several international participants). These will comprise 10 invited scholars in theology, religious studies, and philosophy of religion, as well as invited experts from neighboring disciplines engaged in extinction studies. Over the course of the colloquia we will propose, test, and develop an original piece of work, for publication as an edited collection of essays, 'Religion and Extinction'. We will launch the book in the last phase of the network project.
- Two 'creative conversation' events, co-organised with our project partners, Encounter Arts - hosting conversations between academics and members of the public around the issue of extinction and religious faith and practice. The location and activity (e.g. a walk) accompanying the conversation will be designed to maximize creative reflection.
- Submission of a major RCUK grant application, which will build upon the findings and momentum from the network activities to develop in greater depth a specific aspect of the network, and focusing on the subject of Skrimshire's current research: the development of the first 'political theology of extinction'; that is, developing the resources of Christian political and eco-theology in the light of contemporary narratives of mass extinction.
- Launch of Extinction Studies working group of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and culture, annual conference 2019.

Planned Impact

The core aim of the network is to stimulate discussion - both in academic and in wider public settings, and bridging these two contexts - about the religious dimension of social and cultural responses to mass extinction. Thus the network will benefit a wide range of public, non-academic audiences who are engaged, whether personally or collectively, with furthering knowledge, understanding, and forming practical responses to the phenomenon of extinction. Through the combination of our research activities, there will be a close integration of the academic research and its dissemination and participation in discussions about the link between religious concepts, beliefs and practices, and mass extinction. The project will generate public awareness and education impacts as well as more specific third sector practitioner impacts.

Through close collaboration with Encounter Arts, this research network will reach out to members of the general public in local communities who are seeking to formulate a response to mass extinction. We will collaboratively curate "creative conversations" in order to share the learning in the context of these groups with a wider public audience. Through these events, participants will benefit from a more trans-disciplinary exploration of the role that religious faith plays in activist practice along with practitioners in public arts, including our project partners in EA, but also extending to other teams producing theatrical and artistic projects that seek to stimulate public action and engage people with complex emotions and opinions linked to ecological loss. The project will thusly generate public education impacts, raising awareness of the religious dimensions of public response to extinction.

Project research will also help to resource NGOs working to galvanise public awareness and action in response to ecological change. These non-academic beneficiaries fall into two main camps: 1) Non-Governmental Organisations and Faith-Based Organisations : Christian Aid, CAFOD, A'Rocha International, Stop Climate Chaos, Green Peace, RSPB, WWF, Friends of the Earth; 2) third sector practitioners working in community arts, environmental education, cultural heritage (including: Permaculture Society, The Conservation Volunteers, ONCA gallery in Brighton). Project findings will be distilled into a brief plain-language green paper which can serve to illuminate the significance and specific characteristics of engagement with extinction for religious groups in Britain.

We have designed the research to include input from a range of non-scholarly voices in the form of feedback loops drawn in from the Creative Conversations. In addition, many of the scholars invited to contribute to the project are, as already mentioned, drawing insights from fieldwork that includes engagement with NGO and FBO activism (e.g. Kidwell). In this way we hope the edited volume which will result from the core research activity will have a broader public reach than its immediate academic beneficiaries, by reflecting on the experiences of practitioners 'in the field'. Both project PI and Co-I have extensive experience with profile-raising activities on the subject of religion with secular environmental NGOs (Stop Climate Chaos, Green Peace, RSPB, WWF, Friends of the Earth, etc.) and in providing scholarly input towards campaign and strategic planning with religious NGOs in the UK (A'Rocha, Eco-Congregation Scotland). These strategic links will provide an ideal avenue towards dissemination which can aid in raising public awareness and sharpening campaigns highlighting extinction towards more successful outcomes.


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