Conference on religion, technology coming to ASU's Tempe campus

As technology has rapidly advanced over the past half century, there have been many areas of scholarship that have started developing, such as engineering, computer sciences and data analytics. There has also been a lot of development in studies that involve culture, society and religion.

Scholars who research these intersections of technology and religion, culture and nature will be coming together for the “After Earth? Religion and Technology on a Changing Planet” conference on Feb. 2–5 on Arizona State University's Tempe campus. The conference is hosted by the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.

“ISSRNC was established in 2005 as a place for scholars conducting research about topics such as the role of culture and values in shaping perspectives of nature, the engagement of religious traditions with environmental ethics and the many forms of spirituality closely associated with nature or ecology,” said Evan Berry, associate professor of religious studies at ASU and conference organizer. 

The society includes anthropologists, scholars of religion, philosophers, Indigenous studies scholars and geographers, as well as researchers from other disciplines. 

“We’re excited about the 30 or so panels on topics ranging from apocalypticism to multispecies encounters, from fossil fuel extraction to space colonization,” Berry said.

The conference will include a number of side events, including a banquet, a field trip to Oak Flat and a virtual reality digital art installation by the Swedish arts duo Lundahl & Seitl

Attendees will be able to explore discussions about space exploration, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, social media, renewable energy, ecological catastrophe, mass extinction and radical inequality. 

Lisa Sideris, a lead organizer of the conference and professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is excited for the conference to be in person after being virtual for the past few years.

“I'm looking forward to gathering with people in person, particularly in a conference setting like ISSRNC that is not overwhelmingly large, and where you can really spend time with old friends and get to know new people,” Sideris said. “I think this is truly cutting-edge scholarship, and we've got some of the key experts on these issues speaking at the conference.”

While many people will attend in person, there is a virtual attendance option for those who would prefer it.

One of the primary concerns for this year’s conference is to keep everyone safe and healthy during the events, says Amanda Nichols, a conference organizer and postdoctoral research fellow in the environmental studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“We have arranged to live stream the keynote addresses, plenary session and one-third of our in-person concurrent sessions and make them available to registered online participants,” Nichols said. “We have also organized a number of online-only sessions for participants and will have a number of others Zoom in to in-person sessions.”

The conference’s opening keynote will be given by the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities Sylvester Johnson, who will speak about his current research on human-machine symbiosis. Then, on Saturday, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, professor of religion and science in society at Wesleyan University, will give the plenary keynote lecture based on her recent book “Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race.”

Anyone is welcome to attend the conference and the two keynote sessions will be free and open to the public. ISSRNC will also have on-site, single-day registration available for ASU students for $15 and $25 for faculty. Additionally, anyone can register on the society’s website for access to the full online conference for $50.

“I hope that people come away feeling intellectually stimulated as well as mentally and emotionally rejuvenated,” Nichols said. “I also hope that people come away from this with some sense of connection, to one another and to the biosphere, and maybe even some sense of hope for the future.”

The conference is co-sponsored by multiple units at ASU, including the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies; The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Interplanetary Initiative; the Institute for Humanities Research; the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory; the School of Arts, Media and Engineering; and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. 

Rachel Bunning