Presidential Theme for the 2022 Annual Meeting

Religion and Catastrophe

Mayra Rivera, AAR President 2022

Talk of catastrophe has become ubiquitous in recent years. A global pandemic has harmed individuals, devastated communities, and upended established ways of life. But even as organizations around the world rush to address the Covid-19 crisis, climate catastrophes are raging. There are hurricanes of unprecedented intensity, droughts, floods and fires, as well as slower moving food shortages, water toxicity and species extinctions. Climate refugees have forced wealthier countries to contend with collateral issues of climate change beyond their borders. Even as different geographic regions envision the end of the pandemic (at starkly different speeds), few are expecting a full resolution of climate change any time soon. It seems likely that climate catastrophes—the effects of which are exacerbated by and exacerbate social inequality—will continue to transform the worlds in which we live. What then is the role of the study of religion in the times of climate catastrophe?

This year I invite the AAR to reflect on the contributions of the study of religion, actual and potential, to addressing climate change. Marla Frederick’s 2021 presidential theme, “Religion, Poverty and Inequality: Contemplating our Collective Futures,” invited us to think about the “human implications of religion in a world upended.” This has prepared us to think about environmental justice in the times of climate catastrophe, not as an isolated concern, but rather as woven through the fabric of our society.

Reflecting on the contributions of the study of religion to a deeper understanding of the challenges of climate change requires that we look back at the histories that shape the cultures, religious traditions, and practices we study. Which histories of catastrophe are told and which are quickly forgotten? How have histories of colonialism, slavery, nationalism and migration shaped predominant visions of climate catastrophes and paved the way for the unequal distribution of environmental damage and resources for repair? How have different religious traditions responded to—dismissed, justified, or confronted—environmental degradation? What distinct resources have specific traditions or particular communities developed to denounce or adapt to environmental changes in their communities? How are climate catastrophes changing religious traditions or even sparking the development of new ones? How does the present situation test traditional visions of a collective future?

These questions also have implications for the study of religion as a field. How did past catastrophes shape the study of religion? What are the public spaces where scholars of religion are engaging climate change? How do the methodological tools of the study of religion help or hinder scholarly attempts to attend to issues related to the non-human? How should our disciplinary structures be transformed?

The presidential sessions in 2022 will address these concerns. Program Units and standing committees are invited to consider the multiple ways in which the study of religion speaks to catastrophes of the past and the present. We invite an interrogation across fields and subfields of the role of the study of religion in analyzing, historicizing, and envisioning alternative ways of life in the context of climate change.