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Nathan Townend

M.A. candidate, Religious Studies

Photo of Nathan Townend

Photo of Nathan Townendt

Is religion something only humans do?

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, May 2014

What if humans weren’t the only animals to have religion? That’s the question Religious Studies student Nathan Townend is asking in his Master’s project. His findings will lay the foundations for his continued graduate research in the Cultural Studies PhD program next fall.

Townend came to Queen’s via Saint Paul University and the University of Ottawa to work with Dr. James Miller, a specialist in religion and ecology. Studying Eastern Christianity at Saint Paul’s Townend found a mentor in Miller’s colleague Dr. Heather Eaton. Together Miller and Eaton established the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology and continue to collaborate today. Part of a cohort of six MA students, Townend is currently two-thirds of the way through this one-year degree, having completed two semesters of intensive coursework along with TAships for two courses. Over the summer semester, he will complete his major research paper.

The move from theology, a discipline which presupposes religious faith, to religious studies, a field that is dedicated to the critical analysis of religion as a cultural phenomenon, was not out of keeping with either Townend’s scholarly interests or his personal ones. “I see these domains as inextricably bound up with one another” he explains. During his studies with Heather Eaton, Townend immersed himself in the work of ‘geologian’ Thomas Berry, whose thought greatly influenced him. Berry was persuaded that religions offer the human community much needed psychic-spiritual energy, necessary for social transformation. As such Berry believed that the magnitude of the ecological crisis demanded a religious response, but that world religions in their current form were too limited to manifest the essential shifts in human consciousness. This conviction inspired Townend to adopt a critical yet engaged approach to religion, in the face of global challenges now facing the Earth community.

What’s more, Townend’s interests are as wide as they are deep. Before his current work, he studied and taught history and English in the UK. His present research into animals and religion brings him into contact with scientific studies of animal cognition and behaviour, a range of research bearing on the current ecological crisis, from climatological studies to ecofeminist politics, and religious studies scholarship.

Townend’s interest in religion and ecology represents a departure from what has been “the central question in the field, namely: what dimensions or traditions within a given religion are being reinterpreted and used to inform ecologically sensitive responses from the faithful?” His work concentrates instead on a critique of anthropocentrism that’s prominent in the field of religious studies. Anthropocentrism and human exclusivism is the tendency to regard humans as unique in essence and kind and as therefore central to the universe. So for Townend, the question that emerged was: is religion something only humans do? The idea he and some other scholars are following is that “if we changed how we understood religion—if religion were understood to be something that emerges organically in evolution as part of embodied existence—then this could mean that other species possess the capacity to make meaning in ways that are religious.”

The consequences for the field of religious studies would be substantial if religion were to be understood as able to escape the sometimes narrow confines of human culture. Townend explains: “The traditional face of religion is arguably changing; in some places the church pews may be emptier, but religion isn’t disappearing. So in the face of that fact, religious studies continue to need something new to study and new tools to study it.” Now, says Townend, the field is on the verge of expanding to study very dynamic realities that, in this case, may go beyond the human. Building on the context set up through the work of his MA, Townend’s PhD proposes to develop case studies of what could qualify as animal religion. This inquiry simultaneously involves a continual dialogue between theoretical and methodological considerations in religious studies along with scientific studies of animal cognition and behaviour that espouse an understanding of cognition expansive enough to include attention to things like affect and emotion. “In other words,” he says, “it’s a matter of getting beyond simply seeing other-than-human animals as automata—as mere biological machines.”

Over the past year, Townend has had the chance to guest lecture on some of his areas of expertise in two undergraduate courses at Queen’s and to talk about his current research at two conferences. The first was an interdisciplinary graduate conference called Unravelling Religion, which was organized by Queen’s own Ian Cuthbertson, a Cultural Studies PhD candidate also supervised by Miller. The second, on the topic of advancing nonviolence, spirituality, and social transformation, was held just this month in Ottawa and hosted by his mentors from Saint Paul University, who were joined by an international group of scholars. The paper Townend delivered there is set to form a chapter in a forthcoming book that will develop several of the conference themes.

Next year as he begins his doctoral work, Townend will act as a mentor to some of Miller’s other MA and PhD students who are new to the Kingston area and to the group of religious studies researchers at Queen’s. While he looks forward to his project changing shape over the course of the next four years, when Townend imagines the future, he knows with certainty that he will retain the unique set of values that leads him to engage with the unusual combination of religion and animals. “I would love to teach,” reflects Townend, adding with a smile that “if there’s a way I can do it, I would ideally be something like a scholar–farmer.”

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