Lily Polowin, Digital Communications Officer, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences
One of our goals at the Federation is to demonstrate the value and contributions of humanities and social science research. Sometimes, that value can be explained in terms of the skills that graduates gain from their education. At other times, that value is clear in the way in which the insights of our researchers can be applied by policy- and decision-makers to create a more equitable society. And lastly, often that value is shown in the humanities and social sciences’ ability to ask questions that simply can’t be approached by the hard sciences fields: questions about what it means to be human and to live in society.
It’s especially exciting to encounter projects that tackle big questions with an interdisciplinary lens. And that’s exactly what happened to me earlier this fall. In the process of creating the Federation’s Instagram profile, I was scrolling through the feed and noticed a sponsored post that asked the question “Can hiking experiences prompt changes in one’s worldview?” I was immediately attracted to the question, as well as the beautiful photo taken deep in the woods, and wanted to know what “NCF” stood for. When I explored further, I discovered a fascinating research project tackling the topic of the rise of non-religion. The Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project is taking place over several continents, and consists in five focal areas: health, law, education, the environment, and migration.
As one of the projects within the “environment” focal area, Trekking Toward Awe is about “examining how people understand their relationship to each other, nature and non-human animals.” As I learned by attending one of the project’s webinars in November, examining this window into the nonreligious identity brings up lots of personal and intimate reflections. On this International Mountain Day of 2020, it seemed more appropriate than ever to shine a light on this type of project. If the record number of cars filling the parking lots at Gatineau Park this year is any indication, I’m not the only one who developed a deeper interest in hiking and walking during a year when nearly all my other hobbies were made impossible. I spoke with Vanessa Turyatunga, the project’s Research and Information Coordinator, to learn more about what this project is looking to accomplish, and the answers provided by the researchers give a glimpse in to the big questions they are trying to answer.
The following answers are provided by Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania), Ryan Cragun (University of Tampa) and Lori Beaman (University of Ottawa).
LP: Can you describe the main questions you hope to be able to answer in this project?
NCF Team: This project takes hiking (trekking, walking, rambling) as its entry point with the purpose of examining how people understand their relationship to each other, nature and non-human animals. Although this is part of a project on nonreligion, we are not beginning with the premise that hikers are religious or nonreligious. Instead we are using the activity of hiking as a way to better understand both religious and nonreligious identities, activities and processes. For some people, hiking implicates a transcendent force and for others, it is an activity that is spontaneous and without organizational affiliation or motivation. Both avenues are important sites of research that can reveal a great deal about worldviews and the messy boundaries that exist in religious and nonreligious identities.
The main questions this project considers are: What sorts of experiences do people have while they are trekking and how do they make sense of them? What is it that makes hiking experiences either 1) transitional moments with no broader effects on a person’s life, or 2) experiences that are part of a broader transition in their ethical/moral practice? That is, how do they transform relationships? Does trekking change a person’s outlook on what is important in life? How do people understand their current relationship with nature and how that has changed? What are the characteristics of the trekking experience, and the person, that make moral changes more or less likely? How has trekking shaped what people actually do in terms of environmental behaviours? How do they understand the world around them and their relationship to it?
"We want to get away from the ‘like religion’ comparisons and try to let these experiences speak for themselves."
LP: What methodologies will be used to answer these questions?
NCF Team: The first step has been to conduct reviews of what already exists. This has been done in the form of literature reviews, survey reviews, and media reviews. We are examining the immense literature on walking and pilgrimage; reviewing existing surveys on hiking, trekking and walking; and analyzing how hiking organizations present themselves and how participants in discussion forums talk about their experiences while hiking. We are currently working on developing a survey that can be fielded in the participating countries, which will give us a sense of the place of hiking in people’s lives. We will access hikers through groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society as well as other methods that will target unaffiliated hikers/walkers. The study will also include participant observation by enlisting the help of all team members who hike to contribute a walking journal in which they describe their encounters with others while hiking.
LP: Which theoretical frameworks or philosophies of aesthetics did you draw on when designing this project? Could you provide a brief definition or explanation of a few of them in layman’s terms?
NCF Team: The group of scholars working on this are each bringing a wealth of theoretical tools to this endeavour. We all recognize that what we are trying to do is very exploratory and quite difficult. While there is some prior research in this area that sees people experiencing transcendence or examines the worldviews of people in certain parts of the world, our aim has been to see if we can understand people's worldviews or social imaginaries through their experiences walking, hiking, or trekking. To our knowledge, this has never been done before. Some of the frameworks we are using are:
Lived Nonreligion: In Religious Studies, there is a tradition of scholarship that argues that religion is as much about people’s everyday practices as it is about beliefs and attending religious services. By everyday practices we are thinking of things such as eating meals together or acts of generosity. So, perhaps “nonreligion” can be found there too. There is a lot of discussion of nonreligious ethics, philosophies, and worldviews, but not much discussion of how everyday practices can shape what it means to be not religious. We think that walking and trekking might be the sorts of everyday practices and experiences that are important in some aspects of what it means to be nonreligious.
Relational Ethics: This is the idea that ethics is not only about believing in ideas or values and then acting (although these can be important). Rather, ethics also arises in the way we respond to other people in the relational moment as we encounter them. This derives from the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Think of seeing a homeless person on the street asking for money. Do you give to the person because you have made a considered rational decision to commit to an ethic of generosity? Or do you give to the person because, in that moment, you feel like it is the right thing to do? Perhaps both things influence different people at different times. We think that the encounters we have with animals, plants, and landscapes whilst we are trekking and walking, might shape how we think about our ethical responsibilities to them.
Equality: The idea of equality, especially as it relates to Zygmunt Bauman’s discussion of horizontal and vertical relations is important for this study. We are looking for evidence of a move away from vertical, hierarchical relations to a more horizontal and equal relationship with nature..
LP: So far, have you noticed similarities in the way people describe their trekking experiences, to those who have had religious experiences? Are people having what we would describe as “religious experiences” even though they aren’t part of any organized religion?
NCF Team: We want to get away from the ‘like religion’ comparisons and try to let these experiences speak for themselves. This is incredibly difficult, actually, as we are so trained to think in the ‘like religion’ way. This means both our scholarly training, but also our experiences as people living in the societies we live in. We think it is vital to consider what we might see if we step away from that ‘like religion’ framework, which has been done by a number of scholars both in relation to nature and the environment and more broadly. People are having experiences whilst walking and trekking that involve awe, gratitude, wonder, terror, and encounters with ‘nature’. Sometimes people describe these experiences in religious terms. Sometimes they use secular, nonreligious language to describe these experiences. There’s something important going on here that we need to understand. In particular, there’s something significant in how these experiences shape people’s sense of their ethical obligations. To think of them as “like religious experiences” is to misunderstand them, or, at least, to reduce the scope of what they might mean to people who are genuinely not religious. If by "religious experiences" it is meant "human experiences" that are transcendent, memorable, and/or moving, then people absolutely describe their time in nature that way. But the key is that there is no need to draw upon religion to study these experiences. Instead, we need to engage with these experiences on their own terms.
LP: What gaps in the literature about the study of religion/nonreligion do you aim to fill with this study about trekking?
NCF Team: We need a nonreligious language to describe emotionally significant experiences and encounters with animals, plants, and landscapes. Words such as “awe” and “mystical” suggest religious ways of thinking. That’s a problem when you are studying people who aren’t religious. Our preliminary research suggests that this is absolutely possible. People can and do develop coherent, integrated, comprehensive understandings of the world that guide their action and influence their behavior that make no reference to religion. With the decline of religion, understanding what comes after religion is important. That's our goal: to understand how people situate themselves vis-a-vis nature and the universe without drawing on religion.
"With the decline of religion, understanding what comes after religion is important. That's our goal: to understand how people situate themselves vis-a-vis nature and the universe without drawing on religion."
Furthermore, there is a lot of discussion of why we have the environmental problems that we are seeing. This analysis tends to focus on the things we are doing wrong. We need more discussion of the sorts of constructive experiences that lead people into healthier, more sustainable, engagement with ‘nature’. We are interested in what creates these sorts of ethical responses. What are the positive things that we already do that might lead us into new ways of thinking about and responding to the world of animals, plants, and landscapes?
Finally, the gaps in the literature are important but perhaps more importantly, the research will generate a body of data that has practical implications for society in our responses to environmental issues such as climate change. It will also better equip groups like policy makers, government park services and nature conservation groups as they tackle similar challenges.