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The ANU Religion Conference convenes every two years, bringing together people of different faiths and academic disciplines united around a central theme with a mind to the divine. This April that theme was ‘sacred sites and sacred stories’, seeking to explore the intersection of religion, economics and politics from a global perspective. It drew scholars from 17 different countries, keen to glean insights at panels and presentations on topics from ancient Greece to new age Korean religion, from pilgrimage to tourism. Co-sponsored by the Coral Bell School and the School of Culture, History and Language among others, this year’s conference keynote speaker was renowned scholar of cults, Eileen Barker.
For conference convenor Dr David Kim, a visiting fellow at the Department of Political & Social Change, the religious theme is a research area of “great potential” that he wants to grow. Attracting more scholars and students as well as increasing research and publications are aims of the conference, setting down foundational roots to perhaps one day design specific courses. These efforts all begin with genuine religious scholars and practitioners that the conference brings in, but as Dr Kim notes, it’s less about doctrine and more about the sociology of religion. “We’re trying to bring interdisciplinary scholarship on the same topic from different angles, targeting different kinds of people,” he says. It all hinges on the importance of religion to the lives of millions of people in Southeast Asia.
Dr Kim’s own research focuses on the intermingling of religion and politics, in places like Korea and China. “Religious organisations, especially religious leaders, have unspoken power,” he explains. Kim cites Nepal and Bhutan as examples of countries where not only politics but also economics is inextricably linked to religion – where pilgrimage can be a major revenue stream. Each conference has published a book, containing a handful of its best academic papers. This year, Dr Kim will have to whittle 50 such papers down to the final 12 to be included. Sacred sites always have a story, Dr Kim quips, and by holding the biennial conference, scholars of religion in Asia are offered a platform to share some of their own.