Almost a thousand religion scholars gathered recently in Bologna, Italy, for the first conference of the newly established European Academy of Religion. Hosted by the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, the conference drew attendees from around the world—mostly specialists in Christianity and Judaism, but also those who study Islam, Bahá’ísm, and new religions and religious movements. The conference’s title—Ex Nihilo: Zero Conference of the European Academy of Religion—reflected the aim of the gathering, namely, to create an international platform based in Europe for the study of religion. The intellectual and political potential of the initiative goes beyond the usual scope of scholarly engagement with religion in Europe.
The project draws inspiration from the much larger American Academy of Religion, with which it shares some similarities. First, it wants to extend beyond the geographic boundaries of its name: “European” in this case means a core Euro-Mediterranean group of scholars and institutions reaching out to the whole world, especially past the eastern boundaries of the European Union. The notion of “religion” is similarly expansive, encompassing religious studies, the history of religions, comparative canons and ecclesiastical law, religion and politics in comparative perspectives, and religion and media. This approach is institutionally and intellectually independent from ecclesiastical and pontifical institutions (something not necessarily obvious, in light of European history). Finally, the group wants is annual gathering to become the meeting place for European scholars of religion; the next conference will take place in March 2018, again in Bologna (beginning in 2019 it will be held at a different location every year), with the organizing committee chaired by Frederik Pedersen of the University of Aberdeen.
There are also a few significant differences from the AAR. The first is the linguistic fragmentation from country to country that is typical of Europe. This could significantly affect, for example, marketing efforts and publishing opportunities. There’s also its role in the academic job market. The AAR serves as a kind of ecosystem for interacting with and interviewing potential hires, whereas in the European Union the job market is constrained by national boundaries: Issues of language and culture can limit opportunities for finding work outside one’s country, as can bureaucratic restrictions. In Germany and elsewhere, for example, professors of theology must have a degree recognized by the state according to the criteria established by concordats with the Holy See.
Another significant difference: the political “intentionality” of the European Academy of Religion. This was apparent at the Bologna conference, where among the speakers were Italy’s current secretary of education along with Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy and former president of the European Commission. A number of diplomats and ambassadors to Italy and to the Holy See were also among the invited. The conference was held under the auspices of, among others, the European Parliament, the European Commission representation in Italy, and the Italian Commission for UNESCO.