Local Societies Initiative

Local Societies Initiative

The Local Societies Initiative (LSI) began in 1999 at the request by Sir John Templeton. He envisioned a small grant project to help catalyze the formation of groups working on the constructive engagement of science and religion at colleges and universities around the world. Metanexus, then known as the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science, was partly the inspiration for LSI.

The Local Societies Initiative evolved and grew over a ten-year period. In the end, there were 250 societies claiming over 11,000 members in 37 countries representing many different faith traditions and academic disciplines. The team at Metanexus managed the publicity, application process, grant contracts, and reporting requirements for the modest three-year grant. We also instituted an annual international conference to bring representatives from the societies together.

The idea of LSI was to incentivize research universities, liberal arts colleges, seminaries, graduate level educational institutions and academies, and larger faith communities (who count academics among their members) to take on the science and religion dialogue in a formal way. Interdisciplinary groups formed membership societies that held regular meetings to discuss contemporary issues at the intersection of science and religion. Because of the diversity of academic disciplines represented in the membership, the dialogue partners cannot assume that others in the society were experts in the same field. Members had to seek a common vocabulary to explore significant questions, and they had to conduct themselves in a spirit of humility—because of the complexity and profundity of the issues—and openness—because of the diversity of viewpoints.

The LSI program was met initially with more than a little skepticism, and even some of the program architects were not sure it would work. The first application deadline round in July of 2001 yielded only six societies worthy of the grant, and there were worries that such a wide-ranging and ambitious initiative would founder. As an investor, Sir John Templeton expected 80 percent of his return from 20 percent of his investments.

In addition to being beneficial to it members, the societies also benefited their host institutions and their local communities. Each society had a mandate to offer publications, create websites, and host a variety of public events to disseminate findings and further promote the science and religion dialogue. For the host institution, the society’s activities were a venue for interdisciplinary work and open up new lines of investigation, leading to new research projects and publications. The society’s activities also promoted town-gown relations, as they address in a public way questions of interest to many in the community.

LSI also provided a “safe-zone” for exploration to individual scholars. The following anecdote could be multiplied hundreds of times. A biologist in Italy related how he had spent his entire professional life and built his reputation on the study of a single enzyme. He confessed that he did not fully understand what all was going on in the larger field of biology—let alone in the other natural sciences, not to mention the social sciences and the humanities. Further, he could not reconcile in an intellectual and emotional way the work of his career with his human questions of meaning and purpose or with his spiritual life. It was not until he became a member of a local society—which would not have existed save for the LSI grant program—that he had a means to voice his questions and discuss his concerns and to grow and learn personally and professionally.

One unexpected outcome of the Local Societies Initiative was the formation of a global network with several regional hubs. This included a Spanish-speaking network and a German-speaking network, as well as a European-wide network known as Sophia Europa. The Local Societies Initiative helped to catalyze new projects, publications, and events as local LSI groups undertook cooperative projects.

In the end, the Local Societies Initiative turned out to be a very good investment indeed. Many of the groups continue to this day, though the grant project concluded in 2009.

2009— Cosmos, Nature, and Culture : A Transdisciplinary Conference

There is something within us that demands we pursue the whole story of the whole cosmos if we are to be whole persons, in order to know who we are, where we are from, where we are going, and how we should live.

2008 — Subject, Self, and Soul: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Personhood

To understand ourselves, our place in the cosmos, and our relation to each other and the divine, we must adopt rich approaches that cut across fields of knowledge, institutional boundaries, cultural borders, and religious traditions.

2007 — Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue

Does hyper-specialization produce significant problems? Does it, and must it, lead to disintegration, a fracturing of knowledge, of culture, and of the soul? What impact has it had on education? And what are its implications for the “science and religion dialogue”?

2006 — Continuity + Change: Perspectives on Science and Religion

The tension between continuity and change is not simply an ancient philosophical conundrum. It is also at the root of the most pressing questions of our time.


2005 — Science and Religion: Global Perspectives

Today more than ever before in history we have the opportunity to encounter and consider a panoply of perspectives from around the world on the most fascinating questions of science and the most pressing questions of justice and human flourishing.


2004 — Science and Religion in Context

This international conference examined foundational questions in the natural sciences, new approaches to the human sciences, all with the aim of discerning the whereto and why of humanity, cosmos, and the divine in the 21st century.


2003 — Works of Love: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Altruism

How do our complex brains, unique imaginations, communicative abilities, reasoning powers, moral sense, and spiritual and religious promptings give rise to the remarkable yet not at all uncommon practice of unselfish love for our neighbors, or those we do not even know?


2002 — Interpretation Matters: Science and Religion at the Crossroads

Interpretation is important. It matters what we mean by interpretation, how we come to our interpretations, and how we legitimate them. And we may find that interpretation is the key to enriching the dialogue between these two great pillars of culture: religion and science.


2001 — Interpreting Evolution

Evolution can also be understood as a mythic narrative, a spectacular story of origins, which needs to be interpreted and integrated into our religious consciousness. This is the challenge that brings us together for rigorous interdisciplinary and inter-religious dialogue. The conference was part of a program to promote the teaching of course on science and religion at colleges, universities, hospitals, and seminaries worldwide.There is no website for this conference.


2000 — Genetics, Bioethics, and Evolution

The sciences and technologies of genetics are revolutionizing our understanding of nature, including our own human nature. We are literally and figuratively reinventing nature and ourselves, as science and culture embark upon a new Lamarkian phase in evolution. The genetic engineering of our agriculture, other species and ourselves raises profound scientific, medical, ethical, legal, psychological, pastoral, religious, and metaphysical questions. In light of this genetic revolution, we will wonder about this new intensification of human creativity and power in conversation with different religious traditions. There is no website for this conference.