Sacred Places, Global Change

A team of researchers spanning the humanities, sciences, and arts at the University of Virginia explore how climate change bears on sacred sites. Together, they conduct multi-disciplinary inquiry at protected, contested places across the world, investigating how Anthropocene stresses are reshaping cultural landscapes. Sanctuaries reveal vital connections between natural environment and human tradition—we look to them as laboratories for how communities may negotiate rapid planetary change. Sanctuary sites of inquiry include: Virginia Coast Reserve (2017), Yellowstone National Park (2018), Bhutan (2019), and the Jordan River Valley (2022).



Climate change is unsettling major aspects of Bhutanese culture, politics, and economy, as the kingdom is in many ways defined by its sacred landscape. In December 2019, working with the Royal University of Bhutan, local scholars, environmental managers, political figures, and religious leaders at Bhutan’s diverse sanctuaries, we designed inquiry on how environmental change takes on religious significance, and how religion shapes responses to ecological stress.

We use the concept of the sacred to refer to places set aside from everyday relations and regarded as special in some way, and then we ask: what have been the political and religious implications of this place being regarded as special?

Willis Jenkins, Professor of Religious Studies

What happens when place-based and season-based traditions no longer coincide with time and place as we have known them?

Martien Halvorson-Taylor, Associate Professor of Religious Studies

Listen to stories about Sanctuaries on the podcast Sacred & Profane

Episode 6 - Set Apart

What happens when a religious idea like sanctuary is transformed into a secular and bureaucratic one?

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Suggested readings for anyone curious to learn more about the relationship between sacred places and environmental change.

"Listening as a Model for Integrating Arts and Humanities into Environmental Change Research" by Willis Jenkins

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"Sacred Places and Planetary Stresses: Sanctuaries as Laboratories of Religious and Ecological Change" by Willis Jenkins

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"Listening to the Hidden Land Tradition in Bhutan" by Willis Jenkins

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Yellowstone Reading List

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Bhutan Reading List

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Sanctuary & Politics Reading List

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Team Members

Matthew Burtner

Professor, Music

Jonathan Cannon

Professor, Environmental Law

Howard Epstein

Professor and Chair, Environmental Sciences

Cassandra Fraser

Professor, Chemistry

Martien Halvorson-Taylor

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

Willis Jenkins

Professor and Chair, Religious Studies

Kelsey Johnson

Professor, Astronomy

Luke Kreider

PhD Candidate, Religious Studies

Ariana Maki

Associate Director, UVA Tibet Center

Karen McGlathery

Professor, Environmental Sciences

Mike Pace

Professor, Environmental Sciences

Kurtis Schaeffer

Professor, Religious Studies

Ashley Tate

PhD, Religious Studies

Devin Zuckerman

PhD Candidate, Religious Studies