I’m not prone to take on a new television series very often–I think I’ve watched about a half-dozen programs start-to-finish in my life–but I have a much harder time resisting the siren song of an interesting documentary film or miniseries. A few years ago, I wound up watching a pair of films on Netflix (Anthony Powell’s 2013 Antarctica: A Year on Ice and Werner Herzog’s 2007 Encounters at the End of the World) that sparked a hobbyist’s interest in our planet’s southernmost, least populated, and coldest continent.
(A picture of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows, an Argentine Catholic church dug into an ice cave. If you’ve ever thought your congregation kept the temperature set too low in the auditorium, well… Picture courtesy of https://forums.catholic.com/t/did-you-know-theres-a-church-made-out-of-ice-in-antarctica/475822.)
Most of the scholarship on Antarctica, quite understandably, relates either to its unique geopolitical situation or to the scientific research conducted there. Popular works, in turn, generally recount stories of intrepid explorers seeking the South Pole or give advice to somewhat less intrepid tourists hoping to get a taste of Antarctic air. But as a historian of religion, I am most interested in the role that faith might play in the sparse human settlements dotting the ice, and that’s what today’s brief post will explore. (As an aside, this will likely be my last blog post for some time, as I need to prioritize other forms of research and writing and stock up a new supply of blog topics!)
I initially came across a 2015 Guardian article which noted that in the years preceding, faster and more consistent internet access meant that spiritually minded Antarcticans were already tuning into religious services and other resources from their home congregations, reducing the need for church leaders to hold down the fort at the continent’s scattered church buildings. (1) Antarctica is, at the time of this writing in early June 2020, the only continent without a COVID-19 outbreak–which is not to say that life has been completely uninterrupted there (2)–but I wonder if the recent ramping up of online religious services elsewhere in the world will eventually trickle down to Antarctica as well, and if that trend will in turn lead to the further reduction of on-site religious personnel and related changes in Antarctican religious practice..
Another intriguing trend in Antarctic religious history has been the increased presence of non-Christian faiths on the continent. At this point, all distinctly religious structures on the continent are Christian in some form or fashion (four Catholic, three Orthodox, and one non-denominational church), and this seems unlikely to change given the aforementioned trend toward online religious services. However, the non-denominational Chapel of the Snows has provided meeting spaces for other religious adherents, including Buddhists and members of the Bahá’í faith, spending time at McMurdo Station. Additionally, Muslims who have traveled to Antarctica to work at Pakistan’s Jinnah Antarctic Station have had to wrestle with unexpected theological questions, such as how to observe Ramadan in a land without a typical day-night cycle. (3) I expect that the trends toward greater religious diversity and cooperation between faith traditions will continue in the years to come, but with the distinctly Antarctic twists of small populations and limited building space perhaps accelerating the trends even more.
(1) “Priests no longer needed as digital Antarctica embraces online religion,” Guardian, July 23, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/24/priests-no-longer-needed-as-digital-antarctica-embraces-online-religion.
(2) See, for instance, “British Antarctic Survey response to COVID-19,” British Antarctic Survey, April 6, 2020, https://www.bas.ac.uk/media-post/british-antarctic-survey-response-to-covid-19/.
(3) Katja Riedel, “Faith in Antarctica — Religion in the land of eternal snow,” Polar News, April 27, 2016, accessed via Wayback Machine at https://web.archive.org/web/20170131185733/https://polar-news.com/antarctic/society/174-faith-in-antarctica-religion-in-the-land-of-eternal-snow.