What I Learned on Star Island:
Reflections of a first-time IRAS attendee

I attended the 46th annual IRAS conference the first week in August 1999, on Star Island off the New Hampshire coast. This was my first conference; a year ago, I'd never heard of IRAS (Institute on Religion in an Age of Science) or Star Island. Now I'm initiated, and decided that writing some reflections on the conference might be of interest to other attendees, and perhaps to others considering making their first trip to Star. First, I have to enthuse: the place is wonderful, and the people that gather here for a week every summer make it a captivating experience. Most people return, some as families over several generations, and the traditional chant from the ferry as we departed was "We will come back! We will come back!" Star Island certainly made a strong impression on me, and I expect I will come back.

The place: Star Island is small, less than a tenth of a square mile, one of several granite shoals about seven miles off the New England coast, straddling the boundary of Maine and New Hampshire. The core of the conference center is the Oceanic Hotel, a century-old wooden structure, with mostly double rooms, washrooms down the hall, hot water carried in pitchers, and showers for conferees only twice in the week. Rustic is not quite the word, since it's a beehive of activity, but it's definitely a retreat from modern technology. A week without riding in a vehicle, seeing TV, hearing radios, doing e-mail or talking on the phone certainly puts one in a different spiritual space. You will share a room, and lots more, so if you're thinking of coming for the first time, be prepared (there is a shop for supplies, access to a telephone, and very helpful folks, so don't worry). Different conferences run all summer, and our IRAS one was near capacity, 232 attendees.

The conference center is owned and operated by a corporation affiliated with Congregationalist and Unitarian churches, and the IRAS conference felt to me like a Unitarian Bible camp. I expect it's clear from those words that I'm not one; my Lutheran summer Bible camp experiences were close, but the IRAS conference seemed like a hybrid of camp and professional conference. I was surprised by the demographics: many families, lots of children, and many elderly people; at 51, I'm not often on the young side of median age. I like the diversity of the IRAS group, and many religious traditions are represented: Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Protestant Christian, and even non-theist religious. Many science fields were represented too; as an oil-industry (BP Amoco) geophysicist I was (I think) the only geoscientist, but I found many from the related fields of physics and computer science. And there were all the others, poets, artists, and all eclectic combinations of interests and talents. I was impressed by this diversity, and the spirit of cooperative inquiry evidenced by the mission statement: "Working for a dynamic and positive relationship between religion and science since 1954."

Like several other first-time attendees in 1999, I found IRAS and its Star Island conference through the Internet. I've been interested in science and religion for many years, and read a lot, but never in a disciplined way until I set out to organize a six-week Adult Sunday School series on science and religion earlier this year. I found IRAS and joined, expecting maybe an occasional newsletter, but it soon became clear that the annual Star Island conference was a major activity of the organization. Still, I didn't seriously consider attending until it was almost too late: the flight, bus and ferry connections, week off work, and leaving my wife at home all made it seem undoable. And the topic of sexuality made me wary. Nevertheless, I decided to go, registered, booked flights to Boston, checked out Portsmouth and booked an affordable motel room on the Internet (from a distance, one needs to fly the day before, to make the 1:55 pm ferry). First-time attendees are something of a novelty at the Star Island conference; I counted less than 25% of the family units marked with a novice's asterisk in the roster, and several of these were invited presenters. I knew no one when I arrived (with the sole exception of fellow Lutheran Phil Hefner, whom I'd met briefly fifteen years ago), but the "old shoalers" are eager to make us "new shoalers" feel like part of the family, with a same time next year habit.

The core of the conference is the program, with a different theme each year, and 1999's was headed "Sexuality and Human Nature: A Scientific, Religious, and Moral Exploration." Each day had two plenary session lectures with discussion following, one in the morning and one in the evening, about two hours each. Afternoons offered a choice among concurrent activities, including a seminar, workshops, discussion groups, and "Free University" presentations, as well as recreational activities or just rest, relaxation, or reading time. As a first-timer, I was very diligent about going to sessions; I thought since I'd made the effort to come that I shouldn't miss anything. The pre-conference material included a reading list which I didn't have much success with, but I did buy and read one of the books and browsed a couple others in libraries. Because I'd come to IRAS "cold," uninformed by personal contact with established members, I was probably more intimidated by this than necessary -- being prepared is good, but don't let it keep you from coming. I should also note that for those with families, there is a very good children's program, and for less academically oriented adults there are a variety of alternative activities, or no activity at all -- attendance at sessions is not required.

I learned a lot in sessions, but only partly from the formal content and maybe more from the situation, hearing things presented in person that I'd previously only seen in writing, and from being able to interact with the presenters and all the other attendees. The big plenary sessions had necessarily structured discussions, but coffee breaks and meals provided lots of other chances to talk, and fortunately most presenters also attended for the whole week. The flow of the week was from the more objective, scientific material the first couple days to the more interpretive material related to religious traditions later in the week. I won't try to give a session-by-session description, but I want to mention at least one as an example of the lively experience of attending. Michael Ruse's "Cook's tour" through the philosophy of sexuality was good background, and he artfully stirred the pot (as I understand he has the reputation of doing) by throwing out the challenge to those trying to integrate traditional religious beliefs with science, of "How do we know you're not just making it all up?" I imagine this is an IRAS perennial, with Zygon editor Phil Hefner leading the orthodox reply in some stimulating discussion. Hefner and Ruse teamed up in a related talent show skit the last night, "God Talk Ain't that Easy" (also with Jay Johnson). I'm impressed with how IRAS can bring together people with quite different positions, not just intellectually but also with personal and humorous aspects like this.

The talent show is just one of the non-academic traditional parts of the Star Island program. Every day begins with Chapel, this year with two chaplains taking several days each, and a good exposure for me to other religious traditions. Following the afternoon sessions each day there is a Social Hour before dinner, with snacks and refreshments, and all the conversation those inputs stimulate. Meals together in the massive dining room were one of the best ways to get to know people and to talk. We were encouraged to sit at different tables during the week, and people were very welcoming of strangers, especially those with a star on their nametags, indicating first time on the island. Probably the most inspiring part of the day for me (and I suspect many others) was the Candlelight Chapel after the evening sessions, when we picked up lighted candles with glass gallery hangers on the porch of the Oceanic Hotel, and processed in silence up the hill to the historic granite chapel. Each evening was led by different people, with a rich variety of themes and music. I liked the rule of silence: other than the words of the service, no one speaks from the time we start up the hill until we're back down at the end. After a stimulating day of talk, talk, talk, the silence allowed a meditative perspective. For the second year, Carl Smith presented musical postludes to the Candlelights, introducing selected musical recordings. These put a perfect "wrap" on the day for me, and by the time they were over I generally fell into bed sometime after 11:00, needing all the sleep I could get, even with the early northern sunrise.

Star Island is a very special place, and my first IRAS conference was a uniquely meaningful experience for me. I've found a community which supports each other in discussion and encourages its members in their related activities the rest of the year, in our scattered locations and vocations. I hope others too will be drawn to and renewed in their science and religion path.


Daniel Johnson

Houston, TX