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Dal prof takes part in global faith discussion

Chris Helland attends World Economic Forum

- January 7, 2013

Chris Helland (second from right) at the World Economic Forum. Beside him are Swami Agnivesh (Indian leader), Klaus Schwab (founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum) and Kevin Jenkins (President of World Vision).
Chris Helland (second from right) at the World Economic Forum. Beside him are Swami Agnivesh (Indian leader), Klaus Schwab (founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum) and Kevin Jenkins (President of World Vision).

When Christopher Helland of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology first saw the email inviting him to the World Economic Forum in Dubai, he deleted it.

“I thought it was just a spam because [the email] said I could fly out on business class and stay at a five star hotel and everything would be taken care of,” says Dr. Helland. “So I deleted it, I thought, ‘this is crazy,’ because there was also this little thing way down at the bottom of the email that said they’d need a credit card number in case you didn’t show for your flight.”

With the present-day bombardment of email scams, it is easy to understand why Dr. Helland would be suspicious. However, just a few weeks after Dr. Helland had deleted what he thought was junk mail, he received a phone call from the World Economic Forum (WEF) headquarters in Geneva.

“They phoned and asked me why I didn't want to be on the committee, if there was some kind of problem. So I was a bit shocked and then quickly signed up!”

Global views on faith

Dr. Helland is renowned worldwide for his unique work on how the Internet is changing and shaping religious traditions and practices, and he teaches classes on the social anthropology of religion. This may not, on the surface, seem like the sort of expertise that the WEF would be keen to engage, but November’s Summit on the Global Agenda brought together an incredibly diverse group of people from around the world, and from many different fields.

Each committee at the summit, consisting of 15-20 individuals from government, industry, NGOs and academia, was tasked with considering their role in global issues. As a member of the Faith Committee, Dr. Helland had the opportunity to exchange words and ideas with some very high profile leaders including the president of World Vision Kevin Jenkins (who led the group) leaders from India, a Catholic Cardinal, as well as President Obama’s spiritual advisor.

“My group’s job was to examine the role of faith in the global environment,” says Dr. Helland. “[The WEF] already had a group that studied values but they wanted to have a group that was a bit more specific in looking at faith and religion.”

Dr. Helland describes the summit as a very friendly and positive environment, with many interdenominational groups supporting diversity and the exchange of dialogue.

“People would just talk. You’d be talking at lunch, you’d be talking at coffee, you’d be talking on the shuttles to the conference center and they’re all really nice people and then you realize that, say, this one person teaches negotiation for Harvard Law School and is involved in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” says Dr. Helland.

Making global connections

Dr. Helland was one of the few Canadians to be asked to attend the Summit.

“I felt out of my league but the people there were just so engaged and so interested. They really did want my input, really wanted to know about the role of the Internet [in religion] and how it can be beneficial. I got very involved very quickly."

This experience has provided a number contacts all over the world for the Dalhousie professor and has boosted global interest in his research. Dr. Helland says he’s already incorporated his experience and a number of the connections he made with other committees into the religion and civil society unit of his course. He considers the summit a truly eye-opening experience for which he feels extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to take part in.

“When I went to one of the talks, I was sitting there and the guy beside me is talking and is very nice — and he says he's the Minister of Finance for the Government of South Africa and he wanted to know all about my work! Being able to have that kind of dialogue and exchange is something I never thought I would get as a professor, you know?”

This was the first time that the WEF has had a Faith Committee as part of its Global Agenda summit. Dr. Helland has been asked to be a member of the committee for the next two years, after which the WEF will decide whether or not to keep it as a permanent fixture. He plans to return to the United Arab Emirates next year to complete his second turn with the committee.


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