Program for the Evolution of Spirituality

The Program for the Evolution of Spirituality (PES) supports the scholarly study of emerging spiritual movements, marginalized spiritualities, and the innovative edges of established religious traditions. It also prepares students for ministry in these movements. Through conferences, field experiences, course offerings, and public lectures, the program expands HDS's expertise in topics such as spirituality among the millennial generation, ecological spirituality, and the ethics of power in spiritual communities. The program is directed by Professor Dan McKanan.

Call for Papers: "Uses and Abuses of Power in Alternative Spiritualities" Conference 2023

Wednesday-Saturday April 26-29th, 2023

Harvard Divinity School’s Program for the Evolution of Spirituality is delighted to announce that our spring 2023 conference will be organized around the theme of “Uses and Abuses of Power in Alternative Spiritualities.” We welcome proposals for papers, panels, workshops, and performances related to this theme, or to other aspects of alternative and evolving spiritualities. 

Our conference will explore a twofold reality: alternative spiritualities can be enormously empowering for the persons who participate in them, but they can also be sites of deeply harmful abuses of power. We welcome proposals that explore only one side of this reality as well as those that explore the connection between the two sides. We especially welcome proposals designed to foster open-hearted dialogue between people who have benefited from alternative spiritualities and those who have experienced significant harm from them.

For the purposes of this conference, we define “alternative spiritualities” broadly in keeping with the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality’s mission to support the scholarly study of emerging spiritual movements, marginalized spiritualities, and the innovative edges of established religious traditions. Presentations on new religious movements, indigenous spiritualities, diasporic traditions, and spiritually-oriented social movements are all welcome!

As is true for all of our programming, we welcome proposals from spiritual practitioners and leaders, from scholars working in many disciplines, from social change activists, and from artistic creators. Proposals developed by groups of people representing more than one of these categories are especially encouraged. 

Download Call for Papers Here.

Submit Proposal Here. 


Featured Past Events: Inaugural Conference on "Ecological Spiritualities"

Wednesday-Saturday, April 27-30, 2022

Harvard Divinity School’s Program for the Evolution of Spirituality hosted its inaugural conference on “Ecological Spiritualities” this past April. The conference featured presentations and workshops exploring the evolution of earth-based spiritual traditions and highlighting innovative spiritual practices that are emerging in response to the painful realities of climate change, mass extinction, biodiversity loss, and the disruption of local and global ecosystems.

Speakers joined us from across the globe. They included professors and students from a variety of theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary perspectives. We also welcomed proposals from spiritual leaders, environmental activists, farmers, and others whose work places them at the intersection of spirituality and ecology. Paper topics spanned from interspecies interdependence to textual analysis to Indigenous cosmologies to spiritual appropriation to race and environmentalism to issues in contemporary paganism.  We hope that through this broad range of methodological approaches, religious traditions, and geographical regions, we created space for open discussions and a fruitful opportunity for deep learning among scholars, spiritual leaders, and others who care about the intersection of spirituality and ecology.

View schedule and recordings or learn more about the presenters and presentations.

Virtual Colloquia on “Power Dynamics in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations”

This ongoing series of colloquia features a variety of speakers, including practitioners, scholars, survivors, and activists, who come together to talk about their experiences around power dynamics, both positive and negative, in emerging and alternative spiritual and cultural organizations. Launched in February 2021 with a virtual panel on “Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations," this series reflects the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality's commitment to sponsoring scholarly conversations that fully include both practitioners of emerging spiritualities and persons who have experienced harm within spiritual movements. 

We continue to host talks around complex and sensitive topics such as transparency and accountability in spiritual leadership, productive and respectful dynamics with interlocutors from marginalized spiritual traditions, and gender dynamics in intentional communities. We hope these conversations will be productive, illuminating, and empowering as well as a source of education on creating structures of accountability. 

Read more and view past colloquia.


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Associated Courses and Groups

Course: HDS 2798: Introduction to Religion and Ecology
Instructor: Dan McKanan

“Religion and ecology” is one of the fastest-growing subfields within the study of religion, and our approach to this topic will be broadly “ecological,” which is to say that we will attend to the interconnections linking seemingly disparate phenomena, and to the ways in which all phenomena are continually evolving in mutual relationship. This course explores the intersection between religious traditions and ecological activism, with special attention to current conversations about sustainable agriculture and ethical eating. View scheduled offerings of HDS 2798 in my.harvard.

Course: HDS 3099: Earth-Based Spiritualities: An Anthropological Perspective
Instructor: Giovanna Parmigiani 

This is a course in the Anthropology of Religion, with particular focus on contemporary earth-based spiritualities, such as Contemporary Paganism, Wicca, NewAge, and Core-Shamanism. While often misunderstood in popular culture, these religions are now part of the lives of a growing number of individuals and groups. By engaging with ethnographic works, primarily based in the US and Europe, students will get acquainted with or deepen their knowledge of the main issues, traditions, debates, and research in the field of Anthropology of Religion.View scheduled offerings of HDS 3099 in my.harvard.

Student Animism Reading Group

The Animism Reading Group is a discussion group centered on interspecies intersubjectivity, posthuman ethics, relational ontologies, kinship-based science, and the implications of these topics on politics, ethics, culture, and religious experience. While the primary intent of the group is academic, the group also provides validation and community for those whose spiritual beliefs include an animist cosmology. Several CSWR speakers have been invited in connection with the animism group, including David Abram, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Graham Harvey. The group was initiated by Mary Balkon, MDiv '20, under a CSWR research fellowship, and it is currently facilitated by Natalia Schwien, MTS '21.


Dan McKanan, Program Director
Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity

Natalia Schwien, Assistant Program Director


The Program for the Evolution of Spirituality
Harvard Divinity School
Divinity Hall, Room 409
Cambridge, MA 02138

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