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.

Launch of Colloquia on “Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations”

In the wake of our February 25 Virtual Panel on the “Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations,” many people have expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Therefore, we are launching an ongoing discussion on our platform around this complex and sensitive topic. We plan to host monthly colloquia which will feature a variety of speakers, including practitioners, scholars, survivors, and activists, who will come together to talk about their experiences around power dynamics, both positive and negative, in emerging and alternative spiritual and cultural organizations. We hope these conversations will be productive, illuminating, and empowering as well as a source of education on creating structures of accountability. 

View past events here.

Virtual Colloquium on "Affirming Personal Agency in Discussions on Abuse of Power in Emerging and Alternative Spiritual Spaces"

On Thursday, May 6, from 12-1 pm EDT, we will host the next colloquium in our series on power dynamics and accountability in alternative and emerging spiritual and cultural organizations. For this event, HDS professor and PES director Dan McKanan will be joined by New Religious Movement scholars Dr. Erin Prophet and Jessica Pratezina to discuss approaches to conversations and scholarship around spiritual harm while affirming personal agency.

Erin Prophet, MPH, PhD, is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. She studies religion, spirituality and medicine. Her publications include Cults and New Religious Movements (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press) and Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside Church Universal and Triumphant (Lyons Press, 2009).

Jessica Pratezina is a PhD student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Her research centers on growing up in alternative religious movements, women’s narratives of religious transition, and the development of wise therapeutic/social work practice with people involved in these religious groups.

Register for the event here

Inaugural Conference on "Ecological Spiritualities"

Rescheduled for Wednesday-Saturday, April 27-30, 2022

After postponing our inaugural conference on "Ecological Spiritualities" to protect the health and safety of our community, as well as to adhere to the recent guidelines around Covid-19 across Harvard University, we are pleased to announce that new dates have been confirmed. We will host the series of events Wednesday-Saturday, April 27-30, 2022.  

Thank you all very much for your patience and continued support. We received a remarkable amount of proposals for the conference, with presenters drawn from many academic disciplines and many spiritual contexts from around the Earth. We were able to accept around 100 of the submissions, and we will be posting the full list of presenters and titles in the upcoming months. We anticipate an extremely fruitful opportunity for deep learning among scholars, spiritual leaders, and others who care about the intersection of spirituality and ecology. 

We are planning for a hybrid conference, with both presenters and other participants able to participate either remotely or in-person. The exact character of our hybrid structure will depend on the public health situation at the time of the conference, and for this reason we do not encourage anyone to make travel plans until we are able to provide more information, probably in fall 2021. We anticipate opening a formal conference registration process in fall 2021 as well.

About the Conference

The theme of our inaugural conference will be “Ecological Spiritualities.” Presentations and workshops will explore the evolution of earth-based spiritual traditions and highlight 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.

We have invited professors, doctoral candidates, graduate students, and undergraduate students in the study of religion and related fields to submit paper proposals 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. Our aim is to present a broad range of papers that address the theme of earth-based spiritualities from a range of methodological approaches in the context of various religious traditions and geographical regions.

Accepted presentation will be announced in spring 2021. Though the submission deadline has passed, please see the Call for Papers for reference.


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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 that studies indigenous cosmologies and Western animist worldviews. It is an open group that welcomes anyone who is interested in this conversation including students,

faculty, and community members. We meet bi-weekly to discuss scholarship on animist cosmologies and their implications for politics, ethics, culture, and science. While the primary intent of the group is academic, it 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 under a CSWR research fellowship, and it is currently facilitated by Natalia Schwien, MTS 2021.


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

Natalia Schwien, Assistant Program Director
HDS MTS Candidate, 2021


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

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