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.

Virtual Panel on “Abuse of Power in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations”

February 25, 2021, 12 pm (EST)

One of the core mandates of Harvard’s new Program for the Evolution of Spirituality is to look honestly at both the positive and negative dimensions of emerging spiritual movements.

We are keenly aware that the abuse of power is a sensitive topic. Open discussion of past experiences of abuse has the potential to be re-traumatizing. Organizations that abuse power exist on a broad spectrum, and it is important to acknowledge differences and ambiguities as well as recognize that each person’s experience is a complex mix; abuse of power can be entered into intentionally or unintentionally, and many of these spaces present the potential to be greatly empowering for people who have been disempowered in the past. Simultaneously, it is equally important to be forthright in naming those realities that are unacceptable.

On February 25, 12 pm (EST), please join us for a virtual panel with four panelists where we hope to foster a complex conversation on power dynamics in emerging and alternative organizations. This event will be co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of World Religions.

Panelists will be:

  • Amber Scorah, writer and media activist living in Brooklyn, NY. She is author of the memoir Leaving the Witness, published by Viking Books. 
  • Margaret Smith, who currently holds the position of Director of Trauma Healing and Community Resilience at the Institute of World Affairs, Washington, DC. 
  • Helen Zuman, author of Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018), a memoir of her five years, post-Harvard, at Zendik Farm, a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. 
  • Souki Mehdaoui, a documentary director, writer, and cinematographer based in Denver. Her work can be seen on Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, A+E, Yahoo and Refinery29.

Read fuller bios of the panelists on the public events calendar.

This event is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required.

Inaugural Conference on "Ecological Spiritualities"

Rescheduled for April 6-9, 2022

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 will be postponing our inaugural conference on "Ecological Spiritualities" until April 6-9, 2022.

Although we intend to include virtual options for the conference, we hope that this extension of time allows for as many members of our community as possible to come together once it is safe to do so. We have received nearly two-hundred proposals for the conference, with presenters drawn from many academic disciplines, many spiritual contexts, and every corner of the globe – we were able to accept around one-hundred 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.

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 February 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

For media inquiries or requests, please contact Michael Naughton in the HDS Office of Communications.