Ecologies of Religion: Humans, Animals, and Nature

Course Syllabus (PDF)

This course begins from the presupposition that ecology and religion are intimately connected, even if our ordinary conversations seldom put them together. While many factors contribute to human-caused ecological degradation, this course explores the idea that the division between human beings and the rest of earth’s creatures lies at the heart of ecological problems. Ecological degradation, in other words, comes in large part from stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and our own difference from other animals. Many of these stories are explicitly religious. Conversely, environmental literature frequently draws on religious ideals and vocabulary in the attempt to craft a different story for human relationships to the planet.

This is a course, then, about the boundaries and relations between human and nonhuman animals as they are worked out in two different discourses—Religion and Ecology. Over the course of the semester, we will be reflecting on and discussing three different kinds of texts: (1) Claims, arguments, and theorization of the differences and connections between humans and nonhuman animals; (2) religious/theological texts, primarily from the Christian tradition, in which we will examine the ecological presuppositions and implications; and (3) texts from environmentalists and animal activists, in which we will examine religious ideas, vocabulary, and frameworks.

By the end of the course, students will have (1) critically analyzed the ecological implications of religious/quasi-religious accounts of humanity and human uniqueness (2) traced the transformation of religious teachings and practices across time and different cultural settings; (3) engaged in interdisciplinary analysis of ecological issues drawing on natural sciences (e.g. ethology), philosophy, and methods native to religious studies; (4) reflected on the connections between their own daily practices, the social/cultural inheritance of religious teachings and practices, and the overarching ecological context that frames both; (5) explored the existential weight and ecological impact of ultimate questions concerning human nature, human purpose, and human relations to fellow creatures.