Classroom Close-Up: Exploring Ethics and the Environment Through Religion



Ryan Darr, Senior Lecturer in Religion

Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21

Does morality come from God or can it be achieved independently? Students in the “Environmental Ethics and Modern Religious Thought” class pondered the issue quietly on a rainy Tuesday afternoon at the start of the fall semester. After a few minutes, instructor Ryan Darr, postdoctoral research associate at the University Center for Human Values ​​and lecturer in the Department of Religion, opened the discussion. This has led to a heated debate about how people determine the value of non-human elements – including animals and nature – and how that determination affects the way we interact with them.

The inspiration for this new class came from the questions Darr had around religious discourse on environmental and animal ethics. “I just became personally very concerned about environmental issues, animal issues, and animal ethics,” Darr said, “and as a religious ethics specialist, I wanted to spend more time thinking about how these intersected with religious traditions. ”

During the three-hour weekly lecture at Marx Hall, the class of 11 students explore these ideas through a variety of predominantly Christian (but also Jewish) theological concepts, including creation, sin, law, incarnation and salvation. Students apply these doctrines to challenge religious ethics on a variety of pressing issues, including climate change, environmental racism, animal welfare, and food production. Books for the course include Travel of the Universe by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme; Laudato Si ‘: on care for our common home by Pope Francis; and Ethics and environment by Dale Jamieson. In addition to class discussions, students completed reading responses, book review, presentation, and final paper.

“The class is taking the environmental crisis as an opportunity to go back to religious resources and reflect on their potential complicity,” Darr said. The students struggled with the various arguments and critiques offered, he added, while also developing their own interpretations of the texts.

The aim of the course is to get students to step back and think critically about what has shaped their perspectives and understanding of ethical issues, as well as those of society in general. “I want them to see religion as a resource, but also an object of criticism and development over time,” Darr said.

Ricky Feig ’22, a mechanical and aerospace engineering student, signed up for the course because the description caught his eye. He grew up with Catholic influences but has further explored his Jewish heritage since becoming a student at Princeton, he said. “I want to get into renewable energy and sustainability,” Feig said. “So looking at it from a very different perspective was something that I found really interesting.”

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