Does morality come from God or can it be reached independently? Students in the class “Environmental Ethics and Modern Religious Thought” pondered the question quietly on a rainy Tuesday afternoon early in the fall semester. After a few minutes, instructor Ryan Darr, a postdoctoral research associate at the University Center for Human Values and lecturer in the religion department, opened the discussion. This led to a lively debate on how people determine the value of nonhuman elements — including animals and nature — and how that determination impacts the ways we interact with them.
The inspiration for this new class came from questions Darr has had surrounding religious discourses about environmental and animal ethics. “I’ve just become personally very preoccupied with environmental questions, issues of animals and animal ethics,” Darr said, “and as a specialist in religious ethics, I wanted to spend more time thinking about how those intersected with religious traditions.”
During the weekly three-hour lecture in Marx Hall, the class of 11 students explores these ideas through a variety of primarily Christian (but also Jewish) theological concepts, including creation, sin, law, incarnation, and salvation. Students apply these doctrines to question the religious ethics of a variety of pressing issues, including climate change, environmental racism, animal welfare, and food production. Books for the course include Journey of the Universe by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme; Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis; and Ethics and the Environment by Dale Jamieson. In addition to class discussions, students completed reading responses, a book analysis, a presentation, and a final paper.
“The class takes the environmental crisis as an opportunity to return to religious resources and think about their potential complicity,” Darr said. Students have wrestled with the different arguments and critiques offered, he added, while also developing their own interpretations of the texts.
The goal of the class is to have students step back and think critically about what has shaped their perspectives and understanding of ethical issues, as well as those of the broader society. “I want them to see religion as a resource, but also an object of critique and development over time,” Darr said.
Ricky Feig ’22, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major, signed up for the class because the description caught his attention. He grew up with Catholic influences but has explored his Jewish heritage more since becoming a Princeton student, he said. “I want to get into renewable energy and sustainability,” Feig said. “So, sort of looking at that from a very different perspective was something that I found really interesting.”