The ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 Conversations

Join us from April 22 as we converse live with local and international speakers. This new series of conversations is a collaboration between our friends across the Tasman, New Zealand Christians in Science (NZCIS), and ISCAST in Australia.

From Thursday 22 April we will begin a series of weekly online presentations concluding on 1 July. Each evening will begin promptly at 6:30 pm AEST (8:30 pm NZST) and conclude at 7:30 pm AEST (9:30 pm NZST). Please join us up to 15 minutes early to chat or to ensure your equipment is working.

Presentations will include a talk followed by discussion. Following the formal finishing time each evening you are welcome to stay online and chat informally. BYO nibbles and beverages!

The one-off cost for the whole series of conversations is $15 for ISCAST and NZCIS members, $25 for non-members, $10 for students, and there is no charge for student members of ISCAST or NZCIS.

On the morning of each conversation, registered participants will receive an email with a link and instructions for joining the conversation that evening.

Register here for the ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 Conversations

This page is still being updated as further details are confirmed.

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #1

This conversation took place on Thursday April 22. It is available to watch on YouTube here.

A write-up of this talk by Melbourne writer Alexis Bird for The Melbourne Anglican can be found here.

Needing God and Christian Flourishing

Dr Christa McKirland

Description: I'm interested in exploring Basic Psychological Need Theory which is a part of Self-Determination Theory, a metatheory about human motivation. BPNT proposes three universal psychological needs: relatedness, autonomy, and competence. Given my own work in analytic philosophy, theology, and biblical studies regarding fundamental need, I'm interested in the potential overlap between BPNT and the need for the grace of God's personal presence, as well as points of dissonance. 

Dr Christa McKirland is a lecturer in systematic theology at Carey Baptist College. With degrees in philosophy, bible exposition, and systematic theology, she enjoys bringing these disciplines together in order to speak into what it means to flourish. Ultimately, to be a flourishing human is bound to God’s personal presence and thus her doctoral work focused on the concept of fundamental need and how human beings are uniquely suited to need God in a particular way.

Christa is the Executive Director of Logia International, an organisation that encourages women to pursue postgraduate divinity education for the sake of the academy and church. Logia seeks to highlight the excellence of women who are already established in their fields, while also developing the next generation of scholars who will lead the way in theology, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies.

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #2

This conversation took place on Thursday April 29. It is available to watch on YouTube here.

Are We Slaves to Our Genes?

Professor Denis Alexander

Description: Over the past few centuries the pendulum has constantly swung between an emphasis on the role of either nature or nurture in shaping human destiny, a pendulum often energised by ideological considerations. In recent decades the flourishing of developmental biology, genomics, epigenetics, and our increased understanding of neuronal plasticity, have all helped to subvert such dichotomous notions. At the same time the field of behavioural  genetics continues to extend its reach into the social sciences, reporting the heritability of such human traits as aggression, sexual orientation and religiosity. In parallel the human genome continues to be presented as the ‘blueprint of life’, encoding human destinies. There are therefore many continuing challenges today to notions of human freedom and moral responsibility with consequent theological implications. This presentation will critically discuss these challenges.

Professor Denis Alexander is a Distinguished Fellow of ISCAST and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at St Edmund's College, Cambridge. He is a molecular biologist with 40 years' experience and, for a decade, was editor for the journal Science and Christian Belief. In addition to his scientific publications he has published several books reconciling mainstream science with the Christian faith.

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #3

This conversation took place on Thursday May 6. It is available to watch on YouTube here.

Randomness and God's Justice

Dr Jacob Martin

Description: Randomness is a fruitful concept in science providing insights into atoms, nonlinear systems and mathematical modelling. Randomness has also been used to justify a variety of theological and philosophical positions. In this conversation, I will discuss connections with purpose, free will and God's justice. Finally, through a reflection of the soldiers gambling for Jesus' clothes at the cross we see that God does not reveal himself through random processes but through the person of Jesus Christ.

Dr Jacob Martin is a Research Fellow at Curtin University in Western Australia. Jacob completed a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Physics followed by Masters in Chemistry at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) as well as a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. Jacob has strong interests in renewable energy, pollution reduction and carbon nanomaterials. Jacob is currently studying the formation of combustion carbons and disordered carbon materials.

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #4

This conversation took place on Thursday May 13. It is available to watch on YouTube here.

Science and Faith in the Marketplace

Rev. Dr Chris Mulherin

Description: Each year, ISCAST speakers engage with thousands of people in "the marketplace"—in churches, and especially with school students. Why do we go into schools, and what is our message? In this conversation, ISCAST Executive Director Rev. Dr Chris Mulherin will present the sort of talk that he regularly gives to students. It includes a taste of the wonders of science and a touch of philosophy, as well as pointing to the important part Christianity played during the scientific revolution. Chris will also share ISCAST's plans to create online, religious education material using his book Science and Christianity: Understanding the Conflict Myth as a framework for more detailed inquiry-based learning in secondary schools. Finally, our New Zealand friends will respond and make some comments on what is happening in the marketplace on the other side of the Tasman.

Rev. Dr Chris Mulherin has a background in engineering and theology, and is an ordained Anglican. He teaches philosophy two days a week and is Executive Director of ISCAST in the rest of his time. More details about Chris can be found here.

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #5

Thursday 20 May at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

Consciousness: Mechanisms and Spiritual Implications

Dr Rebecca Pullon

Description: The mechanisms of consciousness remain difficult to understand. In this presentation, I will discuss my work in brain-wave monitoring during anaesthesia which has allowed insight into which parts of the brain disconnect and reconnect first at the transition to and from unconsciousness. The fact that consciousness can be manipulated raises questions about what it means to be a spiritual human person. Although our clinical trials have been motivated by the desire to reduce delirium after surgery in elderly patients, also invokes questions of how to interpret instances where cognition is permanently impaired, such as with dementia. Come ready to think about consciousness and its spiritual implications.

Dr Rebecca Pullon specialises in biosignal processing—getting useful information from signals from the human body. She did her DPhil at Oxford University in maternal vital-sign monitoring and has since been working in anaesthesia at Waikato DHB (NZ), primarily with electroencephalogram (EEG; brain-wave) signals. Rebecca enjoys identifying patterns in data and coming up with creative ways to visualise information. Last year Rebecca forayed into theology study and is now keen to combine her science background with theological questions.

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #6

Thursday 27 May at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

What is Science? And What is it For?

Professor Tom McLeish

Description: This discussion will take a very different approach to science and Christianity than the all too frequent ‘conflict’ notion, and instead explore what it might mean to think of science as a gift from God, equipping humans to fulfil a task within our vocation of discipleship. What is science for, within the Kingdom of God?

Professor Tom McLeish, FRS, is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, England, and is also affiliated to the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies and Humanities Research Centre. His scientific research in soft matter and biological physics, draws on collaboration with chemists, engineers, and biologists to study relationships between molecular structure and emergent material properties, and was recognized by major awards in the USA and Europe. He currently leads the UK ‘Physics of Life’ network, and holds a 5-year personal research fellowship focusing on the physics of protein signaling and the self-assembly of silk fibres. Other academic interests include the framing of science, theology, society and history, and the theory of creativity in art and science, leading to the recent book The Poetry and Music of Science.

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #7

Thursday 3 June at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

Ancient Light: Illuminating Science and Theology

Sarah Beattie

Description: Heisenberg claimed that to progress with quantum mechanics and interpret quantum reality, physicists had to learn how to both ask the right questions and get into the spirit of quantum theory. This presentation will consider whether we might also have to learn how to ask the right questions and rediscover how to get into the spirit of biblical narrative in order to interpret the biblical perspective of reality in the 21st century. It will use the concept of ancient light in both cosmology and Scripture to offer some suggestions about how developments in cosmology and astrophysics can help rather than hinder this learning and how science and theology might interact within an interpretive stance of informed receptivity. This is a stance that recognises, firstly, the limitations of language in the articulation of both scientific and biblical perspectives of reality.  Secondly, that an understanding of both perspectives may require a radical departure from familiar forms of explanation in order to extend the perceived boundaries of the thinkable.

Sarah Beattie has a BEd, Graduate Diploma in Theology, MA in "Aspects and Implications of Biblical Interpretation" and is currently finishing a PhD in Hermeneutics. Over the last 20 years she has facilitated, and written material for, small group Bible and theological study. The increasing challenges to biblical testimony and Christian tradition, arising from perceptions of the impact of science on Christian belief, led her to postgraduate research: her PhD thesis focuses on the interpretation of biblical narrative in the 21st-century world. Although her background is in the Arts she believes that all Christians are now, to some extent, Christians in science due to the rapid developments in, and growing dependence on, science and technology. This should not, however, be a threat to traditional belief but rather offers an exciting opportunity to explore how science can contribute to a deeper understanding of biblical reality.

 

 

ISCAST—NZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #8

Thursday 10 June at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

Why are Pseudoscientific Conspiracy Theories So Popular Among Christians?

Dr Jon and Anna Clarke

Description: I am neither an expert nor the son of an expert in conspiracy theories ...

Pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have been part of Euro-American culture for centuries. What was once limited to the province of poorly printed pamphlets handed out at airports and street corners, has now, due to the internet and social media, extended to reach hundreds of millions. That, in combination with the previous Trump presidency in the United States and the global pandemic has pushed the potential of these dangerous ideas to reach billions. 

Long before the pandemic or Trump I have had, on occasion, to defend vaccination programs or the Apollo missions to my fellow Christians. However, I have been shocked at the degree to which self-identified evangelical Christians, especially in the US and to a lesser degree in Australia, have succumbed to these unsupported ideologies. In this session we want to hear personal stories and experiences and discuss how we, as Christians, should respond to the current pandemic-related conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

For a more detailed description and discussion of the issues this talk will deal with, please go to the bottom of this page.

Dr Jonathan Clarke is a geologist who has worked in the minerals, education, and government sectors. He has undergraduate degrees from the University of Tasmania and a PhD from Flinders University. His interests include sedimentology, diagenesis, landscape processes, and regolith geoscience, and he has applied these to minerals exploration, salinity management, and groundwater. Jon is also interested in planetary science, in particular the geology and geomorphology of Mars and how planets such as Mars might best be explored. He is currently working on spacesuit design for Mars exploration. Jon is Vice President of the Mars Society Australia, is a fellow of ISCAST, and is an ISCAST Director.

Anna Clarke is a retired nurse practioner with over 45 years professional experience.  The last twenty years have been spent in community-based maternal and child health including immunisation programs. Anna is on the parish council of St Matthews Wanniassa in Canberra and has long standing professional interests in public health and communication

 

ISCASTNZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #9

Thursday 17 June at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

Does Methodological Naturalism Lead Us to Accept Ontological Naturalism?

Hans Weichselbaum

Description: Methodological naturalism (MN) is a defining concept of science. It stipulates that science excludes the supernatural in its explanations and theories. The supernatural is not denied, but simply ignored when practising science. On the other hand, ontological naturalism (ON) is a worldview that denies anything beyond the natural world, including God. The natural world is all there is.

The term MN was coined only recently in 1986, however, the principle of MN goes all the way back to the Middle Ages when ‘natural philosophers’ (the forerunners of today’s scientists) were keen on understanding what kind of creation God had made and how God was at work through creation. God is seen as acting through secondary causes which we can identify as the laws of nature. Atheists like to claim that MN slowly evolved over the last few centuries as a result of an increasing displacement of religious thinking through our scientific understanding of the world.

Shortly after its inception, MN has come under attack from two sides. First, supporters of the Intelligent Design movement and some Christian philosophers claim that MN restricts the practice of science. Furthermore, it is a slippery slope which leads one to ON. The second line of criticism comes from the atheist camp: a number of philosophers and scientists regard MN as an unnecessary assumption which only obstructs science. We should instead adopt the real thing, namely ON. Note that both critiques predict an inevitable slide from MN to ON.

Others have suggested a form of provisional methodological naturalism (PMN) which allows the scientist to study (and confirm or refute) supernatural phenomena. This requires a sharp demarcation between the ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ which is difficult to nail down.

Science explains observed phenomena through natural causes. Having established a ‘natural’ cause, however, does not rule out the possibility of supernatural causation, for example by means of overdetermination.

Anybody denying the supernatural realm has already rejected MN and adopted ON as the stronger form of naturalism. The theist and, more importantly, the agnostic who accepts MN will find no evidence or logical reason for abandoning MN in favor of ON. 

The perceived conflict between faith and science is one of the main reasons for young people to turn their back on the church. Science has given us enormous powers and seems to be qualified for explaining any phenomenon we encounter. As Christians we should perceive God as the ultimate cause of any observed event, irrespective of whether or not the current status of science can attribute it to a natural cause. 

Hans Weichselbaum is originally from Vienna and has worked in South Africa as a metallurgist and chemist, specialising in gold cyanidation, before moving to Auckland. In NZ he has worked as a soil chemist, and also has a business importing educational toys. His interest in the philosophy of science has developed through a master's degree and currently a PhD. He also has a passion for photography and digital imaging.

 

ISCASTNZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #10

Thursday 24 June at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

Title to be confirmed

 

ISCASTNZCIS 2021 CONVERSATION #11

Thursday 1 July at 6:15pm (AEST) / 8.15pm (NZST)  for a 6:30 / 8.30 start

Can We Infer Purpose in Evolution?

Dr Zachary Ardern

Description: The claim that evolution is strictly logically compatible with some form of divine superintendence is relatively uncontroversial outside of anti-theism on one side and anti-evolutionism on the other. But, is an inference to purpose in evolution the result simply of a "will to believe," or could it be a justified inference with some connection to scientific evidence? And if it could be justified, then how? Firstly, I discuss the possibility of inferences to purpose being complementary to rather than competing with evolutionary explanations, following work from Rope Kojonen and David Glass. Then I focus on specific examples of recent developments in evolutionary theory which might fit with such inferences. 

Dr Zachary Ardern is an evolutionary biologist using microbial genome and gene expression data to answer fundamental evolutionary questions and to further understanding of microbial genomes. Originally from New Zealand he is currently a junior group leader at the chair of Microbial Ecology at the Technical University of Munich. Zach is a reviewing editor for the new Cambridge University Press open access journal “Experimental Results”.


Why are Pseudoscientific Conspiracy Theories So Popular Among Christians?

(continued from Conversation #8 above)

Some conspiracy theories are superficially harmless. No matter how annoying it is for us in the aerospace and space science sector, to hear of people believing that the Apollo missions were filmed in a studio by Stanley Kubrick, this scepticism does little obvious harm. However, other conspiracy theories, especially in the social-political sphere, such as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” hoax, have led to the deaths of millions.

Common features may include: 

  • The assumption that events are not what they seem, but are the machinations of sinister and powerful groups, working   behind the scene for malign and obscure purposes.
  • A rejection, or highly selective use, of expert opinion on the topic.
  • An assumption that those who oppose the conspiracy theory are either dupes or agents.
  • The predictions of doom unless action is taken.

Conspiracy theories can be found right across the political spectra, from left to right, conservative to progressive. They resonate with popular cynicism, misanthropy, and negativity about the state of the world, blurring the line between knowledge and opinion.

Pseudoscience is often strongly coloured by conspiracy theories. For instance, in the case of vaccines; vaccines are not good for you, but cause harm; they are pushed by secret cabals of big business and government for purposes of control or causing illness to make profit. Scientific questions or issues with some vaccines are taken out of context to assert all vaccines are bad. Expert knowledge is rejected in favour of emotional appeals or natural remedies. People in support of vaccines are said to be either deceived or in the pay of government or pharmaceutical companies. Pseudoscience promises that if we reject vaccines in favour of “natural” remedies, we will all live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

Christians are fish who swim in the waters of our wider culture so it is inevitable that some will be attracted to conspiracy thinking. Long before the pandemic or Donald Trump I have had, on occasion, to defend vaccination programs or the Apollo missions to my fellow Christians. However, I have been shocked at the degree to which self-identified evangelical Christians, especially in the US and to a lesser degree in Australia, have succumbed to conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

Why might this be so? I suggest for discussion, that two historical factors have contributed to the popularity of pseudoscientific thinking amongst many self-identified evangelicals in America and in Australia.

The first of these is popular eschatology.  If our views of the end times assume that the world is going from bad to worse, that Jesus will return soon, that there will be a Great Tribulation featuring totalitarian world government and anti-Christ state religion, and that world happenings are signs of Christ’s second coming, then it is likely we will tend to see these events as the result of dark forces working towards these goals. We can see evidence of such views going back at least 1400 years to the rise of Islam.

The second, more recent, historical factor, is the hostility towards evolutionary biology from the 1920s in the US, and more recently the infiltration of Young Earth Creationism into evangelical circles in the 1960s. Denial of organic evolution, an ancient universe, and an old Earth all require a degree of conspiracist thinking. This is seen as a rejection of experts in favour of lay opinion, of selective use of reputable research and, most of all, the requirement of the belief that the “truth” about the history of life, the planet, and the universe is being suppressed by a conspiracy of government agencies, universities, and individual scientists. 

I suggest that this the Young Earth Creationist mindset, combined with popular eschatology, has primed many self-styled American evangelicals and some Australians into accepting a wide range of conspiracy and pseudoscientific theories regarding the pandemic. This is evidenced in rejection of the efficacy of face masks, lockdowns, social distancing, and (of course) vaccines. This potentially has significant impact on their health, those of their friends and families, their churches, and the wider community. Also, these beliefs can bring churches, the faith, and the gospel we profess into disrepute.

Unlike some earlier conspiracy and pseudoscience theories, the current situation raises serious issues for all of us at all levels. How do we ensure we don’t get infected with such thinking? How do we deal with family and friends caught up in them? How do we respond when segments of our church fellowship advocate them? When our church leadership pushes them? How do we present a reasonable apologia for our faith in the wider context in such a situation? In this session we want to hear personal stories and experiences and discuss how we should respond to current pandemic-related conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.