Past Conferences


Assisi, 2014

Theme: Do Emotions Shape the World? Perspectives from Science and Theology

The 2014 conference was organized in Assisi, Italy between April 30th and May 4th, 2014. Plenary speakers were:

  • Rita Nakashima Brock (Theology and Culture)
  • Christian Keysers (Neuroscience)
  • Jonas Kjellstrand (Technology)
  • Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi (Theology, Old Testament)
  • Pehr Granqvist (Psychology)

Theme of the conference:

It seems that many decisions in life are based on emotions rather than on abstract intellectual activity. This applies to individual lives as well as to the world wide effects of decisions in politics and economics. The stock market reacts to the emotions of investors. Nervous investors make for a nervous market which makes for scared people who act irrationally, which makes for people who lose jobs and homes. The success of brands relies on emotional attraction more than on technical facts – as marketing specialists put it: “We don’t market a product, we are selling a life-style.”  Climate activists who focus on the necessity of massive changes in lifestyle realize that naked facts alone will not do the job. Without a successful appeal to appropriate parts of the emotional scale (and actively trying to switch off others!), not much will change.

Anthropology has long been indecisive on the matter. Sometimes emotions are taken to be the truest revelation of what a person is: Follow your emotions and your true self will show up. The underlying assumption may be that emotions are more original and hence more honest than secondary thinking: a variation of the “back to nature” and “the noble wild” theme. On other occasions, the truest self is supposed to show up precisely when you defy your emotional life and force yourself to be rational. That line of reasoning may be driven by the assumption that human rationality is the surest sign of human uniqueness, whereas emotionality binds us to the animal kingdom.

What are the reasons for the understanding of emotion and intellect as opposites? Is “being guided by emotions” really the contrary of “being logical” and vice versa? Both science and theology may tell us that the reasons for a dualistic understanding are not that good after all. Nevertheless, the dualistic construction is part of many worldviews. Weren’t we brought up with the image of the scientist in his sober white lab coat, safely dwelling in the world of reason, facts and empirical truth? With its counterpart in the image of the religious professional in fancy vestments, digging into the world of emotions while balancing between faith and superstition?

So, these are some of the questions that need to be asked today:

  • What is emotion?
  • What do we know about the biochemistry of emotions and the evolutionary record of emotions?
  • How has our understanding of emotions changed over time?
  • What is the role of emotions in religious experience?
  • What is the role of emotion in scientific research?
  • How should we describe emotions, rationality, subjectivity and objectivity in light of the best knowledge in science and theology?
  • In the wake of “Descartes Error” (Antonio Damasio), how do we re-conceptualize the understanding, pursuit and communication of science?
  • If “religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and moral force which secular approaches lack” (Mary Evelyn Tucker), how does theology as the critical and self-critical reflection on the content and effects of religious traditions feed this cultural, spiritual and moral capital into the economy of global challenges?
  • How does advanced understanding of emotions contribute to the dialogue between science and theology?

These are just some of the questions that were explored in papers, discussions and plenary lectures.

Tartu, 2012

Theme: What is Life?

Key Note Speakers: 

Gayle Woloschak is Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science (LSTC, Chicago). A molecular biologist and professor of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Cell and Molecular Biology and Department of Radiology (Chicago, IL) and an active leader in the Orthodox Church, she is the author of hundreds of scientific articles and three books on the Orthodox faith, including Challenge Questions on Orthodoxy and Beauty and Unity in Creation. Her research involves studies of gene regulation in vitro and in vivo (mouse systems) following radiation exposure, analysis of molecular mechanisms in oncogenesis and analysis of subcellular structures.

Bronislaw Szerszynski (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Lancaster, the UK) has pursued interdisciplinary research activities to develop new understandings of the changing relations with environment and technology, situated particularly within social theory and sociological research, but also drawing on philosophy, theology and other humanities disciples. His research projects have been exploring topics such as climate change, environmental movements, landscape perception, global citizenship and cosmopolitanism, the changing social role of religion and spirituality. His numerous publications include his monograph Nature, Technology and the Sacred (2005).

Stuart Kauffman is a theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher concerning the origin of life on Earth. He is best known for arguing that the complexity of biological systems and organisms might result as much from self-organization and far-from-equilibrium dynamics as from Darwinian natural selection, as well as for applying models of Boolean networks to simplified genetic structures. Presently he is also a Distinguished Professor at Tampere University of Technology (Finland) and a faculty member of the University of Virginia. His publications include Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (1993) and At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (1995), Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (2008).

Richard Villems: President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (since 2004); Director of the Estonian Biocentre, University of Tartu (since 1986). His main scientific interest is an interdisciplinary field of archeogenetics – the reconstruction of human demographic history by analysing global variations of genetic diversity of human populations. Richard Villems’ publications cover the exodus of anatomically modern humans from Africa, pioneer phases of the peopling of Eurasia, Australia and America, as well as more specific themes such as population genetics of various African, Mediterranean, South Asian, Siberian and East European populations.

Antje Jackelen is currently the President of the ESSSAT and the Bishop of Lund in Sweden. She has been Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the LSTC, a professor both in Sweden and in the USA and a priest in the Church of Sweden since 1980. She is an author of numerous publications both in Swedish, German and English. Her book Zeit und Ewigkeit: die Frage der Zeit in Kirche, Naturwissenscaft und Theologie has been published also in an English and Swedish translation. Many of her articles can be found in Zygon. She is a founding member of the International Society for Religion and Science (ISSR). She has lectured widely both in Europe and the United States.

Edinburgh, 2010

Plenary lectures: 

Religion? Naturally (Prof Ilkka Pyysiäinen) – The Naturalness of Religion and Unnaturalness of Theology (Dr. Justin Barrett) – Theomorphism in Islam (Prof Mona Siddiqui) –  The Religion of Nature and the Nature of Religion (Prof Dr Christoph Schwöbel) – Do we need to Naturalize Religion? (Prof Lluis Oviedo)

Sigtuna, 2008

The theme of the conference was: How Do We Know? Understanding in Science and Theology. The first plenary lecturer was Noreen Hertzfeld, computer scientist and Quaker theologian from Amherst, MA: her title, The Dynamic Nature of Theology.  For her the scriptures – Christian, Sufi, Zen – are “the record of revelation, not revelation itself” (Fox).  Indeed revelation is ongoing, so theology cannot be static.  Human beings should “never define the divine” (Evagrius), but instead be content to “live the questions” (Rilke), trusting that answers sufficient for practical purposes will turn out to have presented themselves.  Provisionality does not negate utility even though, for Hertzfeld as for Wittgenstein, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

Responding, Karl (K.G.) Hammar (Lund) former Archbishop of the Swedish Lutheran church, continued this warmly undogmatic humanity of theme.  He presented the hermeneutic challenge as being “to find the silence within everything”.  And he wondered whether modern Fundamentalism might be a fruit of the Enlightenment’s over-emphasis on certainty.

Next came Lewis Wolpert, South African born but London based embryologist and expositor of science, speaking on The Origins of Science and Religion.  Like many others, Wolpert sees both these approaches to the world as deriving from a deep, human need to identify causes – a disposition for which there is little evidence in other animals.  His specific suggestion is that it evolved in tandem with tool-making.  For him science, with its testable hypotheses and reproducible results is overwhelmingly superior wherever it can reach, and the extension of its reach is inexorable.  Nevertheless, he recognizes that the religious attribution of causal agency to human-like beings has had and still can have adaptive advantage to both societies and individuals.

The response was given by Zbigniew Liana (Cracow).  As a priest and philosopher of science he was particularly critical of some comments Wolpert had made on the ethics of the embryo, and an extraordinary antagonism he had displayed towards philosophy. But Liana and later questioners also pointed to the invalidity of implying that identification of a capacity’s origins eradicates its value – the genetic fallacy.

The third plenary lecturer was Peter Gärdenfors, a cognitive psychologist from Lund.  Under the title, The Role of Understanding in Human Nature, he presented a vividly illustrated account of pattern recognition – a human propensity which, like tool use, appears only rudimentary in the highest of other mammals.  Even more special to Homo sapiens is the sense of time, which leads to perspectived planning and the restraint of immediate desires for greater future benefit. Pattern and time converge in the concept of cause stressed by Wolpert.  Human-specific also are our ability to discern intentions and beliefs – mental causes – in the minds of others, and to appraise the contents of our own minds (self-awareness). Finally, in this intensive and tightly documented tour through the human mind, Gärdenfors referred to narrative and myth as tools for understanding and for teaching.  Implications for religion were not spelled out, but some of them at least must have been evident to all.

The formidable task of responding to this tour de force fell to Anne Runehov (philosophical theology, Copenhagen). She pointed to psychologist James Gibson’s emphasis on the role of subjective narrative in determining what we look for. From the basic levels such as colour perception to the subtle ones at which a Gibsonian critique is inescapable, we do not all see the same world.  “Those who have eyes to see, will see”.

Willem Drees, philosopher of religion from Leiden and ESSSAT’s retiring President, took the title Is Religion and Science about Understanding? for his own tightly-structured talk.  He contrasted insiders’ and outsiders’ view-points on religion, on science and on religion-and-science.  Insiders will, for instance, speak of “reasons” for actions, outsiders of their “causes”; insiders talk of “values” and “principles”, outsiders of “interests” and even of evolutionary origins!  In religion-and-science we try to take both views simultaneously, but riding two horses is difficult, if not dangerous, and practitioners of adjacent intellectual disciplines – philosophy, theology, science itself – give little credit to our efforts. Only the historians of religion-and-science are, in Wim’s view, well respected in neighbouring disciplines.  It was disappointing to hear that, after so long near the top of our field, he was so pessimistic about its progress, but the warning was salutary.

Responding, Astrid Dinter (theology and pedagogy of religion, Weingarten) suggested that Wim’s argument could be paraphrased as “It depends what you mean by understanding”.  Theology and science both have multiple, but very different, symbol systems, and their independence had to be recognised.  She also wondered whether Wims had sufficiently distinguished theology from religion – but she did not challenge his fundamental thesis.

The finals set piece was a symposium with a title referring back to a mid-century Swedish critic of religion, Beyond Hedenius: changing conceptions of knowledge.  Mikael Stenmark (Philosophy of Religion, Uppsala) contrasted the objective, positivist theory of knowledge and its implicit correspondence theory of truth, with social constructivism.  According to this latter, context and circumstance determine not only what is studied but what is concluded.  An ironic twist is that this makes social science more fundamental than natural science.

Lewis Wolpert resolutely adhered to the first of these positions, and maintained that science is totally value-free, neutrally presenting “the way the world is”.

Håkan Snellman, a Stockholm physicist, argued the Baconian view that science is concerned with power over nature, and takes interest only in local, proximal causes – “efficient”, not “final”, in Aristotle’s terms.  In the process each science makes maps, which portray entities and mechanisms relevant to its particular aim.  Contra Wolpert, facts don’t “speak for themselves” – they are theory-based.  Thus to claim there is “no meaning” in the universe or nature is to mistake a map for all reality. Snellman was the only plenary speaker who has not yet produced a book in this field; I hope he will do so soon!

The final speaker was Antje Jackelén, Lutheran Bishop of Lund, whom Council on the previous day had elected ESSSAT’s new President.  Antje had accepted the dauntingly over-arching title, Religion, Science and Post-Modernity.  She likened all quests for single, fully-correct answers within any discipline to the “little balloons” of speech in a cartoon.  Interactions of knowledge-fields are in fact much subtler.  Theological questions are in the air that science breathes, just as scientific ones continually penetrate theology; neither alone provides “the best and correct way to understand the world”, as Wolpert claimed.  Among the features of both disciplines is their continual use of metaphors – inventive and constructive transfers of meaning from one area to another.  In both also, experience transcends theory:  “The event of the holy is more than God as a name”.  As for modernism versus post-modernism, Luther himself provided Antje with a metaphor: his distinction between “theologians of glory” and “theologians of the cross” symbolised the modern and the post-modern respectively. Each has major contributions to make, but in the last analysis Luther leant towards the cross.  And so does Antje.

The plenary lectures are published in Issues in Science and Theology, XII, while many of the short papers given in parallel small-groups sessions are published as Studies in Science and Theology XII

(report by Neil Spurway)

Iasi, 2006

The Eleventh European Conference on Science and Theology, organized by ESSSAT, was held from Wednesday April 5th to Monday April 10th, 2006. Since 1986 there has been a European Conference on Science and Theology every other year. The latest conference was held in Iasi, the second largest city of Romania, and was the first ESSSAT conference held in a country where Eastern Orthodox Christianity is prominent. The conference featured a combination of plenary lectures, sessions with short papers, the presentation of the ESSSAT Prizes 2006, an excursion to some of the famous painted monasteries of the Bucovina, and much more.

Barcelona, 2004

Nijmegen, 2002
Science of today invites us to re-interpret our understanding of nature as well as the human being. Modern technology creates powerful tools to change the way we are and interact, as well as the world we live in. How does this challenge received views on values and ethical matters? How are possible conflicts to be treated? What is the contribution of religion and theology in this respect? Questions such as these offer interaction between the perspectives of different sciences and theologies, technology and other disciplines.

The main lecturers were:

  • Margaret Boden, University of Sussex, GB. Biotechnology, AI, Self, and Freedom
  • Renè Munnik, University of Twente, NL. ICT and the Character of Finitude
  • Ulf Görman, University of Lund, SE. Religion and Biotechnology
  • Frans de Waal, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Good Natured: Animal Origins of Human Morality
  • Nancey Murphy, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. Theological Reflections on the Moral Nature of Nature

In addition there were several parallel working group sessions in which about 80 papers were put up for discussion.

Lyon 2000
The Eighth European Conference on Science and Theology (ECST VIII) was held in Lyon, France, 14 to 19 April 2000 on “Design and Disorder: Perspectives from Science and Theology”. Published as SSTh 8 and as Design and Disorder: Perspectives from Science and Theology (T& T Clark, 2002).

Durham 1998
The Seventh European Conference on Science and Theology (ECST VII) has been held in Durham, UK, March 31-April 5 1997, on “The Person: Perspectives from Science and Theology”. Published as SSTh 7 and as volume one of Issues in Science and Theology: The Human Person in Science and Theology (T& T Clark, 1998).

Cracow 1996
The Sixth European Conference on Science and Theology (ECST VI) was held in Cracow, Poland, in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy there on “The Interplay of Scientific and Theological World Views”. Lectures and papers are published in SSTh 5 and 6, volumes of Studies in Science and Theology (SSSTh).

München 1994
The Fifth European Conference on Science and Theology (ECST V) was held March 23-27 1994 in Freising, near München in Germany, on “The Concept of Nature in Science and Theology”. Plenary lectures and some of the papers have been published in SSTh 3 and SSTh4, volumes of Studies in Science and Theology (SSSTh).

Rome 1992
The Fourth European Conference on Science and Theology (ECST IV) was held in 1992 in Rocca di Papa, near Rome in Italy, in collaboration with the Specola Vaticana, the astronomical observatory of the Vatican. The theme was “Origins, Time and Complexity”. Plenary lectures and a selection of the papers from the workshops were published in SSTh 1 and SSTh 2, volumes of Studies in Science and Theology (SSTh).

Geneva 1990
The Third European Conference on Science and Theology (ECST III) was held in 1990 in Geneva, Switzerland, on “Information and Knowledge in Science and Theology”. Publication: The Science and Theology of Information, eds. Christoph Wassermann, Richard Kirby, Bernard Rordorff. Geneva: Labor et Fides (1, rue de Beauregard, CH-1204 Geneva). ISBN 2830906535. 336 pp. This book includes three of the plenary lectures, by J.C. Puddefoot, H. Schopper and P. Schuster, and 32 contributions by various scholars.

Enschede 1988
The Second European Conference on Science and Religion was held March 10-13 1988 in Enschede, the Netherlands. The title was “One world – changing perspectives on reality”. Publication: Science and Religion: One World – Changing Perspectives on Reality, eds. Jan Fennema, Iain Paul. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990. ISBN 0792307313 (hardcover; the original paperback is sold out). ISBN 90 365 0324 8, 242 pp. Aside of abstracts of 33 contributions in workshops this book includes an introduction by the editors, A.G.M. van Melsen, T.F. Torrance, M. Bloemendal, A. Gierer, W. Weidlich, J.C. Polkinghorne, W.B. Drees, J. Van der Veken, O. Pedersen, J.R. Durant, J. Hübner and G. Vahanian.

Loccum 1986
The First European Conference on Science and Religion was held 13-16 March 1986 in Loccum, Germany, in collaboration with the Evangelische Akademie Loccum, on on “Evolution and Creation”. Presentations were published in Evolution and Creation: A European Perspective, eds. S. Andersen, A. Peacocke. Aarhus Univ.Press, 1987. ISBN 87 7288 114 3. 215 pp. Contributions from John Durrant, Karl Schmitz-Moormann, Carsten Bresch, Bernd-Olaf Küppers, Diether Sperlich, Gerhard Vollmer, Wolfgang Lipp, Gerrit Manenschijn, Jürgen Hübner, Arthur Peacocke, Per Lønning, Philip Hefner, Sigurd Daecke, David Pailin, Viggo Mortensen and Hans May.