Ian Ramsey Centre

Religion, Society, and the Science of Life, 2017 IRC-ISSR Conference, Oxford, 19-22 July

There will never be a Newton for the blade of grass,” Kant wrote in 1784, a quarter-century before the birth of Charles Darwin, and less than a half-century before the first synthesis of an organic compound in a laboratory. Philosophies, theories, and theologies of humans, animals, and nature were built on this fundamental exclusion of life from science.

But contemporary biology has changed the rules of engagement between life and science. Life is now not only mapped down to the level of the genome, it is cut, copied, manufactured, fine-tuned, and CRISPRed. Life has become not just an object of science, but the raw material of new technology. And yet, although the science of life is shaped by assumptions developed through the study of inanimate things, life is an object of science like no other. A single cell contains an entire world. Even in a post-vitalist era, the biologist G.G. Simpson has proposed that the esoteric secret ingredient of life is real: the hypercomplexity of eukaryotic organisms. This is why the science of life is distinctive among the sciences in its methods, using history, narrative, and teleological terms and explanations. Moreover, the extraordinary complexity of the science of life presents unique challenges for pedagogy and public dialogue.

What are the implications of the incorporation of life into science—for religion, values, morality, and meaning? What are the philosophical, theological, and theoretical implications of life’s special status among the objects of science? What does the animalising of the human mean for the framing of human (or nonhuman) religion and societies? What is the religious and theological significance of nonhuman life—whether animal or xenobiological? Do theories of the evolutionary origins of religion help us better understand it in its political and spiritual dimensions? Are organisms made up of basic biological components, and how do those components interact in a dynamic relationship with the whole organism and the environment? Does biology shed light on how we experience? What are the implications of a conversation between biology and the humanities for thinking on culture, identity, sexuality, and society? Are biology and technology on a continuum, or are there breaks in the order of nature? How does the science of life open up new relationships with other humans, other species, and the planet?


Samantha Frost, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Massimo Pigliucci, City University of New York
Ullica Segerstrale, Illinois Institute of Technology
Rebecca Stott, University of East Anglia


Ottoline Leyser, University of Cambridge
Michael Ruse, Florida State University
Fraser Watts, University of Lincoln


Alister McGrath, University of Oxford
Michael Reiss, University of London  



All those wishing to attend the conference are invited to register as soon as possible via:

Oxford University online shop:

The basic registration fee £130 [standard] / £95 [students] includes a simple lunch, tea and coffee for each day.

Online registration also offers the following options to purchase accommodation and meals at St Anne's College:

(1) Book a room at St Anne’s College, Oxford, arriving Wed 19 July, departing Sun 23 July in the morning. This option includes the cost of all the dinners during the conference; or

(2) Purchase individual dinners only, without accommodation.


Call for papers

Short papers are invited on topics relevant to the conference themes, to be delivered in parallel sessions of 30 minutes duration (20-minute paper, 10 minutes discussion). Those wishing to contribute a paper should submit a title, a 300-word abstract that situates the paper against its scholarly backdrop, and institutional affiliation by email to irc.admin@theology.ox.ac.uk with the subject line:

“Religion, Society, and the Science of Life Abstract”

Closing date for abstract submissions: Friday, 28 April 2017 (EXTENDED TO WED 3 MAY)

Notification of acceptance: Wednesday, 10 May 2017

For questions on paper submissions, please contact donovan.schaefer@theology.ox.ac.uk.


Outline Timetable (to be filled in as information becomes available)

Wed 19 July 

2:00pm Registration opens
6:00pm Reception
6:30pm Dinner
8:00pm PLENARY: 

Thu 20 July

8:00am Breakfast
9:00am Free time
10:30am Coffee and tea break
11:00am PLENARY
12:30pm Free time
1:00pm Lunch
2:00pm Short papers I (3x4)
4:00pm Coffee and tea break
4:30pm PLENARY
6:00pm Free time
6:30pm Dinner

Fri 21 July

8:00am Breakfast
9:00am PLENARY
10:30am Coffee and tea break
11:00am Short papers II (3x4)
1:00pm Lunch
2:00pm PLENARY
3:30pm Coffee and tea break
4:30pm Free time
6:30pm Dinner

Sat 22 July

8:00am Breakfast
9:00am PLENARY
10:30am Coffee and tea break
11:00am Short papers III (3x4)
1:00pm Lunch
2:00pm Short papers IV (3x3)
3:30pm Coffee and tea break
4:30pm PLENARY
6:00pm Reception
7:00pm Final conference dinner

Sun 23 July

8:00am Breakfast
10:00am All rooms vacated