The Northern Plains Ethics Institute is seeking Spring 2019 presentations for the long running, town-gown Science, Religion, and Lunch Seminars (SRLS).  If you would like to showcase your talents, research, or thoughtful contemplations in natural or social science, religion, or the combination of the two to a new audience, then we would love to hear from you.

SRLS fosters thoughtful, accessible dialogues on religion or science, with a special focus on the intersection between the two.  Presenters take the seminar’s first 40 minutes to develop their ideas for the diverse town and gown audience, and then answer questions for 20 minutes, or until we get kicked out of the room.

If you are interested in giving a seminar, then please contact Syed Ahmed at or Dennis Cooley at

The Seminars are held between 12:00pm and 1pm every other Tuesday of the semester. Each presentation may take up to 40 minutes of the hour, with the remaining 20 minutes devoted to questions and comments from the audience. This fall’s seminars are to be held in the Memorial Union, NDSU Campus. See the listing for the exact room.

If interested, then please send a title and a short abstract to  If you know of someone you think would be a good presenter, then please pass that contact information on to us.

Here are the dates and schedule for Spring 2019. We have one spot left open on March 5th:

22-Jan-19 MU Room of Nations Arthur Turner Agnosticism, Atheism, and Morality: An observation and critique of the promises and threats in Christianity
5-Feb-19 MU Room of Nations Ron Gaul New Atheism: A Critique by way of Marxian Materialism and Scientific Skepticism
19-Feb-19 MU Room of Nations Clay Routledge The Quest for Meaning in Secular America
5-Mar-19 MU Room of Nations Clayton Hilmert Physiological Reactivity Research and Health
19-Mar-19 MU Room of Nations Anne Denton Science vs. Morality
2-Apr-19 MU Room of Nations David Pretty Your Life, Your Type…Live It!
16-Apr-19 MU Room of Nations Mike Christoffers Bioethics of Gene Drives
30-Apr-19 MU Room of Nations Claudia Tomany  TBA

To give you some idea of how deep and wide the SRLS’s range is, I’ve included our speakers and topics from Spring 2018’s outstanding offerings:

Jane Schuh No Rømmegrøt for You! Controversies over Gluten-Free Diets
Tony Flood René Girard on Violence, Religion, and the Social Order
Keith Donohue Learning about Human Variation: Lessons from Psychology’s Replication Crisis
Walt Clinton Is Skepticism Compatible with Christianity? (Cancelled due to MU closure.)
Clayton Hilmert What is Mindfulness Materialism and is it Bad for You?
Katie Gordon When Science & Religion Meet in Mental Health Care
John Helgeland How to Have a Constructive Conversation about Religion
Mark Chekola Happiness/Well-Being Studies

One of our presenters was asked to be continue the conversation started at SRLS as part of a podcast in Rochester, NY!

First presentation of the Spring Semester:

Arthur Turner

NDSU Student

Agnosticism, Atheism, and Morality: An observation and critique of the promises and threats in Christianity

12-1pm, January 22, 2019

Room of Nations, Memorial Union


The purpose of any critique is to discover flaws with the goal to make a subject of study better.  A critique comes from more than just logic, it can be inspired by gut feeling that something could be better.

In this presentation I will try to communicate clearly by defining my terms, as well as how I arrive to conclusions that many others will arrive to differently.

By critiquing Christianity I can break free of the threats and promises to then explore options that may present a more humanitarian outcome.

SRLS fosters thoughtful, accessible dialogues on religion or science, with a special focus on the intersection between the two.  Presenters take the seminar’s first forty minutes to develop their ideas for the diverse town and gown audience, and then answer questions for 20 minutes, or until we get kicked out of the room.

Second presentation of the Spring Semester:

Ron Gaul

New Atheism:

A Critique by way of Marxian Materialism and Scientific Skepticism

12-1pm, February 5, 2019

Room of Nations, Memorial Union

Abstract: In the mid-2000s, a new form of atheistic polemic hit the world stage. It came by way of the works of the scientists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, social and political critic Christopher Hitchens, and many others. I come to this topic as a layman, and a longtime student of Marx’s materialist philosophy as outlined in his writings in the 1840s. I will also apply scientific skepticism, as defined by scientist and humanist advocate, Carl Sagan, who coined the term, yet its methodology predates him.

The critique will center on three aspects of New Atheism: idealism, scientism, and pseudo-science. The scope of this paper, while broad, doesn’t touch on the political questions that that often get embroiled with New Atheism. There are arguments that can be made from a leftist perspective against New Atheism’s pro-capitalist, racist, and misogynist characteristics. These debates are best handled in political fora. Using Marx as a philosophical guide certainly touches a political nerve, but no specific invocations on class struggle are needed in this article to make use of his historical materialism. New Atheism also introduces scientism into its debate with religion. It takes the form of dismissing philosophy as a serious intellectual pursuit.The third component of my argument, concludes that New Atheists engage in science denialism in regards to infantilizing, and pathologizing religious belief, on top of dismissing social-psychological research in the role of religion in society. This is especially egregious New Atheism purports to excel in scientific analysis.

This presentation is not meant to deny, apologize for, belittle, or otherwise delegitimize those who suffer from, or have survived, physical and/or emotional abuses in any religious institution, or from any extremist theology. Examples of this dominate our news on nearly a daily basis. My point is to show that belief in a deity, or any supernatural force alone, does not ordain any crimes and travesties from the get go. Any closed organization or society runs this danger, (e.g., the military, penal institutions, etc.), and a separate social-psychological phenomenon is at play in that instance.

Bio:  Ron Gaul was born and raised in LA. Radicalized as a communist and atheist at the tender young age of 13. He took a sabbatical years later and delved into Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism, which he still studies. Now he trains in Aikido, studies the post-Soviet implications of historical materialism, as well as the features of emerging post-religious thought and religious deconstructivism. Now retired, he is an older retired dad of a 9 year old, and nanny to his 3 year old brother from another father.

Third presentation of the Spring Semester:

Clay Routledge, Ph.D.
Health/Social Psychology

The Quest for Meaning in Secular America

12-1pm, February 19, 2019

Room of Nations, Memorial Union

Abstract: Social and behavioral science has long linked religious beliefs and practices to the need for meaning in life. For instance, religiosity is positively correlated with perceptions of meaning in life, experiences that threaten meaning increase religious belief and commitment, and religious individuals are better able than their nonreligious counterparts to maintain perceptions of meaning when facing life stressors and uncertainties. However, Americans are becoming less religious. This secularization trend poses important questions concerning people’s efforts to find and sustain meaning. How are believers and nonbelievers similar and different in their approaches to the pursuit of meaning? Do increasingly popular non-traditional spiritual beliefs successfully function as religious substitutes? Are Americans turning to political and other secular ideologies in their search for meaning? I will discuss these and related questions concerning the quest for meaning in secular America.

Bio:  Dr. Clay Routledge is a behavioral scientist, writer, and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. Much of his work focuses on the human need to find and maintain meaning in life. More specifically, his research examines individual differences in the need for meaning, the underlying cognitive processes involved in meaning-making, the different ways people seek and maintain meaning, and how the presence or absence of meaning influences health, wellbeing, self-control, and goal pursuit. Dr. Routledge is an award-winning scholar who has published over 100 academic papers and co-edited two books. He authored the books Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource and Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World.  He was also the lead author for the TED-Ed animated lesson Why Do We Feel Nostalgia? His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, John Templeton Foundation, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Charles Koch Foundation. Dr. Routledge writes a monthly column for Quillette and is an occasional columnist for The New York Times. His writing has also appeared in National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. He frequently serves as a public speaker and guest on popular podcasts and radio and television programs. His work is regularly featured in diverse media outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Men’s Health, Vox, Huffington Post, The Guardian, BBC News, CBS News, CBC News, and CNN. You can find out more about Dr. Routledge’s work at

Brad Morris’ Presentation from November 27th SRLS

Naturalism and Theism

Ethics of Drug Costs

Due to a large response from those attending, we are posting the presentation from Donald Miller. Click the title above to access his PowerPoint.

Donald Miller

Professor of

Pharmacy Practice

The Ethics of High Drug Prices

12-1pm, September 18, 2018

Room of Nations, Memorial Union

Abstract: The high cost of prescription medications is well known. In this presentation, I will give an overview of the problem, and discuss the complexity of the causes and proposed solutions. I will also focus on the consequences and ethical implications of high prices, and the blame shifting that various players use to deflect their own role in the problem.

Bio:  Donald Miller, Pharm.D. is a Professor of Pharmacy Practice at North Dakota State University. His teaching assignments include rheumatologic drug therapy, drug literature evaluation, complementary and alternative medicine, and public health.

Anne Denton


Computer Science

Richard Dawkins vs. Richard Dawkins: How the natural selection of memes supports religion

12-1pm, October 2, 2018

Room of Nations, Memorial Union

Abstract: One of Richard Dawkins’ most influential ideas was to argue that units of culture, which he termed memes, underlie evolutionary pressure much like genes. More recently, the study of “fictions”, as they are discussed, for example, in Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens”, has broadened the scope for examining elements of culture. Fictions can include entities as diverse as corporations, money, or deities. Using the logic of memetic evolution, we are led to conclude that the currently existing fictions must have a high level of evolutionary fitness to have survived. Ironically, this reasoning leads us to conclude that the religious fictions of the largest current religions are actually evolutionarily fitter than atheism, which has historically had few adherents. That is somewhat paradoxical, considering Dawkins’ advocacy for atheism and the inconsistencies between religious teachings and our scientific understanding of evolution. The talk will examine the implications of this paradox towards understanding religions, firebrand atheism, and the need for moral guidance that holds up beyond the boundaries of groups that define themselves through their fictions.

Bio:  Anne Denton is Professor in the Computer Science Department at North Dakota State University (NDSU). She received her Ph.D. in Physics from the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany, in 1996 and a M.S. in Computer Science from NDSU in 2003. Her research interests are in data mining of diverse scientific data sets that are too complex to be analyzed using classical statistics techniques. Denton has been involved in several interdisciplinary research projects including a multi-university, multi-disciplinary effort for mapping the wheat genome, and several smaller projects together with microbiology, geology, and coatings chemistry. Currently, she is working with collaborators in soil science, agricultural engineering, hydrology, and atmospheric science on projects that involve the climate impacts on agriculture, and that also include industry partners. This work prompted her to identify ethical concepts that are rigorous enough to steer future data science research. Denton has published more than 60 peer-reviewed journal and conference publications, and has led projects funded at a total of more than one million dollars.

Joel Hektner

Professor/Unit Head

Human Development and Family Science

Hektner Spirituality Religion Optimal Human Development

Click on title above to see Dr. Hektner’s presentation

Room of Nations, Memorial Union

Abstract: The past two decades have seen the rapid growth of positive psychology as a distinctive and respected area of study. I will review current theories and research in this area, with particular emphasis on human well-being and how people of all ages can develop in ways that maximize their well-being, individually and collectively. The dominant theoretical frameworks include spirituality as a component of well-being, and research has shown that participation in and belonging to religious communities are associated with greater well-being. I will explore these findings and invite discussion on whether and how nonbelievers can achieve the same level of benefits.

Bio:  Joel Hektner is a professor and department head of Human Development and Family Science at NDSU. He grew up in Wahpeton, ND, left home to go to Princeton for college and University of Chicago for graduate school, and eventually made it back to North Dakota in 2000 to join the NDSU faculty. His research has focused on preventing problems in childhood and adolescence through promoting social-emotional competence, well-being, and effective parenting. Recently, he taught an honors seminar on multidisciplinary perspectives on optimal human development, and it became one of his favorite courses to teach.