Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

ScienceTeller 2019 Programme


Headlined by bestselling American science writers Mary Roach and Michael Shermer ScienceTeller 2019 features the latest research and thought on the human drive to ponder, speculate, and proselytize about life after death.
In addition,  some of the leading scholars in the field will share fascinating new research about the psychology of afterlife beliefs. If you’ve ever wondered about how children think about life after death, what the evolutionary “function” of a belief in eternal reward or punishment might be, or why the concept of an endless soul is common around the world, you’ve come to the right place!
We know what you’re thinking. What about that big existential question: “Is There Life After Death?” In a spirited debate, arch-skeptic Michael Shermer matches wits with cognitive scientist Justin Barrett of the Fuller Theological Seminary to try and sway you one way or the other.
There will be plenty of other spectral surprises, too, including a special screening of an episode from the hit TVNZ 2 television series Wellington Paranormal, followed by a chance to talk with some of those involved with the production of the show.

Friday 12 April 2019


First Keynote: Mary Roach

Science Writer Mary Roach Tackles the Afterlife (A Discussion with Jesse Bering)

“What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that’s that―the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?”

In an attempt to find out, bestselling author Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die.

Saturday 13 April 2019

Panel Session 1: Kids, Death, and the Afterlife (Developmental Perspectives)


Professor Deb Kelemen (Boston University)

Children’s Intuitions About Life Everlasting

Spirits are everywhere. In nearly every culture, mythologies and religious beliefs abound that speak of disembodied souls that persist after death, populate nature, send us signs, and influence our lives. But where do these beliefs come from?

One standard answer is that they are simply products of cultural learning; they derive from the narratives that societies tell and re-tell to each generation. However, Deb Kelemen’s research for the last 25 years has pursued another possibility: Perhaps such beliefs recur because of the way our minds are naturally inclined to reason about the world. If that is so, young children should display intuitions about everlasting souls even when thinking about situations for which their culture has no stories. And, indeed, it turns out that from urban cities to indigenous Amazonia, children endorse notions of life everlasting–and not just in the afterlife. Children intuit that their own minds existed before they were even conceived.


Professor Virginia Slaughter (University of Queensland)

How Modern Children Learn About Death

Over the last centuries, decreases in infant and child mortality, urbanization and increases in health care efficacy have reduced children’s personal exposure to death and dying. So how do children acquire accurate conceptions of death in this context?

In this talk, developmental psychologist Virginia Slaughter discusses three sources of children’s learning about death and dying, namely, direct experience of death, parental communication about death, and portrayals of death in media and the arts.


Associate Professor Jesse Bering (University of Otago)

The Invisible Woman in the Room

A common feature of supernatural agents, including ghosts, is the presumed presence of a mind without a physical body. That is, they are invisible. And since they lack bodies, we can’t reason about what’s on their minds by inferring things from their overt behaviors, facial expressions, or words. Instead, we perceive the dead as communicating with us through symbolic events. “What does this mean?” we may find ourselves asking when the emotional climate is just right. “What is she trying to tell me?”

In this talk, psychologist Jesse Bering describes the “Princess Alice studies,” a series of experiments in which children are told that a friendly invisible woman is in the room and trying to make contact with them. At what age, Bering asks, are children cognitively advanced enough to be superstitious, attributing deeper meaning to anomalous events?

11:00-11:45am Q&A with panel members Kelemen, Slaughter, and Bering (Moderator: Associate Professor Will Sweetman, Religious Studies.

11:45am-12:30pm Lunch Break
12:30-1:30pm Wellington Paranormal screening featuring Q&A with series producer Paul Yates

Panel Session 2: Built to Believe? (Evolutionary Perspectives)


Associate Professor Azim Shariff (University of British Columbia)

The Invention of Hell

Figuring out how to harmoniously cooperate has been the central challenge of human societies. Enforcement of moral norms—that is, punishment—has been a critical feature for enabling this cooperation. The belief in supernatural punishment may have thus emerged as a valuable cultural idea—one that contributed to the success of both the religions and societies it was attached to.

Drawing on psychological and sociological evidence, Shariff argues that the belief in Hell and other forms of punitive morally-dependent afterlives were innovations that allowed us to cooperate in larger and larger groups.


Professor Jamin Halberstadt (University of Otago)

Implicit fear of Ghosts and the Meaning of "Belief"

People vary in their understanding of death, and none of us knows what, if anything, lies beyond it. Yet many of us – possibly all of us – behave as though we do. People are, for example, reluctant to sell their soul for cash even if they don’t believe they have a soul, and are careful to speak well of the dead, even when they don’t think the dead know the difference.

In this talk, Jamin Halberstadt, an expert in social and religious cognition, discusses cases in which people’s emotions, decisions, and morality are shaped by an afterlife they disavow, and what such phenomena might mean for the nature of belief itself.


Professor Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland)

The Evolution of Sacrifice and the Afterlife

Sacrifice of time, goods, animals or even human life are among the most widespread and puzzling aspects of religion and are intimately connected with beliefs about the afterlife. Why do people make sacrifices, what possible function could they perform, and why do they so frequently involve the afterlife? Psychologist Quentin Atkinson has built a career around applying methods and theory from evolutionary biology to test ideas about the evolution of human culture, including religion.

In this talk he maps out the diverse ways people around the globe use sacrifice to shape their fortunes in this life and the next. He then presents work using computer models of evolution to infer how such a diversity of forms could have arisen and what function they might perform for individuals and their groups.


Q&A with panel members Shariff, Halberstadt, and Atkinson (Moderator: Associate Professor Benjamin Schonthal, Religious Studies)

3:00-4:00pm Debate “Is There Life After Death?”
Michael Shermer (“Very Likely Not”) vs. Justin Barrett (“Very Likely Yes”)
Moderator: Professor Gregory Dawes, Religious Studies

Sunday 14 April 2019

Panel Session 3: Hard Not to Believe (Cognitive Perspectives)


Joshua Jackson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

To Be Immortal, Do Good or Evil

Is the human soul immortal? Many people believe that it is, but less is known about which souls get to be immortal and how they live on after death. Social psychologist Joshua Conrad Jackson argues that both religious and non-religious people intuitively view good and evil souls as more likely to survive death than morally neutral souls.

Good and evil souls appear to persist after death in folktales, rituals, and in people’s perceptions of historical figures—Attila the Hun is seen to be more immortal than Amelia Earhart. People also report “feeling” good and evil souls more than morally neutral souls in an experimental séance. Nevertheless, good and evil souls are perceived to persist in very different ways: good souls transcend physical location whereas evil souls are bound to specific places such as caves or forests.

These simple intuitions may underlie a wide range of afterlife beliefs, explaining everything from our belief in hell to our fear of haunted houses.


Professor Justin Barrett (Fuller Theological Seminary)

Why Ideas about Ghosts are Common, Believable, but Rarely Important Parts of Theological Systems

Ideas about ghosts, spirits, ancestors, and other forms of afterlife beliefs appear in almost every cultural context. Setting aside whether these beliefs are true, features of how human minds typically work may make such beliefs fairly natural for individuals and almost inevitable for human groups. And yet, only occasionally to they occupy central places in formalized religions or theological systems.

In fact, afterlife beliefs of laypeople commonly deviate from the orthodoxy of religions. This presentation suggests reasons why this is and identifies strategies for scientific research concerning this apparent disconnect.


Dr Natasha Tassell-Matamua (Massey University)

Near-death Experiences and Afterlife Beliefs

Although afterlife beliefs prevail across time and cultural contexts, few people can with any certainty lay claim to knowing exactly what happens at the time of death and once the physical body has ceased to function. Yet, those who have had a near-death experience (NDE) are an exception. Often reported by those who have suffered critical incidents where they ‘nearly’ died, NDEs are profound psychological occurrences involving the transcendence of space, time, and perceptual boundaries. Many who have them claim to understand what happens during the dying process and in the ‘afterlife’. This presentation will briefly overview the phenomenology of NDEs and discuss how this might influence afterlife beliefs in those who have had an NDE.


Q&A with panel members Jackson, Barrett and Tassell-Matamua (Moderator: Dr. John Shaver, Religious Studies)


Lunch Break


Second Keynote: Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer’s Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia

Bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality by radical life extentionists, extropians, transhumanists, cryonicists, and mind-uploaders, along with utopians who have attempted to create heaven on earth.

For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, the place where souls go after the death of the physical body.

Religious leaders have toiled to make sense of this place that a surprising percentage of people believe exists, but from which no one has ever returned to report what it is really like. Shermer concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and what we can do in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.


Hosted by the University of Otago
Centre for Science Communication

Spread the word