Star of Bethlehem Skepticism in the News

As per my yearly tradition of pushing my work on the Star of Bethlehem (as if it were some War on Christmas or something), I was able to get my message out and how it is presented in my book. This year, I had the chance to be on podcast-style forums.

First up is Slooh, an astronomy webcast that combines live telescope feeds and astronomically-informed guests. Just a few days before Christmas they had a show (well-promoted at on about the Bethlehem Star and had a few guests, including Fr. James Kurzynski from the Vatican Observatory and Bob Berman from Slooh (and the person who wrote the foreword to my book). I make a good appearance on the show as well in the latter third. I recommend listening/watching the whole broadcast.

In addition, Bob Berman used his own podcast, Strange Universe, to promote my book.

And that’s just the promotions in the US! In German, my research and appearances on Slooh at my previous talk at Cologne are all up for reading/viewing thanks to Daniel Fischer. He makes me feel like a traveling wise man 🙂


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Blood Moons, the End of the World, and the Star of Bethlehem

Tonight I hope you can get the chance to look up and see a very good lunar eclipse, where the Moon will be in the shadow of the Earth and take on a dreadful hue of orange and red. It will also be during a so-called “super moon” in that the Moon is at the closest point of its normal orbit to the Earth and will appear somewhat larger. While not necessarily rare, it is surely going to be a good show for the night.

And this lunar eclipse is going to top off a tetrad of lunar eclipses, that is where you have four lunar eclipses in a row that are about six months apart. This is also an uncommon astronomical coincidence, but it has happened numerous times in the past. Some centuries have had eight such tetrads, while others have had none.

But in numerous religious circles, in particular evangelical ones, this has been getting associated with the End Times. It seems that just about anything can be said to herald the apocalypse, from the fuzzy math of Harold Camping back in 2011, the abominable abuse of the Maya calendar for 2012, and so on, and so on, and so on… Perhaps then it shouldn’t be surprising that the Bloom Moon Prophecy of folks like pastor John Hagee are making the rounds. Fortunately, astronomer and skeptic Stuart Robbins has done the hard work of looking into these tetrads and how they are not so special, nor have they really related well to previous end times or bad times predictions (see here and here). The connection to the Jewish calendar is also not that surprising or special because the Jewish calendar is based on the phases of the moon (technically, a luni-solar calendar), so being surprised of having a lunar eclipse during a Jewish holiday is like being surprised of having the solstice near the 21st of December–it’s a feature, not a bug.

But what I was more surprised about was that now the Star of Bethlehem has been getting roped into this prophecy. How can a star from over 2000 years ago (and a magical one at that) have anything to do with what is happening in the skies today? Continue reading

Will the Sacred Save Us from our own Reason?

I came across an article on the blog Science on Religion a little bit ago, and it made the argument about how powerfully destructive human reasoning can be. With our brains we humans have figured out great ways to ravage the land with ever-increasing efficiency and has pushed us to the environmental limits. Unmitigated, self-serving rationality can be destructive.

The solution? The need for certain cultural axioms, assumed without or beyond reason, in particular the notion of the sacred. If it is taboo to say or do a certain thing, then your create an automatic cultural brake towards all sorts of potentially detrimental behaviors. Without these cultural axioms, all sorts of doom can be expected.

While thoughtfully written, with a few swipes at New Atheists and IFLS that seemed more obligatory than insightful, it left us to beg the question: which axioms or sacred beliefs? Because it seems that the author (a PhD candidate at Boston University) already has a set of goals in mind, which means he wants there to be some particular sacred beliefs in place. Not just any. Which is very much the case because some sacred beliefs would count exactly contrary to his own goals of planetary preservation.

There has been a fair bit of opposition to environmentalism by American Protestants, and that has been the case for quite some time. That seems to be in part because of the belief among some that it is the sacred duty to use all of the resources of the earth, that they were placed here for a purpose. The notion of “subduing the earth” is supposed to be derived from Genesis, and that this was in part a reason for a lack of Christian support for the environmental movement was argued by L.J. White (1967) “The historical roots of our ecological crisis”, Science 155:1203-7. Much research has gone into this question, and it is still generally the case that some of the loudest opponents to combating climate change invoke biblical reasoning. So it seems that the cultural axiom of “subduing the earth” for its natural treasures is leading to exactly the sorts of doom that pure reason was supposed to have done.

So how are we supposed to get the right cultural axioms? If reason is off the table, we are left with what, religious authorities? Straight-up priestcraft? This sounds more like snobbish elitism trying to control the (reasonable?) masses.

Moreover, since all cultural groups, religious or otherwise, are going to have their own notions of the sacred or what constitute their cultural axioms, how do they figure out what to do when those cultures interact? How does the environmental/hippie culture deal with the slash-and-burn earth-subduers? Another holy war or two? Because if reasoning cannot decide, then what is left besides violence (a point made in part by Hector Avalos in Fighting Words)?

All of this is premised on what seems to be an absurd position, that pure reason has only one goal and cares not for the consequences. It also fails to understand that reason is motivated by what we already value, and we can have conflicting values. Obviously we want to have nice things, but we also notice the negative side effects. I want chocolate cake, but I want to lose weight. I want to have a car, but I don’t want to contribute to eventual sea level rise. How do we find the right path? Well, shouldn’t we be reflecting on it and seeing what appears to be the best way forward? Shouldn’t we be using … reason?

Moreover, reasoning is the common currency we can use across cultures. It’s about finding common beliefs and goals and then using logic and evidence to get the globally desired result. Cultural axioms fail to do that for the very defining fact that they are culturally relative and not cross-cultural. That isn’t to say the process gets us to where we want in a timely or efficient manner. Humans tend to stink at the process, and our own tribalism gets in the way. We tend to use our reasoning all too often as rationalization for our sectarian beliefs or goals. That is rather apparent in the news with the Kim Davis court battles and her specious arguments for religious freedom to not do her constitutional duties. Her supposedly sacred beliefs and bad reasons are getting in the way. (And remember, the marriage debate only moved forward because we said the current definition of marriage wasn’t uncompromisingly sacred but was relative and malleable as it historically has been.)

The solution isn’t more balkinization of beliefs, it’s being better reasoners and defrocking bad arguments and political stances. It doesn’t matter what is the sacred belief because of the consequences of her actions. Making the marriage debate a taboo is simply to undermine justice and freedom.

Now, it is true that pure reason cannot tell us what our values ought to be. Reasoning needs premises. We might find out we have stored up in our heads inconsistent premises (which is almost certainly the case for all of us), but it is from there we winnow out a more consistent position. From this we do our meta-ethics. Not from fist-pounding at some alter of the sacred, bestowed with power by mere say-so.

Using Science to Find the Meaning of Life (For Free)

When you think of deep, philosophical questions, the one that is probably the most quintessential is “What is the meaning of life?” At the very least, we want to know what makes our own lives meaningful or have purpose. While religious institutions have for centuries tried to provide the structure to give answer to that question, it seems like it is not working for many people today, given the drop-out rate in the US, not to mention the secularization of many other modern nations. There have been plenty of spiritualist movements that you can point to that do the same. Heck, even Ancient Aliens is really about that as well with its mix of “science”, “history”, Theosophy, and New Agerism.

On the other hand, science is often considered to be separate from values, so it’s hard to say in any way that science could tell us what is the purpose of our existence. That’s not correct from the research I have seen because science can tell us what does and doesn’t work towards living a fulfilling life. And fortunately, that academic study isn’t tucked away in a corner. Recently Gleb Tsipursky at Ohio State (who I have met and conversed with) has done a lot of work to do research-based workshops on helping people find that elusive sense of purpose. He now has a book to do the same, and I was fortunate to get a copy earlier. I like its approach since it also follows my own educational philosophies, and it is clearly following the consensus of the best knowledge we currently have on what makes people happy and fulfilled. That includes forms of meditation, though you hardly need to be a Buddhist to do it.

The book, Find Your Purpose Using Science, was crowd-supported and now up on Amazon, and for the next few days it’s free for Kindle/digital download. I found the book interesting in its use of not just scientific research but also some insights from how the Soviet nations were able to find meaning even though my own image of the communist regime is covered in the bleakest of greys. The book also not dryly written nor is it filled with platitudes. If you have a copy, compare it to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Drive Life and see how different Gleb’s approach is and how more universal and useful it should be. (Of course, I would also recommend Robert M. Price’s response to Warren’s book, The Reason Driven Life).

The free book offer is only for a few days, but even after it should be worth the price. While I would claim that my life feels meaningful right now, I think I can use the exercises in there to get even more out of life. Why not?

Then again, you could get the answer to it all at the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Then again, know your place in the world

Thanks again, Gleb, for the copy of the book. I hoping to make my personal insights a little more intentional. 😉

Did the Universe Begin, and How? (Interview)

I recently had the pleasure of having an interview/conversation on the subject of Big Bang Cosmology and the implications for the universe having an absolute beginning. The question is also wrapped up with theistic claims that a god is a necessary precursor to the universe (or not). Also, some will argue that the Big Bang is just the scientists’ way of avoiding the conclusion that God made everything.

Now, some details of the very early (observable) universe are well-understood. Other parts aren’t. Also, theoretical arguments can be very technical and the limitations are sometimes misconstrued to reach some conclusion.

So, in this talk I get to dive into those issues, along with talking about my work and research on science explaining the Star of Bethlehem. You can listen using this link here or watching this YouTube video.

I want to thank Taylor Carr for the opportunity to have this chat, along with his work getting it up and ready for everyone. We may have another chance to do the same sort of thing in the future, so let him know if that’s a good idea. If you don’t, well… you don’t have to tell anyone.

Has the Star of Bethlehem Returned to the Skies Tonight?

There have been plenty of media stories about the wonderfully close approach of the planets Venus and Jupiter in the skies, reaching conjunction on June 30th. But it hasn’t just been the beauty of the configuration of these planets that has been getting people interested. As has been noted in many places, this sort of close-approach of these two planets (and near the star Regulus) is in many ways a re-creation of the skies in 3-2 BCE and has been proposed as the real Star of Bethlehem. This hypothesis is what underlies the popular Star of Bethlehem documentary, which I have explained in detail elsewhere.

While fantastic to see, it doesn’t fit the timeline of Jesus’ birth in any canonical gospel, it doesn’t fit the description of the Star from the Gospel of Matthew, and there isn’t any evidence that it was astrologically auspicious or indicative of change specifically in Judea. But it then again, it is lovely to see in the sky, and the planets were even closer back in 2 BCE.

I don’t have great optics for night-time photography of the sky, so here is what I did with my smart phone and some Instagram. Lots of better pictures are out there, but if you can check out to the west just after sunset (which is when I took this picture in Michigan) and see the planets for yourself.

And of course, if you want a better understand of what the Star of Bethlehem was (and wasn’t), you all should know a resource I can recommend (here). Happy sky watching!

The Country is a Little More Equal Now #LoveWins

Legally-recognized gay marriage is now the in the USA. There are still things that need to be done for gay and trans rights and respect, but at least this significant step has been taken. I wish it were not a split 5-4 decision but something stronger, but beggars can’t be choosers. For now, we can say that indeed, it has gotten better.

Gay pride flags are going up, and racist flags are coming down. The progress is slow and sometimes very painful, but we can point to progress. #itgetsbetter

Little Pyramid(iots) on Mars… Again

Everyone knows about the so-called Face on Mars, and in the same general area (Cydonia) of the Red Planet there are objects some have called pyramids on Mars. Better resolutions images demonstrate that there really was no monumental face on Mars, and the pyramidal structures are most likely caused by prevailing winds that erode the sides of mountains or some other directional eroding forces as seen on Earth (cf. Matterhorn).

But there seems to be a new pyramid in town, captured by the Curiosity Rover. The claim that we may have here some artificial structure seems to have first appeared on, though basing it on a YouTube video, and has been spreading to other, more popular websites. All I can say is, “really? This is exciting?”

First off, from this one image you can’t even say it’s pyramidal in shape. The back side that is unseen could be rounded or otherwise out of the needed shape. We also don’t know about the shape of the rock under the sand. Lastly, with the shadow I can’t really tell that the dark side is flat or not. Even calling it a pyramid cannot be fully justified.

Also, look at the scale here. It was captured not too far away from the Mars rover, and other rocks in the background and foreground give you an idea of how large the “pyramid” is. Mind you, the Rover itself at its highest is about seven feet above the ground, and the base of the rover is about two feet above. These are rocks that the rover could potentially drive over but will probably be avoided.

But that hasn’t stopped the wild speculation. It’s being suggested as either some sort of land marker for directional purposes or the top of some much larger structure, the top of a pyramid. If it’s a marker, then it’s a bad design since it fails to be larger than the surrounding rocks and thus impossible to be distinguished by a traveler. And supposing there is some large pyramid underneath the soil is just groundless (*pun intended*) speculation.

It seems we have speculation built upon seeing what we want to see. The person that made the original video also found the head of Obama on Mars. It doesn’t seem like that much a resemblance to me, but perhaps all black people look the same to this person? Come on, man! #BlackRocksMatter

Still, what are the chances of finding such a rock of this size on Mars? Given the millions of such objects and the millions of ways a picture could be taken to given the appearances of pyramidal shapes, not to mention the pattern-seeking ways of the human mind, it seems like a pretty darn close to 100%. A pyramidal rock just isn’t that strange a thing to exist (eg., here). Heck, after a little bit of looking, and I see that a pyramidal rock was found on Mars by Curiosity back in 2012! But in this case, you can see it’s not smooth on all sides and almost certainly a natural formation (the person in that link saying it looks “melted” on one side really should take a look at lava).

Looks like we have a combo of pareidolia and pyramidiocy.

The Climate Change Encyclical: The Pope, The Warming, And the Ugly

As has been first leaked and then officially released, the vicar of Christ published an encyclical about taking action on climate change, in particular making it a moral issue. Reading the long document from the Vatican, it tries to lay out a response in showing a growing precedent in papal concerns about the environment as well as the morality of the use of natural resources to destructive ends for short-term gains. Some of the most interesting quotes on that point came from Pope John Paul II, such as the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology” (italics in original).

The production of this statement hasn’t been a surprise, and conservative voices in America had already been making statements about how the Pope should keep out of this debate. As well stated by The Onion: Frustrated Republicans Argue Pope Should Leave Science To Scientists Who Deny Climate Change. The irony is also very strong because Pope Francis has training in the natural sciences, namely as a chemical technician (but not a Masters in chemistry as has been reported, as noted by Forbes).

However, because of the nature of the response by the Vatican to take up the challenge of combating climate change, it may do more to polarize than the advance the conversation. The biggest issue with the acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is a political and psychological one, in that the acceptance of man-made climate change goes against the moral feelings of deniers. It suggests that standard free enterprise and industrial work is a negative force and requires something like government regulation or communal forces to undermine free trade. So no wonder Fox News voices are calling the Pope “dangerous” among other things. Then again, I have to imagine that so long as millions of people feel that someone like the Pope has the moral high ground it will be hard to put all of that cognitive dissonance aside. What the future will hold when it comes to public opinion on the reality of climate change and how to respond to it we will have to wait and see.

As for how to respond to it, things like carbon taxes and other market-based approaches certainly appear to be viable ways to go forward without abandoning basic capitalism–and really, it doesn’t undermine capitalism at all since it is forcing polluters to actually pay for the damage they cause and have prices reflect it (see externalities). However, other ways to combat the problem appear to have run against some points of Catholic dogma. As Lawrence Krauss notes, the encyclical doesn’t allow for dealing with population growth (see paragraph 50 of the encyclical). While it is certainly true that even without population growth the fact that poorer people want to have and will access more technology that produces carbon dioxide (be that cars or machines that have to be built and thus contributed to global warming, or the greater demand for meat) obviously having still more people wanting the same can only accelerate this issue. Also, demanding that we be less of consumers (paragraph 206) and it seems to be a part of a larger woe about technology and commerce. It is then less surprising that the encyclical saying nothing about discovering new energy sources and instead a call for less demand and more efficiency (192) and even some poo-pooing nuclear power (184), which may be one of the avenues we must take to reduce carbon emissions and still keep the lights on.

On the other hand, are the particulars for how the Pope wants to combat climate change really going to have an effect? The real point of the coverage of this story is the fact that the faith leader of over 1 billion people is calling for action on this serious issue, and it is that soundbite that will have any chance of resonating. The worst that I can expect is what will happen with Protestant response and how that could get into battles of biblical exegesis. Plenty of Christians have tried to say that the Bible tells them to subdue the world and make it work for humankind. Others want to highlight the aspect of environmental stewardship. I will be curious to see how that debate goes.

Bottom line: the papal call for environmental action is more likely to help in the long run, but I can expect to see a lot of push-back from the powers that be who want to maintain the status quo. For me, I’m onboard the Francis train.

Galileo the Nonbeliever?

When someone mentions Galileo, one of the first things to come to mind is his fight with the Catholic Church about the motions of the Earth and the centrality of the Sun. The Galileo Affair has been one of the keystones on those arguing that science and religion tend to (or naturally) come into conflict. Many historians have rightly contextualized the events, pointing out the political and personal levels that brought the great Italian scientist before the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for promoting the theories of Copernicus. Also a big part of the contextualization has been to show how Galileo was a devout man, a Catholic, and had no wish to fight religion but if anything better understand it and the Bible.

However, a recent biography by historian David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, has an intriguing argument to change this stance that has been a consensus position for centuries. Wootton notes that plenty of less than pious figures in this time would display affirmations of belief and the necessary genuflections, but privately they could be skeptical of various dogmas. There were obvious social repercussions to publicly speaking against the Mother Church or the Christian faith more broadly. The example of Giordano Bruno is an obvious case of what happens when one publicly denies the divinity of Christ. So there is some degree that Wootton has to make his position an argument from silence: a lack of piety or mention of religious matters in the voluminous surviving writings of Galileo. On its own, that may be curious but hardly compelling.

However, Wootton has a particular avenue for arguing his new position. Continue reading