Upcoming talk at MIT

This Monday, February 27th, I will be giving a talk for the Secular Society of MIT as part of a lecture series they are starting called Course 0. This will be a part of helping people engage in critical thinking on the subjects of science, religion, secularism, and many intersecting cultural areas.

As is usual for me, this talk will highlight my research on the Star of Bethlehem, and because of that Christmas theme, that means people will be wearing the ugliest Christmas sweaters they can. I encourage it! This does appear to be a public event, so let’s see who all in the Greater Boston area wants to come. I’ll also have my book available. Details in the FB link here.

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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.

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.

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

The Star and the Skeptical Christmas–The Star of Bethlehem

The holidays are approaching fast, and the first snows are coming over the United States. The ever-expanding day of Christmas will truly be here soon. And all around the world, both preachers and even some scientists will be talking about a perennial subject: the Star of Bethlehem and what it could have been. Since the 1930s, planetaria the globe over have had presentations of what planet or exploding star could have been the famed light that brought wise men from the East to a lowly crib in a tiny town in Judea.

But can science really explain this celebrated celestial event? Is it something actually miraculous or a literary artifice? How can someone tell? Moreover, why is this a subject that draws both astronomers and theologians to ask these sorts of questions?

All that and more is considered in The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Not only covering all of the major and minor hypotheses to explain the meaning and motions of the Star, including the extraterrestrial, it investigates what was possibly on the mind of the ancient author of the Gospel story and what is in mind for many others that continue to pursue this subject. The Star of Bethlehem was also the subject of a major conference at the University of Groningen, and the major conclusions of SoB: ASV find support by experts in many fields.

So this holiday, learn about fascinating astronomical science, history, religion, cultures from the Romans to the Persians to the ancient Jews, and also understand a bit more about how science and religion interact through history and today.

Author: Dr. Aaron Adair is a professor of physics at Merrimack College, where he both teaches and conducts education research, along with continuing investigations of ancient religions and the heavens. He received his PhD from Ohio State University and worked as a planetarium show presenter at Michigan State University. He has previously published on the subject of the Star in Zygon and was an invited speaker to the University of Groningen’s conference on the Star.

Praise for SoB: ASV:
“Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.” Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

“A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.” David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.

“…tightly-argued, well-reasoned…. Adair masterfully demonstrates why every effort to rationalize the Star thus far has failed…. A concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.” Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.

 

Dr. Aaron Adair, Star of Bethlehem Press Kit

New Book in the Loftus New Atheism Trilogy: Christianity is Not Great

I am about to fly off for my talk and conference about the Star of Bethlehem, but before that I have received a review copy of a new book on something quite biblical as well. Those that have been following what is often labeled “New Atheism” know it’s biggest names: Dawkins, Harris, & Hitchens. Dan Dennett is often included to create the Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse, but that analogy is weak given the untimely passing of Hitchens.

Nonetheless, other names in the growing atheism movement have tried to carry on the mantle, especially those with greater specialization in areas that these authors may not be well-versed in. Be that professional moral philosophy, theological history, political policy and religious influence, and so on. Dawkins is often criticized about his lack of philosophical prowess in his The God Delusion, and similar things could be said, among other things, about Harris and Hitchens. But when those with expertise come in, the case that these authors have made becomes overwhelmingly rational.

That has been the goal of editor and author John Loftus. After publishing his story on becoming an atheist and why he believed it made the most sense, and being written by a student of some of the top Christian apologists living today, Loftus knows his stuff. But he won’t be an expert in all things or best articulate all arguments. So his latest works of significant size are a round-up of some of the best authors in the so-called New Atheist movement in the Anglo-American world. Previously Loftus published The Christian Delusion, and then later The End of Christianity. Both of these titles take their lead from the titles of Dawkins’s and Harris’s books, so it makes sense that the trilogy would end with a take on Hitchens, Christianity is Not Great.** And after reading it and the history is shows, you may feel much the same.

Continue reading

My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.
 

Video Discussion about the Star of Bethlehem

The fabulous editor of my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, Jonathan MS Pearce (aka A Tippling Philosopher), had a chat with me that we did over Google Hangout. We talk about how I came to write the book, what it demonstrates, and what its conclusions should mean. Give it a watch.

Comments are open on this blog as well as on YouTube.

Richard Carrier Reviews my Star of Bethlehem Book & Talks About the Problems with Astrotheology

9780956694867- Font CoverWith my book out for about a month, I have now received a great review/blog post about The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. And it comes from Richard Carrier, who also provided a very positive blurb for the book. He was very supportive in my researching this topic, and I’m sure my book would have been much inferior without his help.

In his review, Carrier brings up a point that I hadn’t actually consciously gone for, but it is a valid expansion. In the book, I point out how ancient astrologers did not have some well-defined method of interpretation of the skies, and there were significant differences between Babylonian/Assyrian methods and the Hellenistic form that has become dominant in the West and India. And because there is such massive discord among the ancients, it makes it very dubious to create an astrotheological interpretation of early Christianity and the Gospels.

For example, I showed that the system of astrological geography–that is, how different regions of the world were under the influence of different constellations or signs–were completely different from astrologer to astrologer. I even quoted from the most famous of the ancient astrologers, Ptolemy, about how astrological interpretation is even nigh-impossible or at least very difficult even by experts, let along the charlatans of the age. With this and other points I make, I prove that a modern scholar cannot look at a horoscope and know how it would have been interpreted; I even use an example of one of the horoscopes created for Jesus by Michael Molnar and show you can either get the King of Kings or a misshapen sex slave. Oops.

But when I think of astrotheology, what comes to mind is the work of Acharya S/D.M. Murdock and its use in part 1 of Zeitgeist. There are two major things that I will consider here from that work: the astrotheological version of the Star of Bethlehem, and the importance of the precession of the equinoxes.

Now, I did consider looking at this idea about the Star in the book, and perhaps I should have. Then again, it hasn’t been put into any peer-review journal or book unlike even the bad Star of Bethlehem theories that I disprove. Also, I have talked about this in some previous videos I made, including in the talk I gave a couple of weeks ago (video jumps to where I start to talk about it at 37:20).

The key points are that the astronomy does not stand up (Orion already set before sunrise, and the alignment doesn’t happen on Dec 25 under the most favorable of interpretations), the symbolism is based on no ancient sources (i.e. belt of Orion called the 3 kings), it tries to explain things that have nothing to do with the original story from the Gospels (i.e. birth on Dec 25, 3 kings), and it doesn’t explain details from the Gospel of Matthew (i.e. a star hanging over a particular location). In fact, the alignment being talked of has nothing to do with how astrologers did their work. The sorts of alignments done back in the day used horoscopes, and then only concerned the planets and the zodiac constellations. That would exclude Orion and Sirius which is so important to Murdock’s hypothesis. And there are no records that show the (non-existent) alignment was important to Egyptians in antiquity. The whole thing is modern invention.

Another major component is the belief that people were interested in the coming of astrological ages. These shifts happen when the vernal equinox (the location of the Sun on the first day of spring) slowly moves from one zodiac constellation to another, forever immortalized in the song “Aquarius” from the musical Hair. Now, the very idea of astrological ages cannot go back farther than its discovery, and that is usually credited to Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE. That is pre-Christian, but it’s not so early that it could explain other religions, such as Egyptian or Babylonian. And considering most people were not exactly astronomers, it isn’t safe to assume that the discovery by Hipparchus was known by the masses. The best evidence I know of is the hypothesis that the Mithras religion based based on this discovery, which is argued by David Ulansey. However, his hypothesis has long favor after the work done by Roger Beck, the top scholar in the field of Mithraic studies (and whom I hope to meet next year at the Star of Bethlehem conference).

But even if we allow this to be common knowledge for the early Christians to use, there is still a significant problem: When was the astrological age to change? At the beginning of the 1st century, as shown by Otto Neugebauer and referenced by Michael Molnar, the vernal equinox was at about 5 degrees in Aries. Based on the calculations of how quickly precession was believed to have happened, it would have been 500 years in the future. Hardly coming “coming soon” as seen in the authentic letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation. And since we can’t even know if people back then would have given this a sort of amazing status as Murdock would suppose, we can’t make this work.

But if you look at the Wikipedia page, it says that some calculate that the Age of Pisces (after Aries) began around the time of Jesus’s birth. How is that so? It’s based on back calculations from modern astrologers to fit their own spiritual views. It’s a modern contrivance. It also was such to get it that the Age of Aquarius was something in the near future for Baby Boomers; things like the Vietnam war were the last throes of the age of Pisces. This is hardly relevant to reconstructing religious beliefs from 2000 years ago, and that shows how much astrotheology is a modern creation. (Then again, medieval astrologers did the same things for their own times, so there really isn’t anything new under the Sun.)

Now, there is one bit of argumentation I have seen that has the greatest plausibility of looking at the Jesus story in terms of solar symbolism, something that has been brought up by a commenter on this blog (his paper is here). The points are that in Luke 1:26 and the context there has Jesus being conceived six months after John the Baptist was. And in the Gospel of John 3:30 the Baptist says how he must decrease so that the other may increase. Now, if one views Jesus and John acting as the Sun and different times of year, John is the dying sun in winter, while Jesus is the rising sun of summer. In other words, the six months is about the solstices.

However, this doesn’t really work well given what we know about how literature was written back then. Suppose you only had the Gospel of Luke and not John, which would have been the case for Luke’s first readers. All you have is the six-month time difference between the conceptions of Jesus and John. How does a reader get solar myth out of just that? There aren’t any other details in the story from Luke to support that. There just aren’t enough narrative clues to the reader.

Let’s compare this time issue with a more recent literary example: Frankenstein. (It’s after Halloween, but it’s still a great book.) According to the novel, Dr. Frankenstein worked for nine months to create his cadaver-man, which he then rejected because he (it?) was hideous. Because the story is about a man giving life, the nine-month period has a symbolic role by relating the creation of the Monster to child-bearing, a nine-month process. It is because the context of the story in the novel (and not by reading a later novel) as well as the cultural assumptions that would go into reading it by the audience, we can see what Mary Shelly was doing. Modern scholars also compare it to Shelly’s own troubles with having children, but that is besides the point to consider here.

But this is not the case with the six months in the Gospel of Luke. We have to mix it up with a later work with details from a different story (adult Jesus and John rather than their nativities). And it’s this sort of mixing and matching of details that brought ridicule to the history of religions school of the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, the use of some solar symbolism doesn’t mean the whole story is about the sun. After all, King Louis XIV of France was known as the Sun King; that use of a symbolic name doesn’t mean he was a sun god. In fact, this sort of ridicule against this sort of arguing is old; it was done against Charles François Dupuis by using his methods to “prove” Napoleon was just a solar myth and not some general worthy of being feared. The same was repeated with Max Muller in the late 19th century.

Now, I won’t pretend to know necessarily why Luke says there was a six month difference between the conceptions of Jesus and John. Perhaps six months is when it’s obvious to anyone in antiquity that a woman is pregnant and so for Mary on her visit to Elizabeth (John’s elderly mother-to-be) it was clear to her that Elizabeth had had a miraculous birth as well. Or perhaps there were other traditions involved worth considering. When looking at Borg and Crossan’s The First Christmas (pp. 108-109), they bring up a targum that talks of a story of a man of the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) returning to be with his wife, a woman well over 100 years in age. But upon the man’s return to her she became young and gave birth to a son in just six months. Considering that John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest, and Elizabeth was an old woman beyond her child-bearing years, then perhaps this is the background for what we see in Luke.

Now, that is only a speculation of mine. But it explains the evidence at least as well as a solar myth explanation, and unless one can show how the solar myth can explain the story in the Gospel of Luke better, then we don’t actually have evidence in favor of the solar myth hypothesis. And since this seems to be one of the best cases out there, I have to say there isn’t much of a case to be made.

So I do agree with Carrier that the nature of astrology in antiquity doesn’t allow for much confidence in astrotheological explanations for Christianity or Christian literature. And the particular ideas out there don’t stand up to scrutiny and are really modern inventions. Astrotheological explanations have little or nothing in common with the diverse (but still not infinitely malleable) methods of ancient astrology. This isn’t to say there aren’t any astrological elements in Christianity (the Book of Revelation has some notable ones), but there is nothing even close to the explanatory power needed to make sense of the Gospels or the origins of the religion.

The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View — My Upcoming Book

Nearly two millennia ago, a story was told of a wondrous star in the heavens, beaming forth to proclaim the birth of an infant, destined to rule. Coaxing priests from an eastern kingdom to travel in search of this infant, the object led them to their destination and allow for the worship of the savior of the world.

Or so the story goes. But did it really happen, and if so, what was this magnificent star? A comet? An exploding star? An astrological portent? Something more bizarre? These theories and more have been put forward to explain the legend of the Star of Bethlehem, perhaps the most famous celestial light in all of religious literature. Inspiring scientists and theologians to search and fiction authors to write, including the great Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Star of Bethlehem has been the perennial science story of the holidays. It is a project that finds its roots in the work of the influential astrophysicist Johannes Kepler, and numerous other astronomers have written about the Star over decades and up to today, such as David Hughes, Michael Molnar, Mark Kidger, and the late Sir Patrick Moore. Every year or so a supposedly new explanation is released to the press. Was it Jupiter and Venus or Jupiter and Saturn this time? Or how about the discovery of Uranus? Perhaps a variable star? The zodiacal lights? What other speculation will come about to show that there was a light guiding magi from the East to the birthplace of Jesus?

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These speculation should begin to find its end in the newest book on the subject: The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (Amazon: US, UK, FR, DE; B&N; PDF). Based on nearly a decade of contemplation and research, this volume seeks to prove that no natural phenomenon, no astrological alignment, no physical interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem is plausible and comports to the story as told in the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, the story likely isn’t historical at all.

Published by Onus Books and including a foreword by astronomer and columnist at Astronomy magazine, Bob BermanThe Star of Bethlehem goes through all of the major theories for the Star as something in nature, including the astronomical, the astrological, and even the alien. The volume also explores the history of these sorts of interpretations and the motivations behind them. Lastly, it is demonstrated that the legend is a literary artifice, one that shows the author of the Gospel to be gifted as a story-teller but not someone interested in science and history as modern researchers are. To continue to look for the Star in the skies is to misunderstand the story.

Exploring the science of supernovae, the mechanical computers of the ancient Greeks, the astrological beliefs and practices of the Persians, and the nature of ancient religious texts, The Star of Bethlehem presents science and history without the need to fit to an apologetic goal.

Praise for The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View:

A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.
—David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.

Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.
—Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The Star of Bethlehem is a concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.
—Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.

While the argument that the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ story is a myth isn’t a new one, Aaron Adair—an astronomer and physicist at The Ohio State University—offers a look into the past through the eyes of a scientist, while not once ignoring the value of New Testament scholarship. This is a must-read, and perhaps the definitive, book on this subject.
—Thomas Verenna, co-editor of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus and undergraduate student at Rutgers University

If you enjoy The Star of Bethlehem, you may also enjoy another skeptical look at the Nativity story of Jesus: The Nativity: A Critical Examination by Jonathan Pearce.

About the author:

Aaron Adair is a soon-to-be PhD in physics education from the Ohio State University and holds three degrees in science and mathematics from Michigan State University. He has previously worked as a planetarium show presenter, a SETI researcher, and a part of the ATLAS detector collaboration at CERN. He has written on the Star of Bethlehem previously in Sky & Telescope and Zygon: Journal of Science & Religion, and has been invited to participate in a conference about the Star at the University of Groningen. This is his first book. Adair may be contacted through his book’s Facebook page and through email.