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

Thoughts on the Nye/Ham Creationism/Evolution Debate

The end is Nye!

Sorry, made that joke last time, but now it seems better suited.

So last night was the much-trafficked debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and AiG founder Ken Ham. Now, I am obviously biased towards the scientific consensus; evidence tends to do that. However, I have to say that I was pessimistic about how the debate would go. I didn’t figure either side would really win, but rather it seemed there would be a lot of talking past each other. And while that happened to an extend, overall I think Nye handled things rather well.

To be less biased, check out this poll from Christianity Today, hardly a secularist haven. There, it says Bill one the debate; with nearly 25,000 votes, Bill has 92% of the vote in his favor. And this was even before was posted at Pharyngula, which likes to crash polls like this to show they are not scientific. The bias should have been expected in the opposite direction that what it is, so it seems among at least the tech savvy, Nye was perceived to be the winner.

Perhaps that was in part because Nye did well to present a slurry of observations that were inconsistent with a young earth or having a wooden boat carry itself and all animal “kinds”, while Ham did not present anything that was really evidence for earth’s lack of antiquity or why evolution doesn’t work. There was a bit about radiometric dating (I’ll get to that later), but his presentation was more focused on what he perceives to be the nature of science and how creationism is important to his world view. But perhaps the point that stands as the biggest highlight is the question from the Q&A session when Ham was asked what would convince him that he was wrong. Answer: a long pause, and basically saying he’s a Christian, so that’s that. Nye, on the other hand, clearly and concisely named several things that would be evidence against his views on evolution and geology. That must have been the most stark contrast between how these two people operate and understand things, and I’m not seeing people saying that that was a good talking point for Ham. For the record, I watched the debate at a meeting with Christians and non-believers, and while some were willing to find a better way to understanding Ham’s pause and final answer (suggesting he was at least thoughtful), it was still fairly obvious that it was antithetical to science and even good theology (and I agree).

If you want the blow-by-blow, here is one good synopsis for each part of the debate. PZ Myers also live-blogged the event. NBC’s Alan Boyle summarizes the event rather well. And you can watch the debate here if you are tempted.

Noteworthy: as of posting over 700,000 people watched this particular stream. Overall, at least a million people watched.

So, how about the arguments themselves? Now, Bill obviously focused on the science and facts that show there world to have greater antiquity that a mere 6000 years, but he did touch on something that I proposed to be the ideal method for this sort of debate: make a theological point to undermine the fundamentalist position. Nye did this in two ways: showing how millions, if not billions, of people have religious beliefs and accept evolution; and how the YEC position has to rely on the interpretation of texts and thus the interpreter’s own authority. Now, if Bill had a stronger background in the Bible and theology he could have expanded on this. It would also have helped to have Bill avoid making statements about how the Bible came about via the telephone game; it’s neither an accurate model nor something that his fundamentalist audience would appreciate. There are certainly translations issues, but we do have the books of the Bible in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), so we aren’t divorced so completely from the original text. However, knowing how ancient literature needs to be contextualized would be helpful. Considering there are several creation accounts and flood legends in the Ancient Near East, all written centuries or millennia before Genesis, that should affect how one reads the book and see that there is the use of a common literary trope, not a history report. If Nye could have done more to hold the feet of fundamentalist readings of the Bible to the fire, that would have made his case even stronger to his prospective crowd he wanted to convince.

On the other hand, there was Ham’s scientific case… Ham argued that creationism made predictions just like real science does, but his examples are both historically inauthentic and otherwise really what’s predicted by evolution and thus not in favor of creationism. For example, Ham says that the Bible tells us that all humans are of the same kind and thus there is one race. Well, evolution says all humans have a common ancestor, so that’s not really different. Ham also says how evolution is racist, as if racism didn’t exist before 1859; rather, there has been plenty of religiously-inspired racist attitude before and after. The “Curse of Ham” (not Ken, thought that is a pox on us all) was used to justify all sorts of terrible view related to racism and slavery, and it was based on biblical interpretation and bigoted attitudes. Moreover, followers of the Bible in the past were not that great and figuring out what to do with the Native Americans. There was a theological debate whether they were a separate creation from Adam and his descendants. Seems like the creation account with its global flood and thousands of years couldn’t account for two continents of people. This was “resolved” for some by claiming the American Indians were really Jews from the lost tribes, a main staple of Mormonism for example. Jason Colavito talks about this in a recent blog post.

The point here is that Ham’s model does not produce predictions like evolution does, and what he does claim to be predictions are already accounted for by evolution and in detail.

When Ham talks about radiometric dating (and he had prepared to talk about that with slides even before Nye took the stage it seems, and Nye hardly talked about this dating method in his 30-minute talk), he shows how incompetent or perhaps dishonest his cronies are. To counter the utility of radiometric dating methods, Ham talks about a layer of basalt laid in the ground by a lava flow. That lava flow went over some old tree stumps. The basalt had a date of millions of years using uranium or argon-based, but the tree, presumably at least as old if not older than the basalt, gave an age of around 45,000 years using Carbon-14 dating methods. Here is the problem: those trees had no carbon in them to date! How can I know that? Because the trees had to have been petrified. If it was still wood, it would have burned up when there was that lava flow. Moreover, the image Ham provided showed what looked like petrified wood to me. And if something is petrified, all of the organic materials are replaced by minerals and is thus mostly silicates. That is, all of the carbon has been pushed out of the tree, so there is no carbon 12 or carbon 14 to check for. At all. So no wonder they got a date of close to 50,000 years, the upper limit to what age C-14 dating can give answers; it’s been pegged at that range because of no signal. But the thing is, this data was given to Ham by Andrew Snelling, who has a PhD in geology. He must have known the trees were petrified and had no carbon in them. To date them using a method that cannot work no matter what date the trees were (again, because there was not fraking carbon in them) is either the height of incompetence or he was dishonest and had to get results to promote creationism even if they were based on a lie.

Bill unfortunately didn’t make this realization and gave an answer that wasn’t geologically feasible, and Ham also pointed out the trees were encased in the basalt, making Nye’s explanation more untenable. But it’s all based on either arrogant ignorance or right-out deception (though not necessarily by Ham, since he’s not a geologist).

But to focus on the debate, both sides were civil and professional. Since in science the debate looks like this:

the way it off Ham didn’t look like that. And he certainly didn’t give off the used care salesmen vibe that Kent Hovind did (before he went to jail for tax fraud). That is in some ways a victory for the creationist cause: it didn’t look stone age. Of course, Bill was able to make many good points to show that it was at least backward-thinking, and the question of what would change minds will perhaps be the biggest take-away rather than the number of ice core rings in Greenland. Often I think Bill gave this expression that is summarized by this new meme:

That may be a good summary right there.

So, I won’t claim Nye “won” the debate. As Joel Watts notes, each side sees their side as the one with the facts and on the side of right. However, Bill had the ability to call upon a great diversity of scientific knowledge and background, which he usually explained well (though not so well when it came to explaining sex and fish), and he made points about what we would have to have seen if we had such rapid speciation as Ham’s model claims to have. He prepared well. Ham, however, had little on that (and he even made it worse by claiming there were even fewer “kinds” on the Ark and thus making speciation problems greater by an order of magnitude), and instead he basically said that he was a presuppositionalist, starting from the Bible (that he magically knows how to interpret, including the parts that aren’t literal, like how God needs to rest, etc.).

And on the other hand, Nye’s main line of argument was that creationism undermines science education and makes the US a less competitive economic power. Nye reiterated that several times, but I think Ham’s video anecdotes from scientists who are creationists undermined that fairly strongly in some people’s eyes. Nye could have undermined that testimony by saying how none of them have used their creationist views to do their science, while geologists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. all use their contra-creationist views to do good, published science. And Bill could have said how the historical sciences actually have helped us in our technology. For example, observations from astronomy are historical and they confirm general relativity; without GR, you can’t have a working GPS system. Evolutionary algorithms are used all the time for designing things, showing that the underlying idea behind Darwin’s theory has real-world application; how a creationist could say it works well in designing cars and autonomous robots but not bird wings can only be done through special pleading. Oh, and let’s not forget about vaccines for viruses that have to change to jump from farm animals or birds to humans; you can only understand that with genetics, mutations, and natural selection. But none of these points were made, and anecdotes are a powerful form of evidence to a person’s mind, even if they aren’t powerful in any statistical sense. While Nye was forceful on the need for students to learn the best science and thus exclude creationism from the science classroom, his case did receive a torpedo he would have deflected.

But Nye did do well in undermining Ham’s distinction between observational and historical science, noting how this isn’t what happens in the real world. No one saw the murder, but CSI makes a lock-solid case using circumstantial evidence all the time. Ham didn’t have any good response to this and could only repeat himself. The only way I can tease out something useful in Ham’s distinction is that he is differentiating between fact-gathering science and theoretical science. The past is given a hypothesis to explain the facts we now have, but that would all be applicable for current events. I don’t observe gravity, only its well-measured, highly-predictive effects. The ball falls from my hand with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s is the observation; gravity is the explanation. Similarly, the ratio of elements in a rock is such-and-such; the explanation is years of radioactive decay. You could claim that balls are pushed down by angels or Satan took out the argon in rocks to make them look older, but that is the far less conducive hypothesis. But the sorts of gathering facts and making explanations is done the same for current events as well as past ones; there is no distinction then between historical and observational science, except in so far as the evidence for things happening now are usually more certain and precisely measured.

Now, the last question: was it worth having this debate? I was skeptical before about this particular format, largely because this was set up in such a way to be a major cash cow from the struggling Creation Museum and their Ark Project. I am less certain of that now because, according to the reports I linked to above, the cost of the debate was much more than the ticket sales, at least by a factor of two. For all we know, Bill’s speaking fee was the price of all the tickets put together. As for publicity, creationism is already well-known and believed in the US, so I don’t think this really created much new exposure; the market is pretty much saturated, and there has been almost no movement in the numbers of who is a YEC in decades, so people knowing about this debate isn’t really going to help the YEC cause. But because Nye presented things well, it may have exposed many believers to some good science for once, and this to a group that has to be insular to the scientific and academic world. Penetrating that bubble is necessary, and I think Nye did that. So overall, I think this was a debate worth having and ultimately favored Team Science.

It wasn’t perfect, but Nye pretty much achieved his goals. Kudos.

The Star of Bethlehem in Alternative “Scholarship”

In my work in looking into the various theories about the Star of Bethlehem, I have primarily focused on efforts to explain the Star that are in the scientific or biblical studies literature. That will provide something of an orthodoxy, either with scientific ideas that have to be less than outlandish or with religious notions that do not drift far from conservative or evangelical thinking. For example, ideas about the Star being a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus comes from evangelicals trying to prove the historical authenticity of the Bible. Michael Molnar’s ideas about the Star and horoscopes was written by a professional astronomer and in a university press.

But that limits a look at the less orthodox ideas out there, especially in the so-called alternative scholarship. There you get your theories of Atlantis, ancient aliens, conspiracies, etc. I have had some posts poking at these things, such as my presentation on ancient aliens, the posts dealing with the theories of Jesus as King Arthur by Ralph Ellis (1, 2, 3, 4), and a few other things. I also talked about one odd idea related to the Star of Bethlehem, but overall I haven’t done much to delve into it.

Do these theories actually work? Skeptical cat is skeptical.

So, it is worth seeing what are some of the ideas about what the Star of Bethlehem could have been, of course always assumed by proponents to not be a historical fantasy or based on some historical kernel. And without the limitations of what “the Man” in academia would allow, maybe some new idea can come about to explain the story in Matthew.

Perhaps the most obvious idea that comes up that fits into the alternative world of writing is that the Star was Continue reading

The Star of Bethlehem Documentary–A Critical View Index

As I have pointed out in my last post about the famed Star of Bethlehem, apparently one of the most popular versions of the theory of what the Star could have been is that put forward in the documentary of the same name. The website breaks down the claims, though the film is the more enjoyable format. It has great production qualities, as it is produced by Stephen McEveety who also produced movies with Mel Gibson, namely Braveheart and (more important to this) The Passion of the Christ.

However, the presentation is the child of Rick Larson, a lawyer and amateur Bible scholar. Actually, that doesn’t fully explain him. Larson is a student of one of the most influential evangelical apologists of the 20th century, Francis Schaeffer,  who had his own little community in Switzerland for his ministry. According to Larson’s bio, he actually studied under Schaeffer in Switzerland, so his interest in the Bible and the Star is hardly a passing interest but a part of his evangelism.

But even though the presentation is his, the heavy lifting in doing the scholarly work really should go to Ernest Martin, a former meteorologist but turned amateur Bible scholar and archaeologist. Martin was a member of Hebert Armstrong’s Radio Church of God (which keeps changing its name), which was one of the oldest televangelist ministries using radio and television. Armstrong comes from an Adventist background, though not strictly so. That is a good thing, because if Armstrong and (transitively) Martin were Adventists through-and-through, then they would have to take everything said by the sect’s prophetess Ellen G. White as divine revelation, and she said the Star was not a planet but more like an angel (The Desire of Ages, p. 60). But this is no matter to the truth of any of the claims about the Star of Bethlehem, but an interesting aside.

What I want to do here, and in several more posts, is provide a resource for those searching for critical issues with the ideas put forward in the documentary. While it focuses on the birth of Jesus, there are also astronomical aspects that are considered at the death of Jesus, namely the eclipse of the sun at the crucifixion. There is also some revision of history in the documentary because the particular Star theory requires that King Herod of Judea have a different year of death than is normally considered by historians.

With those preliminaries out of the way, here is the order posts I have planned for dealing with the claims in the Star of Bethlehem documentary. Note that this will not be a complete debunking of naturalistic theories of the Star, but simply a critical look at the unique premises of the hypothesis presented by Martin, McEveety, and Larson (call it the MMEL hypothesis).

  1. The Death of Herod and Josephus’ Account
  2. Textual criticism and Josephus
  3. The constellation Leo as the sign of the Jews
  4. The movement of the planets and the Star
  5. The eclipse and Jesus’ crucifixion

These resources should be sufficient on their own to demonstrate the weaknesses in the hypothesis, but the definitive refutation of all naturalistic explanations of the Star will have to be found in my upcoming book on the subject.

Reviews of Larson’s documentary and website by Christians:

  1. Answers in Genesis
  2. Creation Today
  3. Reasons to Believe
  4. Christianity Today
  5. Bible Film Blogs
  6. Christian Cinema
  7. The Old Schoolhouse
  8. Ethics Daily
  9. Probe Ministries

(Believe it or not, but the AiG one is the most thorough and useful of the bunch.)

A Coincidentally Bad Argument for the Nativity

With the early successes of my tongue-in-cheek War on Christmas, it’s time to open up another front. I recently came across an article defending the Nativity’s historicity via a friend on Facebook. I figure, I already dealt with the Pope, so another apologetic effort for the Nativity is work the while. This comes from J.W. Wartick, a grad student in apologetics at Biola University according to his info page, so that probably makes him a better read on defenses of the faith than the Pope. So let me take a look at what he proposes here that makes the stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels more historical than fiction.

First, J.W. brings up a method that seems to have only been recently resurrected by Christian philosopher Timothy McGrew called unintentional coincidences. Very basically, if two accounts are independent but the details of one fill in the gaps of another, than increases the historical veracity. The example is given from Jesus’ exchange with Pilate between Luke and John; in Luke Jesus, when asked if he is a king, says “if you say so”, but Pilate finds nothing wrong with him, criminally speaking. But Pilate is supposed to crush anyone that declares themselves king in Caesar’s lands. In John’s version, Jesus explains his kingdom isn’t earthly, so Pilate finds nothing criminal in him being called a king. But John doesn’t have the accusation by the Jews of him being called king. Thus, the two Gospels fill in their gaps. Hopefully that gives an idea of how unintentional coincidences are supposed to work.

But why does this make a story more likely historical? The logic of that claim is not spelled out, though it seems premised on two sources not be dependent on each other or some common source. But in reality, that is how bad history is done. Continue reading

The Pope on the Nativity Part 3 am hoping to make this my last post on the short book about the Nativity of Jesus by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). So far, from what I can tell, I have been one of the few bloggers going through and being critical of its historical contents, which I will continue here. For background, my first post looked at the apparent lack of engagement with the best literature on the subject of Jesus’ birth, including Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah. My second post looked at the arguments His Holiness used to defend the historicity of certain details of the Gospel(s) version(s) of the birth of Christ and how his own arguments were not correctly applied.

As for the rest of the blogosphere, here is what I have found around the Internet:

Jim West highlights a news report about the book and how the Pope says Jesus was not born in 0 AD; Jim asks so what else is new? A similar feeling can by seen with Sonja of Women in Theology who found this volume boring compared to the prior two books by Ratzinger on Jesus. She also notes there really isn’t any debunking in the book at all, but is actually very traditional (I agree). Timothy at Catholic Bibles finds some of the news going around silly, though he does get a kick out of the tongue-in-cheek post “The Pope Hates Christmas”. There the author has more criticism at the media than the Pope. Lastly, one of the few blog posts critical of the book’s historical criticism comes from Bart Ehrman, though most of that post is behind a pay wall (with the proceeds going to charitable causes). It also looks like Ehrman is working on a collection of English translations of the non-canonical infancy gospels. That seems like something useful.

So with that link-farm out of the way, let’s see what else His Holiness is up to. As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I wanted to focus on how the Pope interprets the Star of Bethlehem, the reason I wanted to read this book in the first place. First off, this can be considered historic for the discussion of the Star; the last time someone high up in the Catholic hierarchy endorsed astronomy or astrology to interpret the Star was Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly almost exactly 600 years ago. But now the Bishop of Rome has considered naturalistic possibilities for the Star, which seems unprecedented based on my research.

But upon re-reading, it seems that Benedict tip-toes around the subject. Continue reading

The Pope’s New Book on Jesus’ Birth. Now He’s in Trouble!

There has been a fair bit of press about the newest publication from the current head of the Catholic Church, Joseph Ratzinger, better known now as Pope Benedict XVI (don’t you just hate sequels?). There was even a humorous take on some of the aspects of the new book from the colossus of comedy Stephen Colbert.

But the hub-bub is mostly about how the Pope is saying certain parts of the standard idea of the Christmas scene are not found in the Bible. For example, there are no animals to be seen in the Nativity stories, though you can hardly find a Renaissance painting or Christmas card without them. Pretty small potatoes, really, but it’s really a matter of His Holiness doing some historical criticism related to the Christianity. This is also up his alley. The current occupant of Saint Peter’s position in the church was a bookish man, served as an expert in the Second Vatican Council, and wrote considerably before becoming pope. However, most of what he wrote, going by the bibliography on Wikipedia, is primarily theological rather than historical, especially historical criticism of the Bible itself.

So why care about it, especially if you aren’t a Catholic? Continue reading

The End is Nigh (Again)

For the last several months, there has been an interesting, small Christian group going around preaching the end of the world is coming. Of course, these sorts of claims have been taking place since, well, the earliest years of Christianity. “This generation will not pass,” said Jesus in Mark 13, referring to the tribulations before the Kingdom of God came with power into the world. Since it didn’t happen in the lifetime of Paul and the apostles, the doomsday prophecy has been reinterpreted so many times it is hard to count. It has been done by the scholarly as well as the grossly incompetent.

For example, in the 15th century, the French cardinal Pierre d’Ailly used biblical verses as well as the top scientific predictor of the day–great-conjunction astrology–to say the end of the world was not in his time but in a few centuries from then (the 17th century or so, if I remember correctly). Obviously, it didn’t happen then. D’Ailly’s goal was more to alleviate the stress he felt from fearing the end was coming because of the near civil war going on in the Catholic Church when there were at one time three rival popes all declaring themselves the real pope (see the Great Schism). But not everyone else.
Jim West has recounted an interesting story from the early Reformation period concerning the Anabaptists. This particular group from the early 16th century in the town of Munster was incredibly nuts by any standard. Their leaders shunned all worldly knowledge, they were themselves poorly educated, and when they took control of the town they burned all the books in the city library, save the Bible (or course). Instituting polygamy and wife swapping, the main figures declared themselves king, the town the New Jerusalem, and you can bet they saw themselves as making the Kingdom come. Their charismatic leader, Jan Matthijs, thought himself invincible, so when the combined Catholic and Protestant armies came to regain control of the town from the Anabaptists, Matthijs left the city walls to fight and was killed almost instantly. Oops!
One can also mention the Millerites in America. They predicted the end of the world twice in the 1840s, and failed both times. That group has now become the Seventh Day Adventists and don’t predict exact days for the end times (though they say it’s coming). The Taiping Rebellion in China also has apocalyptic fervor, leading to millions killed in the mid-19th century. And lest we forget, there was good ol’ Hal Lindsey whose 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth predicted the end of the world for 1988. Damn that Ronald Reagan! Well, that didn’t quite happen, but Hal is still talking about the Apocalypse as coming around the corner. Hey, he may not be wrong this time!
I have hardly covered all the failed predictions of the end of the world by various Christian figures and groups, but it gives a context to place yet another such collection of people. I mention this new group, the Family Radio broadcasting ministry, because they have been putting up billboards all over the country, and recently have come to my university with signs, pamphlets, and all. They even brought the kids. Education? Not when the Rapture is coming in less than a month! Wait, that soon? Well, no wonder their enthusiasm. They predict the end will come on May 21, 2011. And that is the day after Draw Muhammad Day, so God has good planning.
So, how did this group come up with their calculation? First, they figure the Great Flood happened in 4990 BCE (they use BC, but I have to piss them off), and that because a day is a thousand years to God, there is 7000 years between this even and the Second Coming. From another verse concerning the Flood, that event took place in the second month on the 17th day. So, looking at the Hebrew calendar, they find that Iyar 17 is May 21 this year.
How do they figure the Flood happened in 4990 BCE? It’s strange considering Archbishop Usher figured that the world was created in 4004 BCE, so I wonder what their calculation is. If there is about a thousand year difference in time between events, that will throw a wrench into the calculating machines. Moreover, why seven thousand years? Why not one thousand years, or ten? Beside, the Bible does not say 1000 years is a day to God, but that 1000 years is like a day to God; making exacting calculations from a simile is a bit silly. And why take the date from the Flood? Why not from the Crucifixion? It looks like a lot of work just to get a date close to modern times.
Oh, and getting an exact day, that rather unbiblical. Again, Jesus said in Mark 13:32 that no one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven or the Son. If Jesus’ doesn’t know, then how does some pastor? Strange that this verse isn’t mentioned in the pamphlet. Hal Lindsey at least had an interesting way out. He didn’t say what day the end way, just what week! Such logic is so irritating, it makes you think that God would delay the Apocalypse just to mess with Hal.
Nonetheless, the interesting part will be when the day passes and everything is running like it did the day before, just as it happened every single time the end was predicted. I suspect one of two things will happen. First, the group will recalculate the date of the event; that is what the Millerites first did. But when that fails again, the second possibility will take place. The prophecy will be reinterpreted. Perhaps the end did happen, and Jesus actually did come back but no one saw him. That is what preterists believe, that Jesus did come back in 70 CE. Jehovah Witnesses are similar, except Jesus came to rule in 1914. I would bet that this new group will due something along these lines eventually. What they likely won’t do is give up their faith. The sociological evidence is compelling that that is the very thing we can expect not to happen if this group has other things to fall back on. Considering that Christian beliefs are far more complex than just hoping for the end times, there is plenty for the group to keep them together and find a way to work about this disconfirming evidence. However, I do have to worry about the kids. I doubt there will be something like Jonestown or Waco, but who knows what sorts of mental issues they may have in such an organization.
So, I’m looking at May 21 as a good date to have a party. It is a Saturday, and if worse comes to worse, at least I had a good last time before all Hell breaks loose. Unless there isn’t a Hell anymore…

The Ignorance–It Burns!

I don’t know why, but sometime I feel the need to look at the material produced by creationists and evangelicals, just to see if there are arguments worth taking a look at. Some people are certainly smart, such as William Craig, while others are truly bottom-of-the-barrel arguers, such as those found on YouTube. What usually makes these in the latter group so terrible to me is their complete ignorance of the topics at hand, demonstrated by false statements and little or no references to sources, and are unwilling to figure out that there is something terribly wrong in their statements. One example must be Kent Hovind who is masterful in his abilities to misrepresent every aspect of science.

However, there is some concentrated stupid that can be found via the evangelical organization Way of the Master, which has the faces of Kirk Cameron, a former child actor, and Ray Comfort, a minister from New Zealand with no formal theological training at a seminary as far as a I can find. Obviously, neither of them are scientists and have minimal exposure to it in schooling. Yet Ray has seen himself fit to write over fifty books and tracts, many of which touch on scientific facts and attack the extremely well-verified theory of evolution. His general ignorance was well on display when the dynamic duo agreed to debate members of the Rational Response Squad, namely Brian Sapient and Kelly O’Connor; more correctly, Ray et. al. challenged the RRS. The general pwnage is still talked about today. After all, Ray also argued the banana was evidence for design in nature when most the details of the banana that make it so great for consumption are the product of artificial selection. In other words, the banana (more correctly, the plant the banana comes from, the banana tree) is evidence for the abilities of evolution by small modifications and selection, either natural or artificial.

So, why would I waste 5 more minutes on this guy? Apparently, what he spreads is popular on the web and his blog only adds to it. There again his general lack of knowledge about science and history can be found. So, I think it worth while to do a proper dissection of one of his posts where he claims that (modern) science proves the Bible. He also states how science has changed to conform to the Bible, meaning the Bible was write all along and it can be seen to be the product of an amazingly knowledgeable mind. He does not seem to bother with the facts that are completely contrary to a literal reading of the Bible, such as the ~6000 year old Earth, the Earth forming before the Sun, the Moon being a light source in itself, whales before land animals, etc. And let’s not forget that the Bible is full of cases of the laws of nature being broken, the miracles in the Bible innumerable. So, just to start this post of his requires forgetting so much and can only be done by the shear will power of someone trying to evangelize instead of critically think.

And it gets all the worse as the post actually starts. In his 12 points where sciences confirms the Bible and contradicts previously held views in science, the stupidity actually hurts. He has a formula as such: firstly “THE BIBLE”, secondly “SCIENCE NOW”, finally “SCIENCE THEN”. This very setup is erroneous since such a way suggests science is simply a monolith to be read, written by the Prophets of the Laboratory. (Hey, that sounds like a cool band name!) What exists in science is a lot of evidence, sorted out by very able minds in an attempt to best explain the universe. Science nor scientists claim neither absolute nor unchangeable positions; the findings of science won’t change unless a significant amount of evidence points to another hypothesis that better explains the situation. Further, what one scientists says can easily contradict another. For example, Aristotle thought that comets were disturbances in the atmosphere, while centuries later Seneca challenged the idea since this idea did not conform well to the understandings of weather. (If comets were in the atmosphere, why does the wind not force their tales to point in another direction, like a weather vane?) We know better now that comets are far away, though Aristotle’s position was understandable with his knowledge then. Of course, Christian theologians were of little help in this matter; for example, Clement of Alexandria thought like Aristotle did (Protrepticus 10–hey, look at that, a reference!).

Now, on the the stupid:

1. According to Isaiah 40:22, the earth is a sphere, at least by Ray’s reading of things. Too bad that past Christians did not think it that way and stated the world was flat, people such as John Chrysostom (4th century CE) in Homilies Concerning the Statutes 9.7-8, stating the world is flat and floats on water; Lactantius (245–325); St. Athanasius (c.293–373); Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 394); Severian, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408). In fact, Lactantius was ridiculed by Copernicus himself in his work on the heliocentric model. Also, in a more recent piece of scholarship, it has been argued that Augustine of Hippo himself may have been a flat-earther, and he was smart enough to tell Christians not to argue with pages about science because they know much better about these matters (Leo Ferrari, “Augustine’s Cosmology”. Augustine Studies 27, 2 (1996): 129-77). So, if the meaning of this passage was for a flat earth, it was missed by these persons.

In fact, the Gospels would suggest a flat earth as well. In Matt 4:18 we read as follows: “Again, the devil took him [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Because of the shape of the Earth, not counting clouds or obstacles, one can see for about 20+ miles. On even the highest mountains it is still limited. One certainly cannot see on the other side of the earth or even across the sea. For Jesus to be able to see each kingdom of the world while on top of a mountain, the geometry of the Earth would need to be flat. Rome alone is hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem and so was the capitol of the Parthian empire, let alone in China and any civilizations in the Americas. It does not matter if Jesus has perfect eyesight since you cannot look through rocks.

So, what does Isaiah 40:22 even say? “He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.” Okay, firstly, for the geometry fans: a circle is NOT a sphere. The Hebrew word is chuwg (חוג), which can mean mean circle, circuit, or compass. If the prophet wanted to me clearer about the spherical nature of things, he could have used duwr (דור), which can mean ball, which is used in Isaiah 22:18. Further, the passages suggests flatness when in context. Isaiah goes on to say in chapter 40 that God sees people on the ground “like grasshoppers.” This tells us God is a man in the sky and can look down and see all the people. Job 22:14 confirms God to be in the sky and can be hidden by clouds. However, for God to be “above”, in the case of a sphere this is meaningless. A person in China has the exact opposite direction of up as a person in New York City. And as for chuwg, the meaning of its circularity and not spherical nature is confirmed in Proverb 8:27: “When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth.” It is not possible to inscribe a sphere onto the surface of water (the Deep), and this laid the foundations of heaven. From further examination of the Bible and other sources, the universe of the ancients looked something like this:

Firstly, this is how the Babylonians say the universe, created mostly out of the carcass of the monster Tiamat, killed by the god Marduk.

Now, the Hebrew version:

You can get more details in the video produced by the Infidel Guy and Robert M. Price here. Also, see Browning, W.R.F. Dictionary of the Bible. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

So now, what about science? Let’s see: Aristotle thought the Earth was round, as did Strabo, both giving good arguments for this; Eratosthenes measured the size of the earth rather accurately in the late 2nd century BCE. Anaximander did not believe in a flat earth, but his geometry of the planet was not correct (as a cylinder). In fact, Strabo used Homer as evidence for the phenomena of the spherical nature of the earth (see Odyssey, V: 393: “As he rose on the swell he looked eagerly ahead, and could see land quite near.”) Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) claimed that everyone believed the Earth to be spherical (Natural History 2.64). Ptolemy also gave reasons. So, when the scientists were really coming into their own, they said the earth was round. Even during the time the Gospels were being written, then, science knew better and yet Matthew gets is wrong. And as for science today, well, everyone should know the earth to be spherical.

2. Jeremiah 33:22 says the stars are uncountable. So, if the verse is supposed to be scientific, it is avoiding scientific terminology. “Uncountable” could be very vague and is. Is it just exhausting to go through all the stars and number them? Is the number actually infinite? In set theory, “uncountable” refers to sets of numbers that are “larger” than the set of natural numbers. There are not that many stars in the sky. The observable universe is finite and so are the number of stars. And since it is unlikely Jeremiah was using advanced mathematical language, he seems to suggest that the number is very large.

Modern science points out that there are many, many stars. Our galaxy alone has on the order of 400 billion stars (4*10^10). There are billions of galaxies. It is estimated that the number of stars in the observable universe is on par with the number of grains of sand on the surface of the earth. So, in effect, the number has been counted. One could say that modern science has contradicted Jeremiah, but that would take the meaning of the passage much more literally than it should be. But, since that is what Ray does, taking things literally when it is obviously not, the charge can apply to him. As for the statement about science saying the number of stars is only 1100, this number at least comes from somewhere if you look. Ptolemy cataloged about this many stars in his Almagest. That is a lot of stars and I would call that “uncountable” since I lack the will power to count them all. But, to say that science said there were only 1100 stars is without evidence, especially if it comes from the statement of only one person, espeically when philosophers argued in the past. Anaxagoras (5th century BCE) argued for an infinite universe with an infinite number of atoms. Such a belief makes is easy to accept there to be more stars than those visible. The proof that there are not an infinite number of stars in an infinitely old universe with a constant density was demonstrated in the Olber paradox. So, Ray is simply wrong in his statements about the state of science in the past and his literal reading of a statement that cannot be literal only shows his agenda.

3. According to Job 26:7, the Earth free floats in space. More correctly, the passage says that the Earth is hung from nothing. Well sure. After all, the Earth pushed up by pillars, not hung from above (Job 9:6, 26:11, Psalm 75:3). So, how can we understand Job 26:7 will the 11th verse tells us the Heavens are held up by pillars and the Earth earlier in Job? Well, the Hebrew word ‘erets (ארץ) can refer to the underworld, also known as Sheol, which was mentioned in the previous verse (Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering (RSV)). And as pointed out in the pictures above, Sheol is in the region below the Earth with its inhabitants. So, this ‘erets could mean that the Earth is above the nothingness that is Sheol. It is hard to properly gauge the meaning of the word “nothingness” in the Hebrew since it used only here in the entire Old Testament. However, since poetry seems to be in use here it is not difficult to believe that Job is referring to Sheol, the subterranean place of darkness, as “nothingness”. And the progression of Job 26 becomes sensible, since we have a sort of bottom-up on the Creation: Sheol, Earth, The Sky with clouds, the highest reaches heaven where the Moon is.

Now, does the Earth actually free-float in space? This is certainly a very improper way to refer to the nature of things. After all, the Earth is not “free” since it is gravitationally bounded by the Sun. Also, floating gives the impression of the Earth being in water while space is rather empty. (As an aside, if you had a large enough bathtub and a gravitational force under it, Saturn would float in it since its density is less then that of water. Cool!) Also, the text in Job says the Earth is “over nothing.” Over implies a downward direction, but this makes no sense with a spherical earth as the frame of reference cannot be made universal over the earth’s surface; not everyone can point with the same vector and call it “down”. So, more evidence of a flat earth in the Bible and not well connected to the findings of science.

But the last part of this, that science said the Earth sat on a large animal, this is completely false. This idea is from Hindu cosmology where the earth sits on elephants on turtles, etc. Hinduism is not science. I am not even aware of the term “Hindu Science”, unlike “Christian Science”, to exist. To say that the notion of the earth on elephants was ever considered science is simply an outright lie. It is not simple intellectual dishonesty–it is shear dishonest. (Okay, perhaps Ray is confused about what people said and what science has said, but that just shows his unwillingness to differentiate in order to try to sell Christianity and is still dishonest and projects his inability to understand what science actually is.)

4. Entering the New Testament, Ray says Hebrews 11:3 tells us the world is made of invisible elements. Okay, the Greek word used here is phainō (φαίνω), which means to be evident, to be seen, to meet the eye, shine. In context, the verse tells us that the world was created by the Word of God and a word is not visible.

Going into science, he claims that the world is made of invisible things, atoms. Well, I can see atoms. Otherwise, I would not be able to see my computer which is composed of atoms. And if you want, you can see atoms individually.

Atoms are not invisible; they are just very, very small. But they give off light, which is how we can see anything. If atoms were in fact invisible, I could look through any object. However, many things are opaque, including my computer’s keyboard. Further, the text of Hebrews does not say the world is composed of invisible things but that the creation came about by the agency of invisible things. The Greek word used here is ginomai (γίνομαι), a deponent verb meaning to come into existence. It can also mean to happen. Now, the verse is talking about God’s creation of the universe, so the context makes clear that the universe came into being via powers invisible. The universe did not come about because of atoms. In fact, in the earliest moments of the universe there were no atoms, but instead a “quark soup”. Further, no one could extrapolate from the Bible that the universe is composed of atoms, and even if one did no details about atoms could be given. You can’t extrapolate Plank’s constant, for example, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle out of Genesis or Hebrews.

But the last part is again the worst. Originally, it said this “SCIENCE THEN: Science waw ignorant on the subject.” Now, this completely ignores Democritus, an pre-Socratic philosopher that argued for the existence of extremely small atoms composing everything in the universe. He believed in atoms and void between atoms; otherwise, if you cut something and there is something in the way, how is it possible? It seems a void is required to be moved through. This was one of his arguments. Against, it doesn’t get us to quantum mechanics, but it is very good. Also, Democritus was centuries before the epistle to the Hebrews was ever composed. So, even if the author of Hebrews (no one knows who since no name is on it, though tradition says Paul of Tarsus) did mean to speak of atoms, that was something already thought about. It doesn’t demonstrate any divine knowledge at all.

And someone in the comments pointed that out to Mr. Comfort, a person with the handle Rando. First, Ray is smug about the whole thing:

Democritus was born in 460 BC. How did he see atoms so long before Galileo developed the first reliable microscope in 1609 (2,000 years later), and before the advent of the electron microscope in the 1930’s? Also, why to you believe everything you read in history books, and doubt anything written in the Bible? I look forward to your reply.

So, he first avoids the problem. There was nothing about seeing them. Also, this is not faith in history books. Just read Aristotle, Diogenes Laërtius, Cicero, Seneca, etc., who talked about Democritus’ theories at length and you know that the idea was ancient. Besides, if you could see atoms in the time of Democritus that would disprove Hebrews 11:3, not confirm it. Later, Ray says he now sees the error and makes a fix: “SCIENCE THEN: Science was mostly ignorant on the subject” (emphasis added). This is not the problem actually. It matters not if knowledge of atoms was in its infancy or advanced; the idea of atoms was the key thing. After all, the author of Hebrews gives no details about atoms at all beyond existence (if he was even talking about such things), and there is no contradiction between a lack of exact knowledge and an intricate modern theory of atoms, just progression. If Ray wanted to fix the problem he would have completely deleted this part of the post since it does not support his case at all.

Once again we have an example of a lack of coherent thought and scientific and historic ignorance written up in order to evangelize rather than get the truth out.

5. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:41, each star is different from another. Modern science says the same, that two stars are not identical. No problem. But where in the world did Ray get the idea that ancient astronomers thought all stars were the same? This is without any backing in reality. Heck, a caveman can see that not all stars are the same by simply noticing some stars are brighter than others and some have different colors. Some “stars” even move (the word planet from its Greek roots means “wanderer” or “wandering star”). The observing ability to notice this is bare-minimal–you just need eyes. This is simply a false statement.

6. Job 38:19-20 is somehow supposed to say that light moves. I guess if light can “dwell” someplace it must have the ability to move there. Let’s take that as it is, though it is certainly not what a first reading of the text would uncover. And of course, we know today that light moves, extremely fast though (299,792,458 meters/second exactly).

But once again, Ray asserts about ancient science without any history to back him. He says that the ancients believed light did not move. Huh The closest I can find here is from Aristotle’s Sense and Sensibility. He stated “That without light vision is impossible has been stated elsewhere; but, whether the medium between the eye and its objects is air or light, vision is caused by a process through this medium.” Also, “light is due to the presence of something, but it is not a movement.” So, one person in antiquity said that light was some sort of stationary substance. Most others thought otherwise. For example, Euclid had his own work on light and proposed it traveled in straight lines. Euclid also argued about previous theories of how eyes see; his arguments were based on the finite speed of light. (See Euclid’s Optica, one of his few works that have survived to the present day.) Before Euclid, Empedocles proposed that the eyes had fire in them and so projected light onto an object which then returned to the eye to be seen. Again, light is said to travel. Some proposed the speed of light to be infinite. Heron of Alexander had done that (1st century CE). Today, we know better.

So, the say-so of one person is not the end-all in science. Further, the ideas of the movement of light in Empedocles are contemporary with the dating of the Book of Job, the 6th to 5th century BCE (see Bergant, Dianne “The Wisdom Books”, The Catholic Study Bible, Oxford University Press).

7. Job 28:25 is now claimed to say that air has weight. Sorry, but no. The NIV translators understood that what is being talked about is the force of winds. Ray’s understanding of the text is forced, not natural.

Does air have weight? Well, it has mass. It has pressure. However, weight is not a very proper way to talk about air. Firstly, without a gravitational field it is without weight. Here on earth air seems to be without weight since we are immersed in it. But, air does have weight here on earth, for that is how we feel its pressure. But who in the past said air was without weight? I can find no evidence of this, and Ray is not forthcoming with his source.

8. Looking next at Ecclesiastes 1:6, wind is said to blow in cyclones. I think to make better sense of this, it is more accurate to say that Ecclesiastes 1:6 says that there are wind currents that makes turns along the way. Well, there certainly are. Did the ancients say otherwise? I have found nothing to support that. It sounds made-up to me. Ray needs to give some sources around here. Also, wind can blow straight or near-straight. This happens all the time.

9. Leviticus 17:11 says that the life of any creature is in its blood (NIV). Well, if you bleed an animal of its blood then it will likely die. However, not all creatures have blood. For example, flat worms do not have blood, nor do they need it. So, the statement that any creature has blood is a false one. Also, blood is not the source of life, as Ray states. Again, plants and primitive animals show that to be the case.

But then Ray gets into blood letting. This is obsolete because it doesn’t work and is usually harmful. The idea was that when you are sick you have too many “humors” in the blood and they must be released. Well, usually you are sick because there is too much of something bad in there, so the idea is not that far-fetched. Now, does the idea of blood-letting contradict the notion that higher animals, such as humans, need blood to survive? Of course not. Otherwise, the doctors of old would simply have taken out all the blood and not thought about it a second time. They prescribed a certain amount of blood to be taken out, leaving some (most, hopefully) for the patient needed it. (Also note that the Talmud gave instructions on when blood-letting should be practiced; Christian writers did the same. See “Bloodletting in Talmudic Times” by Fred Rosner, Bull. N.Y. Acad. Med. 1986 November; 62(9): 935–946. A quote: “I, blood, am the cause of all illness” (BT Baba Batra 58b) and “much blood produces much leprosy” (Bechorot 44b).)

10. Next we move into the sea with 2 Samuel 22:16 and Jonah 2:6 which say that there were deep mountains and trenches in the oceans. This is a fact today. Did the ancients say otherwise? I have found nothing to make that seem to be the case. (Seeing a trend here?)

11. Job 38:16 speaks of springs in the oceans. They do exist. . . sort of. There are hot vents under water, but they are not springs in the proper sense of the word. Springs form because of melted ice water on land. Volcanic vents do not produce water. Did the ancients ever say theyse vents didn’t exist? Not anywhere I can find. It gets pretty ridiculous when Ray can spew this stuff without thinking that something like this does not require the least bit of evidence.

12. Leviticus 15:13 says to wash hands in running water. Not a bad idea. Did ancient scientists say to wash in still water? I can only find evidence to the contrary. “The ancient Egyptians thought that sitting a dusty body in still water, as the Greeks did, was a foul idea.” I won’t say I have any great authority here, but it is more than Ray’s assertions. Also, Muslim practice of Ablution requires moving water. And it seems obvious. If you have a bucket of water and you are dirty then that dirt goes into the water and the next person that uses the water has dirt already in it. Also, Lev 15 here is talking about semen discharges.

So, there is one great load of poor scholarship being passed off in an attempt to try and convince people a iron-age book is in fact a modern science book, though a literal reading of many passages are simply false compared to modern science. Heck, the Bible will even contradict ancient knowledge. For example, Leviticus 11:20-3 says that winged insects have four legs; insects are defined as having six legs. How did this one get passed the editors?

Now, another person in the comments went through a similar analysis, named David W. Irish. So, at least I am not the only person crazy enough to do this, though I think I have more references and pictures and details. But here is the question: will Ray and his ministries retract their work because of these overarching failures? I think we all know better.