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

God’s Not Dead 2.0 — Star of Bethlehem Edition

Last year there was a lot of news about a small movie with a strong Christian bent, but apparently its marketing strategy worked and got plenty of people, including atheists, talking about it. With a premise that some compared to the sorts of chain emails that have been around for decades, God’s Not Dead was all about how one person, steadfast in their faith, takes on the odds to argues against his atheist philosophy professor and convinces everyone that God is really for real. There are several other subplots all running together, and it has unnecessary cameos by Ducky Dynasty folks and pop Christian music. More noteworthy, the actor playing the atheist/sad-rabid puppy professor was Kevin Sorbo, best known for playing Hercules in the 1990s TV series. Critically panned and philosophically dubious (as shown expertly by Daniel Finke), it made plenty at the bank as various evangelical groups came to it in droves, and at least some secular folks had to see it if just to say they know what message it was trying to get across.

With the basic idea that academia is trying to force secularism onto everyone that attends, the underdog story has great appeal for those that want to say they are being oppressed or persecuted (even if it’s not so), and the formula is now being repeated. And in particular, it looks like one variant has come to my area of specialty. While not yet produced, there is a screenplay for a movie about the Star of Bethlehem, which again will run the premise of underdog Christian protagonist against political correctness in schools, at least according to what news sources I can find. It has gotten attention because it has received a newly minted award designed to highlight promising Christian or evangelical films, the “Chronos Prize”. The Star of Bethlehem movie was a finalist for best screenplay, and apparently it won a significant cash prize of $50,000. That may not be enough to get such a movie project off the ground (I have no idea what budget it needs), but the attention will probably bring in the investors.

The writers of the film are not nobodies either. Joan Considine Johnson was a writer for two major cartoons on Nickelodeon, among other projects. Her husband, Dave Alan Johnson, has also worked in the TV business as a writer, director, and other high-level jobs. Among other things, they both worked on the show Doc with Billy Ray Cyrus, father of Miley Cyrus. It looks like this current film is a family project (for now), since all three writers (including Gary R. Johnson) have the same last name. There is nothing on IMDB about a Star of Bethlehem film project from these three, nor by anyone else as best as I can tell. But again, that’s probably because there is only a screenplay right now and is likely to be produced not so much by Hollywood but other, independent companies. As for the content, the tiniest bit of blurbing I have seen is about showing the science behind the story and proving it’s true even to a secular public school administrator or teacher. I would guess that the particular theory it would rely on is the one from the Star of Bethlehem documentary by lawyer Rick Larson, to which I have already provided an extensive critique. I could be wrong about that, but given the obvious evangelical bent of the film and this particular documentary I would probably win a bet. And even if not, I have a book on the subject that would address the proposals anyway.

But will the movie actually get made? I’m sure there are thousands of proposals and screenplays written every year that go nowhere, so even with the current publicity I have no idea how much of a chance it has. And there is the most important question: will Kevin Sorbo return as the angry atheist professor? Because I know another atheist professor that knows a lot about the subject… 😉

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.
 

The Exposing Pseudoastronomy Podcast takes on the Star of Bethlehem … with Me!

As part of the continuing efforts to get the message out about the Star of Bethlehem and the failure to explain it with astronomy, I was interviewed on the Exposing Pseudoastronomy podcast, run by Stuart Robbins, an young planetary scientist and skeptic. In the past, the podcast has tackled lots of material from Coast to Coast AM and some of their top guests, such as Richard Hoagland, in great but comfortable detail. That should be enough reason to subscribe to this skeptical outlet.

If you want to hear the podcast with me, you can go to the blog page, find the show notes, or listen right here .

Quick notes: my voice wasn’t in the best of conditions, apparently due to some acid coming up in the night to burn my vocal chords. And I made a small gaff in a place or two. For example, I talked about commentary on the Star by “Saint Augustus.” While Augustus is important to Christian history, he’s not a saint, let alone with the standing of Satin Augustine. But otherwise, this came out really well.

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.

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?

9780956694867- Font Cover

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.