Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What a December, What a Year!

Well, it's nearing the end of 2008. With that comes much remembrances of months past, and boy did a lot happen in this year. Of course there was the huge presidential election with a huge route in favor of the Democratic party, and the events in India and Iraq have been very newsworthy, but my personal life has had much to talk about.

At the beginning of the year, I was not in my home state, but instead in Bavaria, celebrating with mein Schatz along with her family. With this wonder person in my life, I traveled through some of Canada, including a visit to Niagara Falls; later came a big trip through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, probably hitting every piece of land that needs to be seen before someone kicks the bucket up there. I also graduated from Michigan State in May and started grad studies at the Ohio State University, and fortunately I have passed all my classes and I think I did well as a TA--at least some of the students said I was good. There was also a trip back to Germany for about a month, which also allowed visits to CERN outside of Geneva as well as some of nearby France, a bit of Austria, and Neuschwanstein back in Bavaria, along with the great city of Berlin.

As if that was not enough traveling, my partner and I spent a week on Manhattan Island. What an amazing city, especially during Christmas time with all the lights and trees up all around the major plazas and stores. And lest one forget, there is still Lady Liberty, which has become very restricted in visiting inside since 2001 for obvious reasons.

Also in good news, my response earlier to an article by Dr. Molnar will be mentioned in the March issue of Sky & Telescope with a link to that blog post. Further, I have sent an article for review to the Journal of Higher Criticism, and hopefully it is up to par with scholarly method and writing.

Finally, after a trip up north to see an elk reservation--which my girlfriend first though were supposed to be moose until the difference in European understanding was made clear--I am home with my family.

So, Happy Holidays to all.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

When The Star Steers You Wrong--A Response To Michael Molnar

In my previous post, I mentioned that Dr Michael Molnar, astronomer, formerly a professor at Rutgers University, had written a short article for Sky & Telescope in their recent December issue. What I figured was he would restate his case for the Star of Bethlehem as an unusually powerful horoscope and signaled the birth of Christ to the Magi. However, his way of bringing his argument forth was a far cry from what I would have expected from a scientist, let alone in print.

Basically, Molnar called me a liar in print! Yes indeed, he said the following:

Echoing this charge [of ahistoricity of the Star], an article in this magazine one year ago concluded the star was an irresolvable pious myth (S&T: December 2007, p. 26). Regrettably, the article misrepresented by own research and ignored historical evidence. [p. 112]

Wow. I lied about his work and ignored evidence. In other words, I am dishonest and a terrible scholar. Odd that he did not name me in particular, though he brought up another S&T article from 1999 and mentioned the author, Bradley Schaefer, by name. Perhaps an avoidance of libel?

Did I misrepresent Molnar's work? I explained before that Molnar charged me in saying that I misconstrued his work by saying the Star was an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon. Rather, I said this was a positive condition for the horoscope (at least I said that Molnar said that it was positive), which was a part, or constituted, the Star of Bethlehem. I also pointed out that in Molnar's own book he uses the same language, and in fact more strongly than I did. Molnar's charge that I misconstrued his work is simply wrong.

Have I told him this? I contacted him in November of 2007 and early 2008. I have all the emails in my Gmail account. I tried to correspond on this subject, but unfortunately he was unresponsive. I explained how I had not misrepresented his work, presenting his own words in his book. He would not budge from his position and continued to insult me.

"You then have made a seriously deceitful assessment of [my] book."

"The problem lies in your deceptive writing style and biased cherry-picking of facts that misled S&T readers about my book and the evidence in support of an historical basis to the Star. I am incredulous that you are now rationalizing your historically inaccurate ideas and ignoring your article’s inexcusably fraudulent attack on me."

"If anyone was shortchanged, it was not Christmas planetarium viewers as you claim, but S&T readers."

I was also accused of having a hidden agenda because I brought up parallel stories from the time of early Christianity that may have influenced the story. Seeing that this has been done for over a century and is part of the criterion of dissimilarity used by biblical scholars today, I cannot be said to have any more agenda than them.

So, the good doctor has made much hay about me, calling me a liar on multiple occasions. Further, he refuses to answer any of my emails. I sent him emails in early 2008, which he refused to respond. I sent an email in response to his article a couple of weeks ago as well, again without response. This seems to be childish, and to call me a liar and then hide from my criticism is cowardly in action. Thus, I need to write this entry to make clear the problems I have with Molnar's research.

I'm only going to focus on the evidences brought forth by Molnar in his article. He thinks these are the best, it would seem. I plan on writing a more lengthy and thorough article for a biblical journal in the near future.

The first line of evidence presented are Roman coins. These coins are from Antioch, which is in modern-day Turkey. That is, not Israel. What? In fact, his first coin says on it (in Greek), City of Antioch. Pardon me, but to have coins from a non-Jewish city to be about the Jewish nation is very odd. In recent years, there have been state coins for all 50 states, and they are almost done. There is a coin that says "New York" on it. We also see the Statue of Liberty. What would make us think that a coin that says "New York" on it had anything to do with, say, Maine, and that the Statue was a symbol of this state? Isn't Molnar doing the same thing?

Molnar speculates that the coins were minted in Antioch because of the census of 6-7 CE when Judea became part of Syria, in which the capitol of Antioch. So his connection between the coins and Judea can only rest on speculation. However, there are serious problems even with that. Firstly, of the coins he presents only some have dates on them, and those dated are from 12-13 CE, well after the time of the census and inclusion of Judea into the Roman Empire proper. This makes the connection on Molnar's part more imaginative. Worse, his undated coin was dated by his own source, G. MacDonald, to 5-6 CE, before the census and unification (he uses Actian years, and so the coin was minted in Actian year 36, the census in 37 according to the Jewish historian Josephus). If his source is correct, then Molnar's coin was minted before the event that connects Syria and Judea. Molnar's contention is temporally impossible!

Further, Molnar claimed in his book that these coins were ordered by the govenor of Syria. This is not the case since the earliest coins are not of the legate class, but of the civic class. That is, they were minted by the city for the city's own needs. In other words, these were Antiochian coins minted in Antioch for Antioch under the pressures of the needs of the citizens of Antioch. Not Rome. Not Judea. Antioch was a free city and was free to print such currency as seen fit.

Finally, there are coins with the same symbol in question, Aries the Ram, on later Antiochian coins, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Are they still celebrating the union of Judea and Syria? Worse is that there are coins from 55-56 CE with the symbol, but at that time Judea was not part of Syria. The province would go back and forth on being part of Rome properly or as a client kingdom under one of the Herods, Agrippa II, from 48 CE until later on (Josephus, BJ 2.9.5; AJ 19 and 20). The Jewish War began in 66 CE, so until then the nation was under not direct Roman but Herodian rule, and after the war the land was returned to Agrippa until his death in around 100 CE. Judea was not part of Syria in these times. We can be certain of this because Josephus tells us this information and the two figures knew each other. Josephus reproduces some of their interchanges (e.g. AJ 17.5.4; BJ 2.11.6; Vit. 54). If the capitol of Syria was producing coins with the same symbol referring to the unification of Judea to Syria, then such a connection cannot be considered true. Simply, Molnar's case was complete speculation that fails against the evidence. Hard.

What of astrological documents that use Aries to represent Judea? Molnar's best source is Ptolemy, who does say Aries was over Judea and other nearby lands. However, Ptolemy says that the constellation was representative of modern-day Germany, France and England. That's rather far from the Holy Land, no? What is frightening is that Ptolemy produces a list of what nations are under what constellations, and that list for Aries includes Germania, Gaul, and Britannia, as well as Palestine. However, Molnar reproduces this list but has an ellipsis where these non-Israeli nations would be. Shouldn't he have at least mentioned this somewhere in his book? Molnar also cites Valens, a 2nd century astrologer, but this figure does not mention Palestine at all. He does relate Coele Syria to part of Aries, but we would have to assume that the astrologer meant Judea into the lands of Coele Syria and the lands that surround it. He may mean that Phoenicia was what included Judea. For all we knew, Valens had no constellation for this region at all; he doesn't cover the whole known world (nor all the constellations of the zodiac for that matter).

What is really strange is Molnar's reading of the 1st century astrologer Manilius. He speaks of Syria and Egypt under Aries, but does not mention Palestine. Molnar figures that Syria included Palestine. But if he had flipped just two pages in the Loeb translation of the book (which Molnar used), he would have seen a description for lands under Aquarius which included regions between Egypt and Tyre (4.797-8). That's the Holy Land! This region he refers to he calls Phoenicia, a geography that he makes clear elsewhere (4.620-7). So Molnar's reading of Manilius is seriously botched. However, this translation includes in the preface a list of regions and constellations, which Molnar missed, along with a frontispiece that included a map with all the different regions with their corresponding constellation symbol. It had Aquarius near the Dead Sea! So there were three different places in the text that says that Aries was NOT the constellation of the Holy Land. How did Molnar miss this?

And if we look at other astrological geographies, there is much more contradiction that consensus (which the translator of Manilius noted himself). For example, Dorotheus, another 1st century astrologer, had Aries over Babylon and Gemini over Phoenicia--which probably includes Judea (Pingree, Dorothei Sindonii Carmen Astrologicum, pp. 427-8). A fourth century astrologer, Hephaistio, told of many traditions of astrological geography, some of it going back to Hipparcus. He tells us that Aries was over Babylon, Trace, Armenia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Red Sea, while Gemini was over Phoenicia. Syria also included rule by multiple constellations (Apotelesmatica I 1, pp. 4-29). Paulus Alexandrinus (4th century) and the Hermes Trismegistus also give contradicting astrological geographies, none of while say Aries was over the Holy Land. In fact, there is no majority position over all the treatises on astrological geography.

In case the paragraphs are hard to read, here's a recap, and see this link:
  • Ptolemy: Aries over Palestine as well as Germania, Gaul, and Britannia (ignored my Molnar).
  • Valens: Aries over Coele Syria and surrounding lands, but Phoenicia more likely to include Palestine and had different constellation (not considered by Molnar).
  • Manilius: Aries over Syria; Aquarius over Phoenicia which included Judea (contra Molnar).
  • Dorotheus: Aries over Babylon, Gemini over Phoenicia (not mentioned by Molnar).
  • Hephastio's sources: Aries over modern-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria; Gemini over Phoenicia (not mentioned by Molnar).
  • Paulus Alexandrinus: Aries over Persia; not sure which constellation for Palestine, but no probable choices include Aries (Syria had Capricorn, Egypt had Aquarius, Red Sea had Pisces) (not mentioned by Molnar).
  • Hermes Trismegistus: Aries over ocean, Bactria, Lydia; Scorpio for Palestine (not mentioned by Molnar).
The last two texts were not even mentioned by Molnar, but he had access to their astrological geographies. Molnar makes much of of Cramer's Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, and on page 23 a list is reproduced from another work that gives the astrological geographies of these texts as well as Ptolemy's list for comparison. How could Molnar have missed this?

Overall, Molnar ignored as many works as he cited, and only one can actually support his position while it also contradicts it as well. The mass array of contradiction should tell us that a particular agreed-upon constellation for Judea is non-existent in the literature.

So far then, one line of evidence is ungrounded speculation, another is poor research in reading of texts. Perhaps then we can imagine the quality of his last piece of evidence. Actually, he thinks it is independent confirmation of his Star of Bethlehem, coming from the 4th century (Molnar wrote the wrong year for this figure in his recent article). The astrologer Firmicus, who converted to Christianity at some unknown time before writing his most famous work against heretical forms of Christianity, wrote a Latin astrological work called the Mathesis. In one part of his text, Firmicus mentions a person of almost divine nature (4.3.9). The astrological circumstances also have some similarity to Molnar's conjectured horoscope for Jesus, which was on April 17, 6 BCE.

What's wrong with this piece of evidence? Firstly, the horoscope is not said to be of any particular person and mixes multiple horoscopes, including that of Caesar Augustus', as Molnar himself says in his recent article and book. So that Jesus was referred to here at all can only be speculative. Besides, the figure described does not match Jesus well. It says the person would be a general of great military prowess; Jesus had no army, not to mention "turn the other cheek" is not an effective way of winning wars. (Note that Obama made comment to this as well in a speech not too long ago, about how if the military utilized the philosophy of the Sermon on the Mount it could not work.) Further, the astrological conditions mentioned in Firmicus' work does not match Molnar's horoscope. Molnar has the Moon occulting Jupiter while Jupiter was close to the Sun. In such a circumstance, the Moon would be new and waning. However, Firmicus says that in his horoscope the Moon is full and waxing. The exact opposite.

As such, Molnar simply read into the text what he wanted to see. Besides, it is certainly odd that Firmicus, in the 4th century, knew the exact day (perhaps hour) Jesus was born, while other Christians could not figure out what year Jesus was born! Further, Firmicus later wrote his book to defend orthodox Christianity, but he did not mention the Star. Since Firmicus does not repudiate his history as an astrologer, why does he not mention his knowledge of the Star? It makes no sense at all.

With all that, Molnar's evidence presented in his article is rubbish. It's speculation and grounded misreadings and lack of reading. I won't go into his horoscope for Nero here, which is his last piece of evidence in his book. Suffice it to say, it is based on extrapolations and calculations from Suetonius talking about Nero. Suetonius is probably the worst source for such information as he was more a gossip-artist than historian, especially in his later works, including his Nero. No classicist agrees that the passage he cites is historical (see Bradley, Suetonius' Life of Nero, p. 247; Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars, pp. 63-4; Baldwin, Suetonius, pp. 174-80; Warmington, Suetonius: Nero, pp. 76-8). Any deductions he makes from this, and they are problematic in themselves, cannot be based on solid ground. Again, all his evidences are either worthless or contradicts his intentions, such as the astrological texts cited above.

Dr. Molnar has been quite confident in his assertions, and in this article he seems to consider his work the final word on the subject. Here is the context for this:

Bradly Schaefer declared that my explanation, based on extensive Roman-era documents and free of historical revisionism, was the "final word" about the Star of Bethlehem. Sometimes a final word needs repeating.

Rather bold, no? Sure he first quotes Schaefer (who is not a biblical scholar nor a classicist as far as I know), but he repeats the phrase "final word" without quotes, so Molnar certainly seems to think his work is that good. Obviously, I disagree.

Now, I wrote the above because Molnar accused me of misrepresenting his views and ignored evidence. I have explained how I did not misrepresent him, and as for ignoring evidence, this is a lot of pot calling the kettle black. Here are some of the things that Molnar failed to consider in any sort of meaningful way, if at all:

  1. Contradictions between Luke and Matthew--The gospels give mutually exclusive times when Jesus was born. They can't both be correct. So, why does he effectively ignore this point, which makes any claims for historicity all so much weaker? Besides, why does Molnar accept Matthew's date when Luke is more precise and the only Gospel writer claiming to write careful history? Doesn't this make Luke's date for Jesus' birth more probable, hence more likely born in 6/7 CE instead of 6 BCE?
  2. Miracles in the New Testament--The gospels are full of miracles and events with about zero likelihood of historicity, including Matthew's Nativity. There is the virgin birth and the slaughtering of baby boys by Herod; the first is miraculous and biologically impossible, the latter is unrecorded by any historian, including Luke. If all these events in the birth narrative are not historical, or at least cannot be shown to be so, doesn't that say that the Star should be just about as likely since its existence is only mentioned in this one book (others repeating Matthew's tale)?
  3. Authorship and Date--The Gospel of Matthew was not written until after 70 CE, and perhaps much later. The tax collector also did not write this work. The first mention of the gospel by the name "Gospel of Matthew" does not come about until about the end of the 2nd century! And the Greek says not that Matthew authored this work, but that the gospel is in the tradition of Matthew. It used kata Mathaion instead of Matthew in the genitive case, which is how authorship was stated in ancient works (cf. Josephus).
  4. Genre--The question should have been asked in the first place, Is Matthew telling history? The question of genre of the gospels is a tough topic, but the way things are moving is that the first written gospel, Mark, was written more as a novel then biography, specifically a Jewish novel (Vines, The Problem of Marken Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (2002)). Mark also used elements from Homer's epics (MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark). This gospel was also Matthew's primary source, along with Q and some other materials. If Matthew's story is based primarily on something that was more a novel than history, should we even think that Matthew is writing history/biography rather than producing a theological treatise?
  5. Greek--Molnar tried to use the words in Matthew's account of the Star to relate to astrological words. He failed. See Birdsall in "Review Symposium: by Michael Molnar", The Star of Bethlehem", Journal for the History of Astronomy 33, 4 (2002): 391-4. The only phrase that survived was en te anatole to meaning sunrise or a heliacal rising. However, this need not have anything to do with astrology, as Molnar wants, because:
  6. Molnar Ignores the Bible--A rising star can be seen in prophecy, namely Numbers 24:17. This was a well-known Messianic expectation as seen in Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Jewish revolt led by Simon bar Kochba. Would not the rising Star in Matthew be more likely a fulfillment of prophecy to fit Matthew's story rather than an astrological event? Further, Jesus is called the Morning Star multiple times in the New Testament (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 2:28; 22:16). Perhaps Matthew means the same thing here with this Morning Star? Why should we consider the Star astrological/astronomical when a Morning Star is so important in Christian literature? The criterion of dissimilarity makes this object most unhistorical in essence.
  7. Observability--Molnar knows that his rising star could not have been seen with the naked eye by the Magi. He thinks this is what made it good for astrologers and why non-astrologers missed it. However, the magi said they saw his Star, not calculated or inferred its existence. What is worse is that the movements of the Star could not have been observed by pre-telescope sky watchers. Molnar proposed that the "going before" and "stood over" in Matthew refer to the retrograde and stationary points of a planet, namely Jupiter. However, the movements of the planets near a stationary point cannot be seen and the stationary point cannot be known to the accuracy required by the Magi. They see the star going before them and then see it stop when they get to Bethlehem. This takes less than 2 hours. No planet can be seen to move relative to the stationary stars in 2 hours by the naked eye. That includes even the best observations by Tycho Brache. In fact, Ptolemy tells us this himself, that stationary points could not be known to the moment as the movement of the planet could not be distinguished for days before and after the stationary point (Almagest 9.2). Molnar's Star is not possible to see. How is an invisible Star preferable to a miraculous Star?
  8. Physical Possibility--Again, the Star, according to Molnar, went into retrograde motion and then stopped during the time the Magi left Jerusalem and reach Bethlehem. The tense for the word that means "go before", proago, is in the imperfect case. This means that the Star may have begun to move. Hence, the retrograde period started and stopped in a 2 hour time frame. No planet comes close to having a retrograde loop this short. Mars, for example, is several weeks, and Mercury, the fastest planet, is about 3 weeks. For a planet to retrograde and stop again in this short period of time would require a violation of orbital mechanics. In other words, a miracle. Hence, Molnar's Star is non-physical and non-observable. How is this preferable to just a miraculous Star?
  9. Reference frames--The Star is said to "go before" the Magi. However, retrograde loops and any planetary motion, as well as the movement of stars, novae, and comets in the night sky, all travel east or west. But this Star goes in the direction the Magi travel, which is south to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Matthew's context is clear; the Star travels before the Magi, not the stars in the sky themselves. So, Matthew's context clearly contradicts any of the major candidates for the physical Star of Bethlehem.
  10. Archaeology--I can't blame Molnar on this for his 1999 book. However, in 2005, Avriam Oshri of the IAA wrote an article for the Nov/Dec issue of Archaeology. He points out that Bethlehem was unpopulated centuries before and after Jesus was said to have been born there. In other words, there was no Bethlehem during the time of Jesus. How can there be a Star of Bethlehem if there was no Bethlehem?
  11. Ancient Testimony--Every ancient Christian who mentioned the Star considered it miraculous. I can find no exceptions. This include Origen, who seemed to say the Star was something like a comet. However, he meant that the Star had a similar meaning as a comet does, that it means a great change will happen (change you can believe in!). He demonstrates his belief that the Star is of an amazing nature in Homilies on Numbers 18.4, where he compares the Star to the dove at Jesus' baptism that rested upon Jesus. Further, Christians said the Star was not astrological. For example, see Gregory of Nazianzus, Poemata Arcana 5.56-57. This is also the consensus of Christians throughout history that the Star described was miraculous, including Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and in modern times the Jesus Seminar as well as Raymond Brown in his Birth of the Messiah. 2000 years of consensus is pretty amazing.
  12. Use of Astrological Texts--Even in Molnar's area of most research, he fails to understand the nature of the texts he uses. Namely, these books by Ptolemy and others cannot be used to make predictions. Barton in her Ancient Astrology (1994), pp. 114-42 compared the horoscope predictions between Manilius and Firmicus, taking the date of birth of Prince Charles. Both horoscope predictions were "correct" as far as astrology goes, but they contradicted each other immensely. Barton figures that these books were not meant for instruction but to demonstrate the learnedness of the the author. In other words, these books were to show off, not to be of practical use. And since different author's system's of casting horoscopes contradicts, they cannot be used as Molnar wants. What is worse is that Molnar confuses the very nature of natal astrology when he has the stars tells of the birth of a great figure when natal astrology does not do this. In natal horoscope astrology, the time of birth is recorded and then the horoscope is cast to predict the child's future. This is the opposite order that Molnar utilizes. Natal astrologers went birth, then stars; Molnar went stars, then birth. Molnar's method is more akin to omen prophecies, such as if this condition is seen, then this will happen. Molnar knows that ancient omen techniques are different that natal horoscope astrology (he makes that clear to me in his emails as well). Hence, Molnar completely abused astrology in not understanding how the instrument was used in the past.
  13. Wrong Astrology--What is also wrong with Molnar's use of astrology is that he focuses on the wrong region. The Magi are from "the East," probably referring to the lands of the Parthian Empire, including Persia and Babylon. However, all of Molnar's astrological texts are from the Roman world. Molnar cites a line from Strabo that the Chaldeans/Magi were casting natal horoscopes, but that says nothing on how they produced horoscopes. This is a major problem. And scholars who have investigated how the later Babylonians and their neighbors produced horoscopes have said that it is a big unknown (Rochberg, The Heavenly Writings, p. 118). The horoscopes that have been recovered do not have key points on them that Western or Hellenistic horoscopes have, such as the Midheaven or the Lot of Fortune. And in later times, the astrological methods of Ptolemy and those of the Persians were still distinct (Abu Ma'shar, Yamamoto, Burnett, On Historical Astrology: The Book of Religious Dynasties (on the Great Conjuctions), p. 573, n. 2). So, even if Molnar was correct about anything on the constellations for regions, it wouldn't matter because that says nothing of what was believed in Persia. Molnar's efforts are a complete red herring.
So, when it comes to ignoring historical evidence, I think that Molnar has a much greater problem here that I do. In effect, Molnar ignored the whole of biblical scholarship, which you would think would be an important area to look into considering that his thesis is something in the area of biblical studies. How is this different than a creationist arguing about the retention of heat in the earth's core, claiming it proves the earth is not billions of years old, while ignoring radioactivity? The creationist claims that physics proves something, but to get that conclusion he or she must ignore much of physics. Similarly, scientists that argue about the Star without looking into biblical studies make the same mistake.

So with all this, will this make Molnar respond to me when I email him? Will he at least try and defend his thesis on these points, to which he has ignored when I have brought them to his attention? I wrote about the observational problems in my article and in my emails to Molnar, but he didn't even mention this point, the point that I think falsifies his theory all on its own. After all, if what Molnar tries to describe is what the Magi observed, and that observation was impossible, is that not the death of a theory?

None the less, I think I have demonstrated that Molnar's work is not the "final word" on the subject, and instead any proponent of a natural Star of Bethlehem has a huge task in front of them. But if instead one sees what the texts says and to what purpose it was written, it makes so much more sense that the author of Matthew was not writing history, his Star was purposefully miraculous, and was written to show that Jesus was God's anointed one, the Morning Star, son of the Dawn (Isaiah 14:12).

What should be investigated instead is why was the Morning Star placed where it is in the text and what does it mean in the context of 1st-century Jewish theology? That is worthy of a paper, which I am producing now.

NOTE: I may fix some sentences in the future for this post.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Star Returns to the Sky . . . & Telescope

As I had been informed before several months ago, the editors of Sky & Telescope have allowed Dr. Michael Molnar to write a short article pertaining to the Star of Bethlehem, largely because of his response to my article written in the 2007 December issue of the magazine. In my article, I mentioned his book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers: 2001), comparing his belief that the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon was a positive sign to an ancient Babylonian astrological treatise that said this signified the death of a king. I probably didn't spill more than 50 words on his work in particular, though I did effectively "spit in the face" of theories such as comets, novae, and a later death for King Herod, along with any natural hypothesis for the Star--respectfully in my opinion.

There was already plenty of back and forth on the subject on the Talk Back page for my article on the S&T web page, to which Dr. Molnar participated in. Rather, we had some statements written to each other, carbon-copied to the editors of the magazine, though I suspect they were not reading these exchanges completely--they have jobs, you know. In the end, the conversation was not terribly profitable and Dr. Molnar stopped responding to emails I sent to him. Perhaps things can change now.

I have not read his new article, and it is not mentioned on the cover image of the newest S&T magazine, but appears to be the last page. I suspect he had about 500 words of space given to his response. Plus, the editors told me that his article was not going to be a reply to my article, per se. So, I don't really know the content until I read what he has. That may be a few weeks until the newest issue arrives where I am.

If he says something that I think is worth while responding to publicly, I may post that here. More likely, I will do some private conversing, which I think would be more respectful. Besides, a 500-word essay isn't going to be something earth-shattering.

In the mean time, I wish to make one point clear. In a letter reprinted in the May 2008 issue of S&T, Molnar says that I mischaracterized his position on the Star. I said that in Molnar's view, the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon was a positive sign that may have constituted the Star of Bethlehem. Molnar's response to me was that he did not say the Star of Bethlehem was this occultation.

And that is not what I said. Again, I said that this was a positive sign (in Molnar's opinion) that may have constituted the Star. Constitute is not the same as is. Besides, in Molnar's own book, he said the following "if the heliacal rising and lunar occultation of Jupiter constitute the Star of Bethlehem . . ." (p. 96). Molnar himself says that the occultation constituted, or was a part of, the Star. In fact, my version of what Molnar said is more cautious, as I say it was a positive sign that may have been part of what was the Star of Bethlehem. I was doubly-cautious in this use of terms, and without much loss of precision as I see it. As such, I did nothing to set up a strawman of Molnar's arguments at all.

This was Molnar's chief beef with my article, but as we conversed other things came up, which I will not get into here. In those conversations, however, it seemed that Molnar failed to take on my key points and made statements that mischaracterized my position and statements. Now, that may sound like I am the pot calling the kettle black, but I must say that hypocrisy was avoided the best I could.

Let me say though, that the most important point that I tried to make, to which Dr. Molnar made no response, was that his Star's movements would have been observationally impossible for naked-eye observers, not only at the rising of the Star, but, more importantly, in the way it moved from the time of the Magi left Jerusalem until they reached Bethlehem, a distance of several kilometers, at most a two-hour trip on foot. It would seem that if you have a hypothesis for what the Magi saw, and what you describe could not have been seen, that should be the kiss of death to such a hypothesis. I see this as the most important problem with Dr. Molnar's, and most every other's, estimation for what the Star of Bethlehem was--the biggest problem assuming that this is reliable testimony of events.

Should one not make that assumption, and should one observe the critical issues of historicity, it should be realized just how silly it is to try to explain something naturally where there is no reason to think such a thing is there. After all, is it not a waste of time to figure out the preferred type of pizza is consumed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (if he/she/it eats pizza at all)? With this story, we don't know who the author was, the document itself was written at least post-70 CE (2nd century according to more radical scholars), not independently attested, contradicted by other accounts (including the account given by the only gospel writer claiming to write history), of questionable genre (was the gospel even meant to be history/biography?), the author is generally willing to tell tales that are almost certainly unreliable (such as in ch 27 where the dead saints come to life and enter Jerusalem, which no historian or other gospel writer claims happened--how could that have missed that!?!), and the very town Jesus was said to be born in was uninhabited for centuries before, during, and after the time of Jesus (A. Oshri, "Where Was Jesus Born?" Archaeology 58, 6 (2005)). So, this alone should make the search a fool's errand, to sift through the sands of time for an event that didn't happen (if there was no Bethlehem, how could there have been a Star of Bethlehem?).

Well, until I read Dr. Molnar's response, I wouldn't say more on his thesis.

On the other hand of scholarship, I am really getting excited about Richard Carrier's work on his book on the historicity of Jesus as well as the first meeting of The Jesus Project, started by R. Joseph Hoffmann and CSER. As for my research, I hope to send an article out of the Journal of Higher Criticism in the near future about my own investigation into the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem and its source-critical implications.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Worth the Cost? YES!

Well, as mentioned before, the LHC is now accelerating particles about, with collisions scheduled for late October. However, as cool as it is to have particle moving at 99.9999999% the speed of light in tubes colder than space (below 2 degrees Kelvin), there are people wondering about the utility of the project. The cost has been estimated to be between 3 and 7 billion euro (say $5-10 billion), which is quite large. I sure would like to have that sort of cash.

So, there have been people asking these questions very publicly.

Brian Cox of CERN certainly made some good points, but perhaps I can also say a few things since I don't have to fit into a time slot.

Firstly, understanding the fundamentals of physics is helpful for any future scientific and practical innovation. Who could possibly have thought of the day-to-day requirements of atomic theory and relativity at the turn of the century. The structure of an atom, if it was a sort of jelly, or a solar system model, or something more exotic--no matter which, if someone asked what sort of impact this would have on a person's life, I doubt Rutherford could have answered such a question. However, with an understanding of atomic theory, we have extremely accurate clocks, electricity, smoke detectors, chemotherapy, and more. Innovations in computers would have been difficult, if not impossible, without an understanding of the quantum realm, stuff that would have seemed like intellectual masturbation in the 1920s, but now is a necessity for the modern world. And as for Einstein's theories, if humans did not understand general relativity GPS satellites would not be able to work--they would be off by miles. There is no way any of these great scientists could have known about the particle applications of their theories in the future.

The same can and should be said of high energy particle physics. Having a more complete theory of the subatomic universe can only be helpful in the future. Who knows what sorts of things make be useful in having strange quarks or particles that only work with the weak nuclear force. Or imagine that we learn enough about the world of force particles that we can manipulate them. If we could weaken gravity or decrease the mass of objects, space travel would be easy. If we could somehow weaken the repulsion between nuclei of atoms, fusion energy would be a snap. Now, no one knows if any of these sorts of things are possible. But how can we found out unless we do the research?

As for the expense, the other person in the video, David King, mentioned using the money for trying to cure cancer. Well, he does realize that this is not an either-or situation. Besides, the US alone has spend about $200 billion since 1971, and other nations have major investments in this area as well. Progress has been made, but no cure has come. As for global warming, the cost for getting all vehicles to be clean, power stations to be clean, etc., that could cost trillions of dollars. The US uses about 29000 billion kWh, and the cost of nuke power is $2000 per kWh, so the cost is huge on this front. $10 billion is nothing by comparison. Now, this is not to say that combating global climate change isn't worth while. What the problem is is the false dichotomy--this is not an either-or situation, nor is it that if a nation funds CERN it cannot fight cancer or help evade further change to the climate. Nor does it mean that nations cannot feed the poor, heal the sick, and so on. Besides, if one really wants to look at things that are expensive, look at the US military budget.

The annual budget for the US military is over $400 billion--that's at least 40 CERNs a year, and that $10 billion for CERN is over several years. Heck, a single B2 stealth bomber costs around $2 billion, and there are 21 of them. The program the the F22 Raptor, America's newest air fighter, costs over $60 billion, and no nation is anywhere near competing with it at this time, nor in the near future (Russia' plane is far away, and they are not so hostile, nor insane). Now, I'm a fan of national security, secure sovereignty of my home country, and I think the things the military has are hyper-awesome, but the money funneled into this area is far and away more than any science experiment or research project. (And need I remind the US government, it was research into theoretical physics that lead to the invention that helped end of the Second World War, though at a terrible cost of human life?)

So, the whole cost question, when in proper context, it nothing to be so worried about. CERN is not taking away the ability to research new medicines and treatments. Besides, it is pharmaceutical companies that are failing us right now for not researching the creation of new antibiotics; if germs become immune to all antibiotics (and there are some!), how shall we defend ourselves from disease? Of course, drug companies invest in what is profitable, so there are tens of penis pills out there. I feel for the guy with erectile dysfunction, but is this really more important than, say, curing cancer or preventing the next super-bug from causing a terrible pandemic? So, if we were to go by shear economic desires, we would all have great sex but short lifespans.

Investments have to be more forward thinking than what sells or is desired at the moment. I know that curing disease and preventing world climate disasters are forward-thinking, but usually people want something practical in the hear and now. Heck, many people are uninteresting in climate change because it's in the future. What people want obviously is not the best way to go about giving the people they want. Passions are whimsical, ephemeral, and never satisfied. Investments in research should of course at least have some potential for giving something back, but always thinking towards a dollars in-dollars out approach does not lead to the discoveries that can produce entire new industries.

Further, consider that there are always spin-offs that come about when there is a major investment in science projects. The Apollo program gave use better computers and Velcro. CERN was the driving force for the creation of the Internet. As mentioned in the video, the cooling systems at the LHC are to be utilized in the research in producing electricity from fusion. Who can say what things can come about because of the work in these areas?

Now, some will argue that these sorts of innovations would have been brought about anyways. This always seems to be odd to me. After all, does this mean that Newton does not deserve credit for formulating his laws of motion because someone else would have done it eventually? By this line of thinking, no one ever deserves much credit for anything. Such nihilism is not worth further dissection.

Finally, there is the human factor. Understanding the very fabric of space, the essence of matter and energy, to ability to be familiar with and manipulate time and possibly extra dimensions--knowing where our cosmos has come from, where it is going, where we fit in. Are these not the sorts of questions we want answered? Is not an answer to these sorts of things a profit from investment, a kick-back that is eternal and wholesome? If such a search is not moving to the very soul of a person, I don't know what is.

Science has brought us amazing realizations. Astronomy and physics has shown us that we are all created from the same matter, atoms forged in the furnaces of stars over eons of time, distributed throughout the galaxy. Is not realizing that we are star stuff one of the ways of seeing our connection to the cosmos, to see we are a part of it, not separate? When you look into the Orion Nebula, you can see the collapse of clouds of gas and dust, the creation of stars and planetary systems. You can witness Creation, the formation of new worlds, new earths, new intelligences to be. Humans have always tied themselves to the workings of the Cosmos. The Sun tells us when to be awake and to sleep. The rising of stars told our ancestors when to plant, when to harvest, when to hunt, and how to navigate. The phases of the moon helped in timing the feminine cycles, and the setting and rising of planets and stars led the imaginations of cultures to see death and rebirth as a part of the universe. Our life beyond life has been with the stars--the rising sun was the resurrection, the stars were ancestors or angels or gods, the Milky Way was their path. Modern astronomy has brought us the life and death of stars, along with the realization that death leads to new life. When humans understand that this is the world we live in, they, no, we can place realize what we are and where we are going. It cannot be done with ignorance or looking only at a particular problem to be solved. The understanding of life takes a lifetime.

And physics is one of the ways to see where were are in the world. The fundamental particles are what we are made of, and knowing their origins and fate guides the answer to our own. The only other science that I would dare say help us understand out place as well as astronomy/physics would be biology. And what amazing finds have been found there!

The cost of CERN is large in the short-term, but its cost in comparison to other projects is not so amazing, and its long-term benefits are inestimable. I won't advocating giving all we have to this one project, but remember that this investment is in our very understanding of everything, including ourselves. (Perhaps its such discovery that is really scaring people--who we are can be frightening.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

To the State of Confusion . . . er, Ohio

In less than a weak now, I will be moving to my new alma matter, the Ohio State University. It's odd that they start about a month after all other universities, but this have given me some time to do research that I could not possibly have the time for once graduate classes start. I have seen how absorbing of time they are for my girlfriend (whom I love). However, I won't mind joining a school with a winning football team!

I king of want to get started though. To get back into the swing of physics problems would be nice, especially if in my first semester I can do quantum theory. I'd rather do that over classical mechanics or electromagnetism. If you ever took grad-level physics, you know why this is what I desire. But, I have to get through it anyways.

I wonder how much CERN is going to be a part of my classes as well since they have begun accelerating particles there. As of now, first collisions are supposed to happen on Oct 21 of this year. However, it will be a long, long time before useful statistics are collected, and come Christmas Cern will be turned off for repairs. There won't be any discoveries of the Higg's boson by the end of this year then, at least not at CERN, and I doubt Fermilab will come from behind and demonstrate the existence of this last particle of the Standard Model. Yet, it is still more likely than CERN destroying the world--by the way, CERN cannot destroy the world even if the scientists tried.

As for CERN, my good friend has posted some answers to questions about the LHC at her blog. She was asked by the school newspaper to answer these questions and she made them more accessible this way. Good stuff, mein Schatz.

Well, time for me to pack.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Well, I am here now at CERN, the gigantic European particle accelerator which will be searching for the all-powerful Higgs Boson. Well, it would be all-powerful if it exists.

So, until then, let me assure you this is NOT happening:

. . . or is it?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Leavin', on a Jet Plane

Well, I'm off to cross the pond again in order to see someone very special to me. At the moment, the bus is taking me to the airport, and in about 18 hours I will (hopefully) be on the ground in Germany.

I just hope I can sleep well on the flight. With my luck, there will be a six-month old right behind me. Oh well.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Ich liebe dich

Gutten Tag, Sarah.

Ich wollte schreiben dir und informierte dich, wie viel ich sorge mich für dich.

Ich liebe dich, mein schöne Schatz, dieses viel.

Please correct my German.

Corrections with the help of my wonderful.

Guten Tag

Ich wollte dir schreiben und dir sagen, wie sehr ich dich mag.

Ich liebe dich so sehr, mein schöner Schatz.

Monday, May 5, 2008

What Happened to the History Channel?

I am back home from college, finally completing my degrees at MSU, and so I am watching TV again (I didn't have one in my room on purpose). Often the stuff on television I find dreadful, especially the omnipresent commercials for things I could care less about. But, I figure there are channels that are worth while when it comes to things that are entertaining and educating, at least if I am interested in nonfiction. I really enjoy Mythbusters, and the science channels can have something enjoyable to me that is informative to an astronomer (with a BS). One of my favorite channels was the History Channel, which for a long time could have simply been called the World War II channel because most every show was either about the war or tried in incorporate stock footage of the war. I am sure that you could see the explosions of ships at Pearl Harbor at least once a day on that station. The channel had a lot of interesting series, such as Great Blunders in History, or more recently The Universe.

Unfortunately, the channel has been broadcasting nonsense as well. There have been numerous shows, old and new, about the prophecies of Nostradamus, who is referred to by Penn & Teller on Bullshit as a "French Fuck". Indeed, his "prophecies" were vague and were probably not created for readers in the 21st century but to make himself useful/popular in his own time. I think Michael Shermer has said that he may have used these quatrains for political purposes, containing hidden messages no different than John Swift with Guliver's Travels. Anyhow, the History Channel has brought this figure up too often, speaking as if there was something real in them, that Nostradamus produced genuine and accurate prophecies of the future. Sure, there is the token skeptic at the end, but there is still an hour of your brain on vacation. Things become all the worse with shows about the Bible Code, UFOs and abductions, and more pseudoscience nonsense.

But I became particularly outraged by a recent episode of Ancient Discoveries. The original three episodes talked about the ancient Mediterranean world, with inventors like Heron, or the great doctor Galen, and the amazing Antikythera mechanism--this was a planetary calculator before the Common Era. I was blown away by this data of the ancient world and loved the production. Recently, these series has expanded. What I saw at 10:00 PM on Cinco de Mayo what about Chinese shipbuilding, all from the Common Era I think. They talked about some rather interesting boats, including the Junk-style boat which is still used today. I found this all interesting and I probably would have been just as floored by this show in the first half hour if I was more awake at the time.

The second half of the show decided to take a different turn, buying a ticket to crazy town. Perhaps some have heard of the book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Produced by Gavin Menzies, a former submarine sailor (not a historian), this book proposes that China has reached the Americas in the 15th century with boats on a voyage of discovery before the time of Columbus. Menzies "evidence" consists of some maps he found in shops which he claims go back to 15th century China. Experts know better. Along with some bogus claims about DNA evidence backing up the claim for recent infusion of Chinese DNA, that is pretty much the evidence. This "theory" is dismissed by experts on China. After all, we have very good records from China because of the advanced and sophisticated bureaucracy of the government which make no mention of such a discovery of the Americas. One would think that would make the papers, especially in well-educated China (compared to Europe at the same time). There are also no ship finds on the Americas of 15th century Chinese ships, such as Junks, at all. The proposed ships for the travel are not even considered seaworthy for the Pacific Ocean.

And yet, this History Channel episode spent about half the time talking about this "theory", including an interview with Menzies and other supporters of this work. Spending this much time of this hypothesis of Menzies with little skepticism casts the light that this "theory" is on par with the consensus of scholars and historians that such a notion is bogus. Never mind that there is plenty online and in journals to debunk this book, making the presentation on TV without greater criticism intellectually dishonest, but how there is an attempt to prove the theory is even more disgusting.

In Oregon, some amateurs attempt to look for one of these Junk ships on the shore, going by Menzies work. Now, to find such a ship on the Western shores of the Americas is quite the trick; the coastline is so long how can you make a choice of where to look? Well, apparently they know how to find the ship and know its approximate size before digging it up. How?

Dowsing rods.

I kid you not. Taking a couples of metal sticks, which people have claimed for generations can find water, now can find 15th century Chinese treasure ships.

Maybe this isn't hitting you hard enough. These folks, with apparently no archaeological training, are trying to prove a pseudo-historical claim by using pseudoscience? Apparently astrology is part of the equation as well since apparently the Sun affects how the rods work.

There are even more problems with this "dig" as well. After figuring out where the "stern" of this "boat" is in the ground, they drill down into the sand of the beach using a plastic pipe and forcing a running hose into it to push sand away and get down deeper until they reach wood. Then they take a drill and bring up some wood for sampling and C14 dating. Um, how do they know that wood is from a Chinese ship and not, say, a canoe? Worse is that this method of getting the wood of the "ship" does not allow for any stratigraphy, the archaeological method of examining layers in the ground to get relative dating. If you cannot do this, you are wasting everyone's time when the matter is finding the correct date of the burial of this object. After all, even if this was a Chinese Junk ship, it could be from the 19th century instead of the 15th. Also, if you want to do C14 dating, you have to get samples from multiple parts of the "ship" to get reliable dates and recognize outliers in any statistics produced. One core sample is not enough, especially with such a crude method of extraction and preservation of the materials in question.

The entire second half of this episode was junk after talking about Junk ships. How could this have passed by any thinking executive at the History Channel. And this was no accident. Going to see the author of this book, to spend days with the diggers of this "ship" in Oregon, and to have the most minimal level of skepticism displayed by the expert on Chinese history, can only be deliberate. Either the creators of this episode were ignorant of the quality of Menzies' thesis, or were actively trying to save it from criticism. If they were ignorant about the history, they how can they have any right to do anything for the History Channel?

I am simply appalled that such utter crap scholarship has reached a mass audience, and now through the vehicle of Fox News. I already have a negative view on the contents of American television; do these networks have to go out of their way to make it worse? Sure I can make fun of this station talking about the modern marvel that is corn, but at least that has good history behind it. I don't want any woo with my shows, thank you very much. Not only do they waste my time, they harm the intellectual level of the people of the US. It is a well-informed public that allows for a democracy to work. Filling the heads of voters with utter garbage and no way to differentiate between crap and history/science/reality is a great way for things to go awry.

So please History Channel: Call back Roger Mudd and do more Hitler shows. How about a Modern Marvels episode about Hitler and Stalin's mustaches? It's at least more intellectual and honest that this Kuhscheiße I saw this evening.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Wow, It Really DID Suck!

Well, it looks like my critics of the film Expelled need not be looked at because the critics have weighed in.

Epsilon Cue has a post showing the rating of Expelled compared to many other movies that are considered by most thinking people to be absolutely terrible. The ratings come from Rotten Tomatoes, which gauges a movie's quality by the percentage of good and bad reviews from many critics. If a movie is 60% or better approved by critics, it is considered "fresh", and less it is rotten. Sometimes you get something pretty messed-up, such as the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956) which is elevated more due to cult status than anything else. But here is some perspective given by Epsilon Cue:

Robot Monster (1953): 27%--this movie is simply terrible. I saw it through Mystery Science Theater 3000 which made it tolerable, but the level of thinking that went into the movie itself (especially the repetitive ending) must have been nonexistent. I can understand a low budget, but that is no excuse for a low movie-making I.Q.
Dude, Where's My Car (2000): 18%--again, I have unfortunately seen much of this movie since my brother was somehow amused by it. Crap all the way through and it makes it difficult for me to give any credence to Ashton Kutcher's acting abilities.
Crossroads (2002): 15%--before Britney was completely crazy, but when her acting skilled still sucked. I am glad I put a lot of distance between myself and this film.
Left Behind -- The Movie (2001): 12%--it does well in church basements but it lacks much redeeming quality. However, I suspect it is still better than the video game based on the book series which every video game critic I have heard agrees it was terrible through and through.
Catwoman (2004): 10%--argh, stay away. (I can't believe it's already four years old.)

I skipped a few of the movies on the list to avoid boredom, especially since some I am less familiar with. But how about a few more?
Spice World (1997): 29%--wait, someone thought this movie was worth seeing? A movie about the pop group Spice Girls? And before Victoria was a Beckham?
Manos: Hands of Fate (1966): 6%--this movie SUCKED! It is the worst movie I have yet come across. Acting, lighting, film angles, editing, music quality, plot, meaning; any criteria you can name, this movie failed. The only thing that made it possible to see is (again) Mystery Science Theater 3000, and even the people there agree it was the world movie they ever had to deal with. (RT gives the MST3K episode of Manos a 82%, very respectable and deserved.)
Gigli (2003): 6%--everyone agrees this movie was a mistake. Ben is not the greatest actor and an excuse to see his chest is not worth a movie ticket, especially if you don't have any attraction to him.
Battlefield Earth (2000): 3%--when Hollywood does a movie from the founder of Scientology, what should you expect? An A-List actor being brain-washed into selling out his career. John, Grease was great and all, and who can forget Pulp Fiction, but I can't give any respect for this film.

And what about Ben Stein's film:
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008): 9% (at the time of this blog entry).

Hence, based on the current number of reviews (23) and the percentages, this movie is on par with Manos, Battlefield Earth, and Catwoman.

It perhaps should be no surprise that on the of the only two positive reviews of the movie come from a writer at Christianity Today, Mark Moring. He seems to be aware of the fiasco that went into the screening of the movie and the like, but still tries to squeeze out some redeeming value. A very odd this is mentioned by Moring: "And filmmakers can't be accused of denying Darwin proponents equal opportunity." Um, no. Their opinions were gathered, and under false pretenses to get the canned answers they wanted (Michael Shermer makes that point about his interview by Stein), and none of the people that promote and use evolution in their disciplines that are religious are avoided, such as Ken Miller. How can equal time be said to be given if only a few are shown and not about the evidence for or against evolution? This statement by Moring sounds like a ID talking point to me.

All in all, the movie is agreed to be crap, not even counting the reviews by Richard Dawkins, Scientific American, or New Scientist just to name a few. And I suspect as more reviews come in, such as by Ebert and other film critics, the percentage will likely go down. I will update as I see fit.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The F Word

Well, the movie Expelled comes out today in about 1000 theaters, and I haven't the foggiest idea how well it will do at the box office. They are doing some posturing, setting up a David vs. Goliath metaphor and saying they may do better than expected. But even if they do well, they have a significant legal battle with XVIVO and now Yoko Ono because of the unlicensed use of John Lennon's song Imagine. I wonder if Expelled Exposed will put up something on that subject in the near future; the blog Panda's Thumb has had numerous posts on the subject.

Speaking of that site, Dave Thomas recently put up a post with a scan from the of the "Leader's DVD" (whatever that means), and it has this to say:

"Whoa" indeed. The purpose of the movie is made clear by that key word: Faith.

Then again, which faith? Not Ken Miller's, or Francis Collins', and many others' faith in their respective religion. No, this is a very narrow take on what is "real" Christianity and "real" Christian faith. Obviously the issue of what is the "correct" way of reading Genesis is not black and white, and the people that have produced Expelled purposefully avoided interviewing scientists that had no problem reconciling Genesis and evolution. Claiming that such people would have "confused the film unnecessarily" as producer Mark Mathis stated himself only shows that these people are not really about debate and open discussion but in trying to sell their particular brand of their particular religion.

Now, I am a critic of religion in general, but I also know that there is a massive continuum of positions in any religion. Buddhists can be pacifists, activists, or Kamikazes; Muslims can be advocates for freedom of speech and humans rights or terrorists; Christians can be generous or tyrannical. There is no one-size-fits-all to these sorts of things. Religion does not necessarily mean you have exactly the same view as your priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, guru, etc.

So, what we really have here is just on take on one major religion and pretending that there can be no debate on what is a "real" Christian. It seems ironic to me that many people criticize the "new" atheists like Dawkins and Harris for not seeing these nuances and not realizing there are many different ways to be Christian, Muslim, etc., but then some Christians shout that they are the true believers and all others are wrong. Hmm, imagine that. Someone thinks that their dogma is unassailable.

This movie is a disservice to any sort of dialog on what it means to have any faith, even if I think all religious faiths are extraneous. There are no fine lines, no simply black-and-white stances, and I think enough people realize that. Heck, even the "fundamentalist" atheists realize this from what I can tell. (Their point is that unreason and dogma can and will cause more harm than good and this must be dealt with head-on with philosophy, science, and debate--note that no guns or swords are supposed to be used to convert, which is what fundies may do if they could like they did in the Dark Ages.)

If you are religious and wonder about the intersection of science and religion, you won't be getting any straight or good or useful answers or discussions in this movie. There are much smarter people that Ben Stein that have been and are arguing on these subjects, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Monday, April 14, 2008

More on Expelled Exposed

The movie will be coming out soon, and may be infringing on the copyright of a cell biology video used before by William Dembski without permission.

But more importantly, the Website Expelled Exposed needs as many links to it as possible.

I know this is a link bomb, but I have two good reasons for doing it.
1. The movie is terrible in its scholarship and needs to be dealt with unless it should have its misinformation be unchallenged and do major damage to science and culture in this country.
2. I had emailed the people of that website to make use of my previous blog entry on the connection between Darwinism and Nazism. I was emailed back and told that it could be of use. So, all the more reason to link: I am linking to myself, sort of.

And from the reviews I have seen, they agree that the movie has a terrible premise and is poorly executed.

Note: At the time of this blog post, Expelled Exposed comes up on the sixth page when searching for the word "expelled". However, I have also noticed that Expelled Exposed is the only thing found in the Sponsored Link section on Google, just to the right of the searched links. So, Expelled Exposed could use a boost up, but it will be on every page Google turns up on Expelled now.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Third Reich and the Holocaust--By Darwin or by God's Will?

Since the primary claim of the movie Expelled, hosted by Ben Stein to the point of teary-eyed boredom, is to make the connection between Darwin's theory of natural selection and the events of the Holocaust, I have decided to look critically at what were the major motivations of the Third Reich's will to kill off millions of Jews and other "undesirables" during Word War II.

Before I get into this, let me first start with Hitler's nemesis, Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR during the Second World War. Stalin's tyranny in Russia was comparable to that of Hitler in Germany, killing off many opponents, both real and imagined. From what I can tell, when it comes to saying who was more evil--Stalin or Hitler--the jury is still out. Stalin's only saving grace would be winning the war and stopping Hitler. This hardly gets him off the hook for being cruel, but let's leave this aside. When it comes to Stalin, did evolutionary thinking come to mind? Did he accept Darwinian evolution and apply it to his populace? The answer is an emphatic no. Stalin did not accept Darwinian evolution--instead, he took on the debunked Lamarkian evolutionary scheme of nature, a theory which had been disproved and disbanded mostly before Darwin wrote his Origin of Species. So, before Stein makes a sequel to Expelled trying to link Stalin to Darwin, this bud should be properly nipped.

So, on to the meat and potatoes of this post. The thesis of the movie is this (the quoted material is at the bottom of the page and needs to be highlighted to be seen):
Many scenes are centered around the Berlin Wall, and Ben Stein being Jewish actually visits many death camps and death showers. In fact, Nazi Germany is the thread that ties everything in the movie together. Evolution leads to atheism leads to eugenics leads to Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
What elements played in the minds of Hitler and other high-up officials in the Third Reich that caused one of the worst abominations to humanity? Firstly, how much of the element is based on divine thinking?

A lot. Let us look at what Hitler had to say about his motivations:

Firstly, was Hitler an atheist? Let's see what are some of the things he said and did. When Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, his actions after that spoke loudly. One of his earliest actions came less than one month after Hitler became Chancellor when he began a campaign against the "godless movement".
A campaign against the "godless movement" was announced by Bernard Rust, Nazi commissioner for education and culture in Prussia, in an address Tuesday night before students at the technical university here. He said the details would be revealed in the next few days. In his speech opening the campaign for the Reichstag and Prussian diet elections, Hitler attacked communists for the spread of atheism. (Hitler Aims Blow at 'Godless' Move, Lansing State Journal, February 23, 1933)
The same report from the AP says that Hitler is [was] a Catholic. Thus, according to the papers, Hitler fought against the godless and wanted Catholic support for this. So, if the Stein thesis is to be taken seriously, it has already reached a major hurdle: if evolution leads to atheism and Hitler believed in evolution and it did not lead to atheism in the Nazi movement, then the first premise is falsified.

Hitler's words in Mein Kampf are also illuminating.
His life is really only of this world, and his spirit is as alien to true Christianity, for instance, as his nature was two thousand years ago to the Sublime Founder of the new doctrine...But for this [opposing the Jews], of course, Christ was crucified, while our present party Christianity disgraces itself begging for Jewish votes in the elections and later tries to conduct political wirepulling with atheistic Jewish parties, and this against their own nation (pp. 422-3).
Note especially the link between atheism and Jews; that is, Hitler links his racial hatred and the people he considered to be the cause of Germany's problems to be in the same boat as atheists. We can also see that this element comes about from Hitler's Christian faith that is quite antisemitic. Hitler also says that a Jewish state be less spiritual and "religion is ridiculed" (p. 450). Further on April 26, 1933, Hitler signed the Nazi-Vatican Concordat, and stated:
Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith... (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, Oxford University Press, 1942).
A concordat is an agreement between a religious organization and at political body of another nation. So, not only was the Nazi party siding against atheist and atheism, but it was working with the Vatican. So, where is Hitler's atheism?

There is only one source in all the literature that gives us any hint that Hitler lacked a theistic belief. This would be Hitler's Table Talk, a collection of accounts of what the Furer said. The notes taken come primary from the years 1941-2. However, these very few statements which seem to run contrary to Hitler's other deeds and statements, appear to be forgeries by a French-speaking Swiss man, Francois Genoud, how was one of the primary translators of one of the manuscript traditions of Table Talk (Richard Carrier, "Hitler's Table Talk, Troubling Finds" German Studies Review 26:3 October 2003). In the other manuscript tradition(s), these key anti-Christian statements are either absent or they are the exact opposite of what Hitler was made out to say. For example, in the version that comes from Genoud reads as such: "Our epoch will see the end of the disease of Christianity." However, the better version does not include this statement at all. There is one point that is more-or-less anti-Catholic in which Hitler disagrees with the idea of the one true church (die alleinseligmachende Kirche). And that is about it when it comes to Hitler being an atheist. The only last thing that can possibly make him so would be Hitler's use of Nietzsche, but Nietzsche was an anti-antisemite and anti-nationalist. Just read Nietzsche's The Gay Science (I prefer the Kaufmann translation) and you can see how this criticism of nationalism in Germany (and other nations for that matter) as well as antisemitism. Further, Nietzsche broke off his friendship with Richard Wagner, the great composer known best for his Ride of the Valkyries, because Wagner had strong antisemitic tendencies. This is all well known and need not be taken apart in detail.

So, it seems that atheism was not in the mindset of the Fuhrer, and I know of nothing that says any other high-ranking official was an atheist in the Nazi party. In fact, the details given above would suggest that allegiance to the party required a theistic stance, since it was communists that were atheists. But was there at least Darwinism in there?

To answer this question, a bit of digging into the Nazi archives is needed. Die Bücherei, the official Nazi journal, in 1935 produced a list of things not to be taught:
Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (279).
Apparently, the science was not allowed and was rejected between the times of Hitler's rise to power and the Final Solution.

What about Hitler's magnum opus? In Mein Kampf, the word "Darwin" in any form does not appear at all. In only six cases do I find anything in relation to biological evolution (though the word "revolution" is used ad nauseum by Hitler). Let us see if Hitler actually understood biology all that well. In the first case, Hitler talks about the strong not breeding with the weak. However, Hitler is mistaken when he says "[e]very crossing between two breeds which are not quite equal results in a product which holds an intermediate place between the levels of the two parents." The point of sexual reproduction is that genetic information can get swapped around into new combinations that can bring about offspring with characteristics that are superior to the previous genome from either parent. Otherwise, why not just still with asexual reproduction and just "clone" oneself? Also, this notion of a place "between" parents in quality is a human construct here, for the sense of "better" does not exist in nature--only better adapted. Besides, if this was how nature worked, species could never get "better" but only reach some sort of medium amongst all the breeding members of a population; there is no "goo, to the zoo, and then to you" as creationists say in this paradigm. This sort of thinking from Hitler is not to be found in Darwin's Origin; rather, it comes from Hitler's (poor) understanding of nature, and I can bet the farm that he did not examine nature as carefully as Charles Darwin. Hitler also errs in the same paragraph when he says "for if such a law did not direct the process of evolution then the higher development of organic life would not be conceivable at all."

Moving on, we find this next statement:
If Nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such a case all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile.
Here Hitler makes the common mistake that most Creationists make, that evolution has a hierarchy of what speices are "better" or "worse" than another. It is simply false; species (or races) are only better or worse adapted to their environment. What is "better" to humans is completely subjective. For example, which is better: greater strength or greater intelligence? Both have advantages and one without the other can be poorly adaptive. Another example: better food-gatherer or a better lover in bed? The later has the obvious advantage of producing more children, though the former is good in making sure those offspring are fed. Again, it is a matter of balancing what is better for a given situation. As for morally better, that first requires knowing what things are and are not moral, to which arguments are without end. In any case, it has nothing to do with biological evolution.

The next point where Hitler mentions evolution in a biological setting has little to do with racism; it is more in relation to evolutionary psychology, and Hitler is no Steven Pinker. Hitler speaks of the formation of instincts in higher forms of animals, of things going from the conscious to the subconscious. Firstly, to have something be done consciously in order to change the phenotypes of a race is not Darwinian but Lamarkian evolution. Further, Hitler's argument would have us believe than lower animals were self-aware, when it seems to be the case that instincts have formed in all creatures, even though that are no self-aware, such as dolphins and primates. Again, Hitler demonstrates his lack of understanding of nature.

Hitler's next statement is of little consequence: "Organization is a thing that derives its existence from organic life, organic evolution."

Every other times Hitler uses "evolution" it is a context of social or political evolution. Thus, biology is only a subtext to further his argument for what the State should do or has done. But there is one question that remains: how much of this understanding is Darwinian or necessarily based on Darwinian theory? From what I can tell, not in the least. His proposals on life's evolution is more Lamarkian than Darwinian and his understanding of genetics is not worth talking about. Further, his understanding of breeding is in the category of what humans had been doing for centuries with dogs, cows, horses, plants, etc. Artificial selection was something well understood before Darwin was born; even our most primitive ancestors that farmed had a sense of this form of breeding. Because of this already existing knowledge, not to mention that Darwin is never mentioned in Mein Kampf, nor the phrase "survival of the fittest", the connection between Darwin and the Nazi movement is not apparent; worse, Hitler's notions are contrary to Darwin's work at times.

In a survey of other materials on the web from those that argue Hitler's ideology is based on Darwinian thinking, no other examples seem to exist. Rather, the arguments presented appear to be more in tune with the line of thought that because Darwin showed humans are animals then their moral worth is minimized. This is simply then a con-job, taking the wool over the eyes of the reader so that they do not ask for direct evidence of Darwinian thinking in the Holocaust. The argument is not that Hitler was a Darwinist, but that he saw no value in certain humans. And since very few examples where Darwin is shown to be the primary influence, it seems worthy to investigate a different source for Hitler's policies.

Let us now look at what Hitler believed when it came to religion. I have already pointed out that he was not an atheist and there is no evidence he ever was. The papers reported he was a Catholic and nothing seems to contradict this--he may not have been an ideal Catholic since he did not accept the church to be the only way to heaven, but he still qualifies as a Christian. In Hitler's statements he seems to actually use religion as the reason for his actions against Jews:
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord (Mein Kampf, p. 65)
Also in the same books:
A folk-State should in the first place raise matrimony from the level of being a constant scandal to the race. The State should consecrate it as an institution which is called upon to produce creatures made in the likeness of the Lord and not create monsters that are a mixture of man and ape.
The mixing of races then is not simply a matter of biology; it is a matter of keeping humans in the likeness of God. Hitler repeats this thought later on:
Their very existence [of Jews] is an incarnate denial of the beauty of God's image in His creation.
Hitler also prays in his book:
Almighty God, bless our arms when the hour comes. Be just, as Thou hast always been just. Judge now if we deserve our freedom. Lord, bless our struggle.
There are no prayers to Darwin, or to science, or to reason for that matter. When it comes to science, Hitler is actually more likely a Creationist. As seen above, he invoked The Creation into his argument. In other parts, it is even clearer his thoughts on science.

In the first edition of Mein Kampf Hitler said "this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men" (p. 65). In the second edition, "thousands" is changed to millions. The world was not devoid of humans thousands of years ago. The first Homo sapiens sapiens existed over 100,000 years ago. However, if Hitler lacked clarity there in other places it is more clear:
The undermining of the existence of human culture by the destruction of its bearer seems in the eyes of a folkish philosophy the most execrable crime. Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the Lord commits sacrilege against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and contributes to the expulsion from paradise (p. 383).
Thus they put an end to their own separate existence; for the original sin committed in Paradise has always been followed by the expulsion of the guilty parties.
Apparently, Hitler believed in the creation of humans in God's image and the expulsion from Paradise as recounted in Genesis. And another point helps as well in showing that Hitler believed God was the Creator:
What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, . . . so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe (p. 214).
How about some more?
The act which brings about such a development [of the superiority of races being lowered] is a sin against the will of the Eternal Creator. And as a sin this act will be avenged.
It seems pretty obvious that Hitler believed in a creator god and had a notion of sin. He believed in the Garden of Eden, in a young earth, and argued that the lessening in quality of the Aryan race was against, not Nature, but God. Natural selection is not part of the equation at all in Mein Kampf. This line of thought was repeated by Hitler even after he came to power. On August 26, 1934:
National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary it stands on the ground of a real Christianity....For their interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of to-day, in our fight against a Bolshevist culture, against atheistic movement, against criminality, and in our struggle for a consciousness of a community in our national life... These are not anti-Christian, these are Christian principles! (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, Oxford University Press, 1942.)
Also notice that Hitler was against any "atheist movement[s]" and that we stated what he did was based completely on Christian principles. Hector Avalos, an excellent biblical scholar, has put together a collection of points that show were such evil principles can come from in the Bible. One thing that he notes is that some of the defenders of genocide are in fact Christians! For example, Jonathan Sarfati, an Australian Young-Earth creationist with a Ph.D. in chemistry and mentioned on Answers in Genesis, defends the genocides of the Old Testament. There is also Reuben A. Torrey, the famed fundamentalist apologist. However, what really scared me was that William Lang Craig, probably one of the smartest Christian apologists today, defends the genocides done by the Jews in the Old Testament because God said it was the thing to do. So, if God says it is okay to kill any number of people, then it is morally okay. This to me is sickening and frightening. This means that if Craig has a bad sandwich last night, had a dream that had Jesus telling him to kill anyone that is critical of him, and Craig reads this blog, then Craig would fell justified in killing me in cold blood without a second thought. And this is perhaps the smartest of the Christians. Well, no wonder Hitler could justify the Holocaust based on God-think!

Now, I could add more quotes from Hitler and other Nazis to make the point, but it would be of little value. What is obvious is that Darwinian evolution had little or nothing to do with Hitler's policies, while his Christian faith was a much more prominent element in his determination for killing Jews. And with the antisemitism of the New Testament, that is not hard to do. Matthew 27:25 has the Jews accepting the blame for the death of Jesus. Acts 3:14-5 repeats the charge, which is repeated many more times in Acts. Paul seems to say this too in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-6. The Catholic Church did not remove the charge of deicide from the heads of all Jews until Vatican II under Pope John XXIII. And according to Christopher Hitches in god is Not Great, the only high-ranking Nazi to be excommunicated was Joseph Guebbels. Why? Because of his crimes against humanity? He married a Protestant. Pope Pius XII never excommunicated any Nazi (R.L. Simpson, "Vatican charges it is target of a 'slanderous campaign' in connection with Pope Pius XII." Associated Press, 2001-AUG-07) though he did excommunicate a few German Catholics for choosing cremation.

So, to say that Hitler's actions were pro-Darwin and anti-Christian is unfounded and the reverse is more likely. However, one should also consider the historical circumstances. After all, Britain did not have a campaign to wide out Jews like Nazi Germany did, nor did France or the USA. Firstly, it must be remembered that Hitler had an abusive father, as did Stalin, so the psychology of such an evil person is more likely due to his upbringing than his denomination. Further, Germany had gone through a terrible war, a humiliating defeat, and a devastated economy. Hitler's message of national hope and promise, coupled with the citing of the agent that destroyed Germany (the Jews in Hitler's mind, and many others as well), combined with the prejudices ingrained into the people that Hitler commanded--these agencies seem to be much more likely candidates for what caused the Holocaust. It would be sloppy to say any one agent brought about the evils of the Third Reich. Simply blaming it on Darwin or Christian dogma would be foolish. Of the two, Christianity was by far the more potent in causing the Holocaust, but not all Christians are mass murders, so more elements are required than just indoctrination. However, it must also be pointed out that Christian morals did not cease the growth of the Nazi party and many followed Hitler because of religious reasons. The evidence of this can be seen on the belt buckles of Nazi soldiers.
And even to the end of the war, there were those that saw Nazism consistent with Christian dogma (Richard Steigmann–Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 5). After all, Martin Luther's tract On the Jews and Their Lies is antisemitic through and through. So, any argument that Christian morality could have kept the Fuhrer in check seems to be lacking (that includes your work, Denish D'Souza).

So, does evolution lead to atheism? Probably not, at least not without another agency, since there are millions of people that are religious and accept Darwinian evolution, including the Vatican and biologists Ken Miller and Francis Collins. Does atheist lead to Nazism (with or without eugenics)? Apparently it could not since atheistic groups were antithetical to the Nazis. Does Darwinism lead to Nazism? No, since Darwin was not used by Hitler in his book, his understanding of evolution is primitive at worst, Lamarkian at best, and not educated by the work of Charles Darwin. (The same goes for Stalin.) Hence, the premise is completely false which Ben Stein bases his entire movie on. It is demonstrably false and the accusation he and other creationists give could be considered libel and/or slander.

One final note: it does not matter even if Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Saddam, etc. based their thinking on Darwinian evolution. It does nothing to demonstrate it is a false concept. Further, the use of evolution to make moral judgments goes against what all moral theorists must grapple with: Hume's is-ought problem. What Creationists keep doing is making the naturalistic fallacy. So, when the entire basis for the arguments about Hitler et. al. are based on a logical fallacy, then the historical analysis after it fails to convince no matter the case. But by being logically fallacious and historically inept, the production of this material by Ken Ham, Kent Hovind, Ben Stein, any many others for that matter, it shows that Creationists only have propaganda, not substance, and have been nothing but deceitful.

I doubt that this one blog post will convince such persons to end their use of this argument, since they depend on it for its emotional baggage, but hopefully this can make at least some people more immune to the powerfully ignorant and deceptive statements that will be in a theater near you.