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It’s been nearly two weeks since I attended the annual scholarly society meetings for scholars in my field of study and interest: the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), the Near East Archaeological Society (NEAS), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR). All these societies (and more) meet annually the week before Thanksgiving. This year we met in Baltimore.

I’ll be blogging about a couple things that happened during that week that will interest readers. In this post, my focus will be the AAR session (a whole afternoon) on astrobiology – the search for biological evidence for ET life – and its intersection with religion. The session was part of the program for the Science, Technology, and Religion Group of AAR. The session theme was entitled, “Cosmic Quest, Cosmic Contact: Astrobiology, Astrotheology, Astroethics.” The speakers went in a slightly different order than the program book had them listed. The presenters and their topics were:

Margaret Race, SETI Institute, Mountain View, CA
Astrobiology, Ethics and Policy: The Need for Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Albert Harrison, University of California, Davis
Space Exploration: Carrying God’s Banner or Questioning God’s Work? (“Prophecy, Transcendence and Salvation on the High Frontier”)

Chris Crews, The New School (New York city)
What if Gliese 581 d Had Life? Christian Fundamentalism and the Politics of Astrobiology

Ted Peters, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
Astrotheology and Extraterrestrial Life

Connie Bertka, Potomac, MD (affiliations with the American Association for Advancement Science and the Smithsonian)
Christianity and the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life: Insights from Science and Religion, and the Sociology of Religion

John Hart, Boston University
Cosmic Contact: Hawking, Hynek, and Cosmoethics

I enjoyed the session. All of the lectures were interesting, even when I was familiar with the material. I promised on Twitter to share some of the content and thoughts. I’ll take them in order.

Margaret Race is a biologist associated with SETI. Her talk was really aimed at newbies to the subject of astrobiology – it seemed a necessary concession to anyone who may have wandered into the session just out of curiosity. She focused on what SETI does and the issues of the use and stewardship of space. She insisted that theologians be involved to frame an ethical and theological framework for what SETI might someday discover. She mentioned the UN Outer Space Treaty which (in part) advocates for de-militarization of space (especially no nukes – someone might want to tell China and DARPA) and rejects the idea of human ownership of space.

Albert Harrison, a psychologist, was up next. He started out by talking about how certain modern “prophets” (read: visionaries) had written about how humans would one day inhabit space. Among them he listed

  • Roger Launias’
  • Tsiolkovski and Cosmists
  • Herman Oberth
  • Willy Ley
  • Kraft Arnold Ehricke
  • Wernher von Braun

Harrison related the desire for human life in space to utopian visions, the experience of and need for the transcendent (he mentioned Edgar Mitchell here) and the desire for human immortality. In regard to this last item, he noted three different perspectives of thought:

  • Cosmists – want to resurrect everyone who ever lived out of cosmic dust via technological method “to live in solidarity with the stars”
  • Pragmatists – disperse humans in solar system in case of or in response to global catastrophe
  • Memorialists – use space time capsules to tell other civilizations about the human race

Lastly, Harrison talked about Christian acts in space and blessing of space exploration. For example, he mentioned that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took communion in space, the creation of an Apollo prayer league to pray for astronauts, and “Exomissiology” (astronaut chaplains, leaving a Bible on moon, Russian priests blessing cosmonaut crews).

Chris Crews was next, a political science doctoral student. (He narrates his slides here). He focused on young earth creationist (YEC) responses (or not) to the idea of ET life. In so doing he equated the YEC view with fundamentalism (though he was aware of the Old Earth Creationist position – a distinction he ignored in his presentation, by his own admission). The two aren’t actually synonymous (many YEC folks would not take positions on certain things integral to fundamentalism — but it’s largely a parochial squabble there). He also equated global warming denial with creationism, a greater blunder on his part in my view.

Crews’ session was filled with interesting statistics drawn from a range of studies (a bit dated). A sampling:

  • 317 million people in the USA; 247 million of those classify themselves as Christians; of those, 84 million take the label “evangelical”
  • a Gallup poll revealed that 46% of the US population agree with YEC, making the YEC position cross-denominational
  • There has been a slight rise in YEC belief since 2010

Crews went through the standard “fundamentalist” denials of the SETI enterprise, something that those who have ever heard me lecture (“Can Christianity Accommodate an Extraterrestrial Reality?“) would recognize. In the process, Crews again was a but slipshod with the ecclesiastical and theological nuances of the movements he was talking about. He lumped the “fundamentalist” rejections of SETI together into creationism. Of interest to Christian UFO enthusiasts, Crews mentioned Gary Bates (a YEC apologist – one wonders why Crews didn’t mention Hugh Ross here – I presume because Hugh didn’t fit the YEC=fundamentalist narrative Crews was articulating). Crews also mentioned the work of CE-4 on stopping repeated “alien abduction” experiences through appeal to Jesus (without citing CE-4 specifically). Crews’ conclusions were:

1. The more YEC people there are out there, the more hostile the thought toward alien life, which then makes it harder to rationalize and fund SETI. (He didn’t advocate hunting them down for removal). I think Crews is correct in the first part of that sentence, even though his language throughout was un-nuanced. I don’t think it matters, though, for funding SETI. The scientific community and those that support it now ignore the YEC crowd even now, so he’s creating a straw man.

2. There needs to be an “astrobiology apologetics” effort – a respectful one. He said pretty bluntly that ignoring creationists isn’t wise. I’d agree (let’s try and get along like adults), but I still think his YEC threat is a caricature.

Ted Peters followed. His was easily the most entertaining talk of the session. Dr. Peters has a long history of involvement with SETI and NASA and the ET life question from the perspective of a theologian. (He is not evangelical for those wondering). I regularly cite Peters’ material in my own lecture (“Can Christianity Accommodate an Extraterrestrial Reality?“). It was nice to finally meet him between sessions. A couple of the highlights of Peters’ session:

Peters playfully chided Paul Davies’ comments on religion, showing they were pretty ignorant. He asked (out loud) for Davies to censor himself on religion and stick to physics and astrobiology. Thank you, Ted. I’ve said the same thing here. God only knows where Davies gets his theological ideas. Out of the ether I suppose.

Peters also whimsically criticized the coherence of the Drake Equation. Peters said forcefully (but with a smile) that there is no empirical evidence for ET life. All people (like Drake) offer is, to quote him, “big numbers.” Thank you again, Ted. The Drake Equation is vacuous.

More seriously, Peters argued that Christian theologians have four tasks as their work relates to SETI and astrobiology:

1. Reflect on the scope of creation and settle geocentrism and anthopocentrism. He argued that both impede taking the question of ET life seriusly.

2. Set the parameters within which the ongoing debates over the relationship between Christology, soteriology, and ET life. Here Peters brought up the notorious Thomas Paine argument (which I also discuss in my own lecture) – that Christianity can’t be correct *because* there are other worlds — world on which Jesus would have to die an rise again multiple times. Peters’ point was simple: we ought not let discussion over Christology and soteriology be framed by Paine’s silly argument. There’s more than one way to think about the relationship. This was nice to hear since uninformed science media people bring this up all the time, as though the discovery of ET life would overturn the core of Christianity. It’s just lame thinking.

3. Analyze and critique astrobiology from within exposing extra-scientific assumptions. I loved this one. It was about how unbelieving scientists make theological claims all the time (usually through careless language). Atheist scientists do this all the time when criticizing intelligent design. It happens whenever they say things like “If there was a God he’d never create X this or that way since it can be improved on.” Pardon, but that’s a theological statement. Mr. scientist, stick to science. Peters then went on to discuss another SETI science myth (like the Drake Equation) that has long annoyed me. It goes like this:

Other space travelers we’d encounter are far more scientifically and technologically advanced. They must have evolved earlier and therefore have evolved longer, which of course means they are more ethically advanced than we are.

So, in other words, more time spent doing science and technology will increase human virtue. Really? Have you looked at what’s going on in the industrialized, high-tech world we live in?

4. Cooperate with leaders of multiple traditions and address ethical issues of space exploration and ET contact. This last task dealt with issues of both planetary protection and our own ethical preparation for contact.

The fifth speaker was Connie Bertka, a sociologist who has a seminary degree and special interest in religion. Some highlights of her talk included:

  • By 1916, there were 140 books on ET life that also dealt with its religious implications — most of them saw no threat.
  • She agreed with Crews that Christian acceptance of ET life had a lot to do with Christian acceptance (or not) of evolution. She cited a survey that showed that 1/3 of people in mainline denoms that (as a whole) accept evolution said humans existed in present form only. That number was 70% for evangelicals.
  • She was the only speaker that talked about Christians outside US. Christianity is growing rapidly worldwide, and 27% of that growth is represented by Pentecostals and charismatics, most of those are biblical literalists.

The last speaker, John Hart, who teaches Christian Ethics at Boston University, was very intriguing. He was obviously conversant with what most readers of this blog would think of as “UFO literature” and “UFO conspiracy.” Hart talked about “cosmic displacements” in human history — events and turning points that re-orient our perception of ourselves and the world we know. Quite obviously, ET contact would be such a displacement.

Hart then went on to confess his own displacement — a UFO sighting. He talked about how it drew him in to study of the issue. He used that to branch out into why certain people are convinced that alien life exists — they’ve experienced it in the form of such sightings. He justified that explanation by appealing to the famous Malmstrom Air Force Base incident (the one where UFOs hovering over the base took the nuclear missiles inside the base off-line). This case and similar ones involving nuclear weapons has been the research focus of Robert Hastings. This case is, in my view, one of the most credible UFO cases there is, though it can’t prove the source of the craft was extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, it doesn’t get much more real than this one.

Hart has obviously thought a lot about the UFO issue. He recently authored a book entitled, Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science, and Space. The Amazon description contains this note:

Cosmic Commons explores the ecological, economic, ethical, and ecclesial implications of terrestrial-extraterrestrial intelligent life Contact. It includes data from the author’s interview with Col. Jesse Marcel, Jr., MD, whose father, Maj. Jesse Marcel, Sr. showed Roswell debris to his wife and ten year old son. It suggests an innovative cosmo-socioecological ethics to guide human conduct in space.

I’ll certainly get the book at some point and read it, but this short statement leaves me wondering if Hart has embraced the ET explanation for Roswell much too uncritically. All UFO cases are not created equally.

 

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It is when it’s about the search for extraterrestrial life and panspermia.

In yet another example of just this, I’d invite you all to read “Far-Off Planets Like the Earth Dot the Galaxy.”

Have any of these planets actually been identified? No. Have any of them yielded data that demonstrate life is possible? No.

But doesn’t the article lead say this …

Astronomers reported that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable Earth-size planets in the galaxy, based on a new analysis of data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

It does. Sounds real “sciencey” doesn’t it? These scientists are “reporting” this figure — as though the number has been truly validated. Correction: this is guessing or speculating, not “reporting” of something known to correspond to reality.

The reality is that what’s being said is that the 40 billion number is a mathematical extrapolation (again, it sounds better than “guess”) about how many planetary bodies there might be in the galaxy that are situated in “Goldilocks zones” — i.e., situated in orbits that, given the heat of their suns (another guess), would have surface temperatures that are not too hot and not too cold for liquid water, the essential factor for life as we know it.

It’s really hard to not look at this and call it “faith”. I don’t mind this faith statement, of course, since I have no theological objection to ET life. One might also argue that it’s reasonable faith. I have no problem with that either, since I don’t think faith and reason are incompatible. But when it comes to religion, faith is readily criticized, no matter how reasonable. “Without scientific data” we’re told, “it’s still just a belief.”

If the shoe fits ….

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[Addendum: 10/22/2013 - I have been in correspondence with one of the researchers mentioned in Jason Colavito's post. That individual tells me that research is underway in regard to some of the claims Jason criticized, and that I will receive a copy of the results of that research when ready. I will keep readers informed. As per the below, I will insist on those standards of evaluation. "Lab work" is not a synonym for peer review; it's what peer review evaluates. I will in turn submit what I receive to experts in relevant fields whose own work has undergone peer review, experts to whom I turn for evaluation of such things, as I am not qualified to decipher scientific tests.]

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Jason Colavito posted a telling essay today. For someone like me, a Christian and biblical studies scholar, it was disturbing. Frankly, it provoked me to enter the discussion. I have the training and am well known in both the “Christian weirdness” community and by scholars (Christian or otherwise) all over the globe (it’s a blessing of my job). I feel responsible to say something — to put people on notice in some sense. I wouldn’t want people to be deceived because I remained silent. It’s a consistency issue for me. I want to be on the record.

So what’s my beef?

I’m guessing Jason and I wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on some things. That’s fine. For one, I believe in a creator, though I’m not predisposed toward the young earth position, mostly for the way it distorts points of science, caricatures evolutionary theory, and imposes a modern context on the ancient text (something that atheistic evolutionists do with great frequency and equal ignorance). Put another way, the reason I’m not in that camp is not because I don’t think God capable of recent creation. I just don’t think the Bible was ever intended to teach us science.1 The Bible itself makes that clear if we just take it for what it says in its original context. Logically, then, I’m not a philosophical materialist. I accept the possibility of what is loosely (and in some cases, inaccurately) called the “supernatural.” That goes with the turf of theism and, by extension, Christianity. These positions have stood up to the best of academic philosophical debate for centuries, so I know I’m on good footing, despite atheist crowing to the contrary. These ideas are also not antithetical to the scientific or logical mind. I personally know too many PhDs in the hard sciences and philosophy to know that lame criticisms of theism from such trajectories have failed to impress many scientists and scholars, Christian or not. Most of what passes for critique of theism and Christianity is actually criticism of caricatures or flawed thinking that circulates among the laity.

I don’t know where Jason is at on any of that, and I don’t care. I value his research; I’m thankful for it. So let’s be clear. What disturbed me wasn’t Jason’s comments about creationists. That’s yesterday’s news. I can think he’s wrong about that idea (again, I really don’t know what he thinks) without thinking he lacks integrity as a researcher. What disturbed me about the content of his post was the appalling, absurd ideas that some Christian researchers are apparently peddling as truth — even calling it biblical truth.

I can sum up my thoughts on the sort of research Jason highlights: it’s baptized pablum that lacks any prayer of being correct biblical teaching or coherent thinking. Jason’s post gives specific examples of the way Christian researchers have uncritically adopted the same insane, data-starved ideas as offered by Zecharia Sitchin and Giorgio Tsoukalos.2 All that’s missing is the fawning sycophantia and the hair. Why do they do it? I don’t know. Popularity? Gullibility? Money? Ego? Again, I don’t know. But I do know how to address it. It’s simple — the same strategies that show the non-Christian ancient astronaut twaddle to be vacuous will work on the Christian variety. This is evident since the same unsound thought processes are shared: intellectual laziness and abuse of data.

Here are my tried and true approaches:

1. Insist that any evidence put forth by an ancient astronaut researcher about what an ancient text says comes with specific primary source citation – in biblical parlance, “chapter and verse, please.” I do this consistently, and it usually kills the discussion before it even gets started. If I hear a claim without a reference or some other generality (“it’s in the Babylonian creation story”) my first response is “show me the text.”3 I won’t take their word for anything. Most of the time such citations are merely parroted from something they read in a secondary source (itself of abysmal quality if it’s an ancient astronaut title) or saw in a YouTube video, or heard on a radio show, or just picked up in conversation. Not good enough. Show me the tablet, line, chapter, verse, etc. If you’ve been too lazy or ignorant to look up the material yourself, you’ve forfeited the right to be heard. Parroting ideas isn’t research.

2. When it comes to textual material, translations and interpretations must derive from careful study of the original languages. That is, texts don’t just mean anything and ought not be raped and pillaged so they can be pressed into the service of nonsense. Languages have their own rules of grammar and usage. Their vocabulary is to be understood in the context of the people who produced the texts and their own time and culture — not our modern, foreign culture. You might think this is too high a standard. “Not many people can work in these languages, Mike.” Oh, well. Actually, there are more of those nerds out there than you’d think. If you’re going to pass yourself off as a researcher, teacher, or expert and can’t do this sort of work, you’re deceiving your audience with a false claim of authority. Don’t bellyache about not knowing the languages. Learn them. It isn’t rocket science. And it matters. (I didn’t waste fifteen years of graduate school to function at the same level as an English Bible reader or someone bound to English translation of other ancient texts). Besides, there are many good resources, in print and online, that can provide deep access to primary source material. But that would mean you need to tie yourself to (or get toasted by) the next item.

3. Assertions and conclusions offered must be based on sound research that has been subjected to peer review. Peer review is the practice utilized in scholarly publishing whereby a writer submits his or her ideas and research to a small panel of experts fields germane to the submission. The goal is not uniformity of ideas, but rather to check methodology and content relevant to the argument so that important data are not overlooked (or avoided) and earlier research is taken into consideration. In short, it’s a coverage and coherence filter. Without it, anyone could publish anything anywhere (especially the internet), making it impossible for non-specialists to know whether the material is sound or not. (Or, making it easier to dupe people). Passing the muster of peer review means that your work has stood up under scrutiny. The issue is not “right or wrong,” as peer reviewed publications publish varying viewpoints on any given issue. Passing peer review means that the essay or article deserves a hearing in the opinion of leaders in the field. I insist that the ideas put forth by researchers meet that standard. Every year thousands of articles and books are published under some kind of review. Researchers who avoid that material or refuse to address that material in their own work are either lazy or dishonest.

Frankly, there’s a name for people who refuse to submit their own research to the review of bona fide experts in the relevant disciplines: coward. For sure, peer review isn’t perfect. Flawed ideas get through from time to time. Scholarly journals don’t use angels for reviewers, either, so sometimes something gets denied because of politics. But the *fact* is that there are hundreds of peer-reviewed journals in the humanities and hard sciences to which work can be submitted. The sheer number is a corrective to the occasional mistake or abuse. Rejection is common, because a given journal can only print so many pages – so try another. If your work gets rejected over and over again, that’s a clear sign it’s deeply flawed. But if you never submit it, that’s a clear sign you’d rather pass yourself off as an expert to the unlearned you want to gather as your fan base and audience. On that level, there’s an ethics problem here.

These approaches — these safeguards – have served me well over the years. They are simple, reasonable standards that I strive to follow myself. Sloppy, self-serving research and personal speculations are no substitute. That a researcher has an idea or viewpoint doesn’t mean it is coherent. That there’s a mystery to be solved or a knotty problem in the historical, archaeological record doesn’t mean that we can now throw reason to the wind and declare the thought rattling around in our head to be truth. That the Bible is a book for all humankind doesn’t mean every interpretation of it is equally valid. You can claim the Holy Spirit led you to say XYZ, and I won’t care — because the Spirit is honest. He wouldn’t lead you into bunk (least of all ancient astronaut bunk) or to do careless work. He wouldn’t lead you to be lazy or ignorant. Appealing to the Spirit for your own lack of effort and courage in the above areas is reprehensible. Laying your own lethargy and ineptitude at the door of the Spirit hardly honors God.

For the Christian out there, willfully following flawed research that fails to meet these minimal qualifications common to serious academics is a spiritual issue. Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, it’s an issue of magnitude. It goes to using the intellectual faculties with which we’ve been blessed. It goes to honesty when you claim to be seeking the truth. It goes to having confidence in the God you claim to follow — that all truth will conform to his character and revelation because there can be no such thing as contradictory competing truths (at least in a coherent world). It goes to being an honorable testimony to those who don’t believe in the gospel so that Christ is not shamed by the way you do your work. It goes to fostering relationships of integrity with other researchers who don’t share your beliefs. None of us are perfect, but that isn’t the standard. Honesty and perfection aren’t synonyms. The former is a standard that can be reached and maintained even though the latter cannot. Exempting yourself from the former and making the latter your excuse for doing so is just wrong.

  1. I’d also argue that the actual truth propositions of the Bible don’t conflict with science.
  2. I hope that at least some of Jason’s ancient alien examples aren’t true, but he tries very hard to fact-check. That’s his track record. I will assume what he describes in his post is accurate until that is demonstrated not to be the case.
  3. This is why I made the video showing people where to find all occurrences of “anunnaki” in the cuneiform tablets — to show the ancient astronaut ideas about them are simply made up.

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The Templeton foundation has awarded $200,000 to astronomer Geoff Marcy (UC-Berkeley) to see if he can detect alien spacecraft passing in front of distant stars. Before you laugh, Marcy is easily the most famous astronomer among those detecting extra-solar planets. He’s credited with discovering nearly 3/4 of the 100 or so found so far.

I really have to learn how to apply for grants.

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This notion has been around for a long time. I remember hearing Richard Hoagland say it many times on Coast to Coast AM. But now we have “science” (goofy face here) intervening.  It was also a sub-plotline in The Facade.

The Mysterious Universe blog recently posted an essay entitled, “Mars Could be the Father of Life on Mother Earth.” To quote the essay, there has been a recent interest in:

Clay extracted from a meteorite of martian origin collected in Antarctica has proven to contain high concentrations of boron. Oxidized boron, or borates, are thought to be among the stuff that led to the formation of RNA.

Let’s think about this a little. Boron is found naturally on earth in trace quantities. Statistically….

Abundance earth’s crust: 10 parts per million by weight, 1 part per million by moles

Abundance solar system: 2 parts per billion by weight, 0.2 parts per billion by moles

Boron does not occur naturally in “pure, elemental form” but must be isolated and extracted. The news of the martian meteorite is the high concentration.

Just in case a reader of the Mysterious Universe piece might be thinking that this discovery in Antarctica means earth’s boron came from Mars, and therefore life on earth came from Mars, we get this penetrating analysis point:

While this doesn’t necessarily mean martian meteorites provided the borate which led to the rise of RNA on Earth, it doesn’t rule it out either.

Wow. Thanks, Einstein. “Just because we can’t prove our theory doesn’t mean you can disprove it.” Brilliant. Now it’s up to people to disprove something that isn’t proven. That used to be called the fallacy of trying to prove a negative. I guess it’s scientific thinking in this case. So then why make a news story? I’m guessing many readers will know the answer to that.

While we’re on logic, can anyone spot a logical leap in the idea? (I should give awards or something for stuff like this).  If Boron is already on earth in trace amounts (in lots of places), then why are we asking whether Mars is the source of the boron that led to life on earth? How about another one. Is it possible that many or all of the planets in our solar system have boron? Now, if only Mars and Earth did, that would make for a good chicken or egg question, but until we know they are the only two contenders, it’s quite possible that the planets in our solar system have boron from a common source out there somewhere. That would mean there was actually no direct panspermic (I think I just made up a word) causation from Mars to Earth — the “seeding” idea would be much grander, especially in the context of a big bang (which, for you militant atheists out there, isn’t a theological problem for lots of Jews, Christians, and Muslims).

It’s just panspermia folks; nothing new here.

 

 

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