What do the Creationists want with you?


’Christians’ show­ing the love. Photo (cc) Jordan Thevenow-Harrison

Ed Darrell has set a tough prob­lem. How do you solve the Texan edu­ca­tion crisis? If you haven’t been fol­low­ing this, the Texas Education Authority has forced an employee to resign because she sent round details of a talk debunk­ing Intelligent Design. The TEA has stated it’s neut­ral on whether or not chil­dren should have good edu­ca­tion. It’s the latest round of what, in the­ory, is the argu­ment between Science and Intelligent Design. It isn’t really. Everyone knows that Intelligent Design is second-rate Creationism. However I don’t think the argu­ment is between Science and Creationism either. If it was then the debate would be as dead as phlogiston.

Even the pre­tence of a debate plays into the Creationists’ hands. This allows them to frame the argu­ment as Science against Christianity. Yet if you look at the argu­ments it’s clear that this isn’t about Science. It’s about power. It won’t be power over sci­ent­ists — they’re con­strained by real­ity. It’s power over Christians that’s the issue. Answers in Genesis is quite open about this. Creation mat­ters because it’s about evangelism.

That has to be a prob­lem, because it’s not evan­gel­ism to gen­eric Christianity. There are no gen­eric Christians. There are Orthodox Christians, Catholics and vari­ous minor sects. In the case of AiG it’s evan­gel­ism for a very spe­cific fun­da­ment­al­ist form of Christianity. They state:

The 66 books of the Bible are the writ­ten Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerr­ant through­out. Its asser­tions are fac­tu­ally true in all the ori­ginal auto­graphs. It is the supreme author­ity in everything it teaches.

Yes, accord­ing AiG, the Sun doesn’t cause day­light and could come out at night if God thought it would be use­ful. There’s a lot said about the inerr­ancy of the Bible. Sadly there’s noth­ing about the fal­lib­il­ity of those who read it. Now you may be infal­lible and know the mind of God. Congratulations if this is the case, but it makes you part of a minor­ity. A few minutes con­ver­sa­tion will reveal that most other people don’t have the clar­ity of under­stand­ing that you do.

Indeed, a lot of Christians accept they don’t have all the answers. Most of the com­mit­ted Christians I’ve met are as hon­est, decent and char­it­able as any­one else. Their reac­tion to the uni­verse is one of awe and humil­ity rather than cer­tainty. I think they make a mis­take nam­ing that awe ‘God’, but they seem to con­sider the mind of God unknow­able. When Creationists take the label ‘Christians’ for them­selves they pre­sume to speak on behalf of these people. That reveals amaz­ing arrog­ance, but they have it in good sup­ply.

So how do you debate these people? I strongly sus­pect you can’t debate them with sci­entific or his­tor­ical facts. You can’t debate them using basic logic. They’ve been immunised.

The way I would choose to debate this is to tackle what the cre­ation­ists plan to do if they win. See the place Sherri Shepherd makes for people who think dates in BC refer to the time before Christ? That is the same space she has for people who don’t share her spe­cific off­shoot of Christianity. Will tran­sub­stan­ti­ation be taught as fact in Chemistry? It has exactly the same amount of evid­ence as Creationism, so if not why not? It’s not a frivol­ous ques­tion. What Catholics call Christ’s blood, the sec­u­lar law of Ireland calls alco­hol, and it could lead to drink-driving. It’s not just a gen­eric God that’s being put into classes, exactly whose God is it? What role will this God have in the local gov­ern­ment and in the law?

The Creationists know exactly what role their God will have in Texas. They know how they plan to deal with any­one who doesn’t share their view of God. The real debate is about who will be allowed to ques­tion Authority in Texas. There’s noth­ing spe­cial about sci­ent­ists, it just hap­pens that they’re at the top of the list as their jobs are based on ques­tion­ing Authority. The best response for sci­ent­ists to cre­ation­ists is to make clear that sci­entific debate is impossible because cre­ation­ists have noth­ing to debate with.

Despite the claims of cre­ation­ists and the wishes of some athe­ists, Darwin didn’t prove that God didn’t exist, but what he did do was show that God was not neces­sary to explain the vari­ety of life. That opens up a lot of ques­tions. Darwin showed that everything could be ques­tioned, includ­ing the reas­ons for the exist­ence of everything liv­ing. He showed that the world was not static and there was no neces­sity to believe in a world where the places of rich and poor were divinely ordained. Despite the recent attempts of an actor front­ing a titanic ‘exposé’ of evol­u­tion to smear him, he opposed slavery. His work has polit­ical implic­a­tions. It requires a ques­tion­ing atti­tude, and that’s not accept­able to people who don’t want to be ques­tioned. That’s why they offer noth­ing to ques­tion and that’s why they want to encour­age chil­dren to know when to stop ask­ing awk­ward questions.

If you know what the Creationists want with you, you’ll know why Darwin matters.

A lost religion written on its victims’ bones


Tomb #9 at Amara. Photo (cc) Ross Day.

The BBC’s pro­mot­ing an epis­ode of Timewatch broad­cast at 20:10 on 26 January 2008 (and on your iPlayer if you live in the UK shortly after). This one looks like it could be worth watch­ing. It’s news from the Amarna Project and archae­olo­gical pro­ject with an excel­lent web­site. Amarna is one of the most unusual places in Egypt. It was a cap­ital built by Akhenaten who beat off stiff com­pet­i­tion to be the strangest pharaoh Egypt ever had. If the ancient Egyptians had has their way, we wouldn’t know about Akhenaten.

Akhenaten was the phar­oah who turned his back on the tra­di­tional reli­gion of the ancient Egyptians. In place of the whole pan­theon he put the Aten, the sun disc. I thought this was move from a poly­the­istic to a mono­the­istic reli­gion, but some Egyptologists invol­un­tar­ily quiver when then hear that. It seems it’s more com­plic­ated than that. What can be said was that the Aten was the most import­ant divin­ity and its wor­ship by Akhenaten, led to root and branch reforms of the state religion.

One of these changes was the move from Thebes and the priest­hood of Amun-Re to a new site uncon­tam­in­ated by other gods for his own reli­gious base. This is the city of Amarna, or as Akhenaten called it Akhetaten, the Horizon of Aten. This fresh start might be help­ful. The plan­ning of the city could express cos­mo­lo­gical beliefs of the Egyptians at the time of Akhenaten, without dis­tor­tion from the restric­tions imposed by build­ings from earlier peri­ods. Amarna is espe­cially help­ful as the site seems to have been rap­idly aban­doned after the pharaoh’s death. The prob­lem is that life in Akhenaten’s Amarna could be very dif­fer­ent to life in the typ­ical worker’s per­cep­tion of Amarna. To what extent did Akhenaten’s reli­gion impact on the masses? The answer, accord­ing to find­ings from the Amarna pro­ject would sug­gest that Akhenaten’s reli­gion warped the very bod­ies of his sub­jects. Life in Amarna was nasty, bru­tish and short — and so were the people liv­ing it.

The evid­ence is from burials.

Prof Jerry Rose of the University of Arkansas has been examin­ing the bones found in the buri­als for sev­eral years. One of the advant­ages of work­ing in Egypt is the soil is extremely dry, so even though the bones are over four thou­sand years old they’re still yield­ing use­ful inform­a­tion. One of the most shock­ing find­ings are the ages at death. There’s a chart you can look at and it’s pretty clear that Amarna was a lethal place. The 2007 report has a chart of its own. This shows that aging a skel­eton isn’t always pos­sible, but both charts indic­ate that a life in Amarna would likely be over at 35. The report by Melissa Zabecki, also from Arkansas, is grim. They had dental caries but prob­ably didn’t com­plain too much about toothache as they were also likely to have extremely bad backs. Zabecki has found evid­ence of osteoarth­ritis and spinal trauma in many of the skel­et­ons. Zabecki’s con­clu­sion is that these people were worked to death.

Akhenaten wanted to change Egyptian reli­gion overnight, and that can’t be done without a lot of work. The twis­ted bones of the work­ers of Amarna show some of the cost of turn­ing from the old gods. It could be a fas­cin­at­ing pro­gramme. Then again Timewatch rendered the Sea Stallion voy­age into a bit of a snooze, so maybe not.

Extreme Pilgrim and Saint Anthony

Extreme Pilgrim

I’ve been busy recently, so this is only a quick pointer to Extreme Pilgrim which has its third and final epis­ode avail­able on the iPlayer till Thursday even­ing — if you live in the UK. This epis­ode was about Coptic Christianity and espe­cially Saint Anthony who cre­ated the first monastery.

After the first half of epis­ode one I’ve been get­ting more impressed with the series. To begin with Peter Owen-Jones gave the impres­sion of look­ing for a super­fi­cial quick fix to a spir­itual mal­aise. The second epis­ode had him work as a Saddhu, a Hindu holy man. His struggle to try and work out what the hell he was sup­posed to be doing could have been a really awful attempt at com­edy. Thankfully he seemed bet­ter pre­pared to get into the spirit of task and genu­inely cared about his rela­tion­ship with the vil­lage where his cave was.

For epis­ode three, he thought he had his strongest chal­lenge. He went to live with a her­mit in the cliff caves over­look­ing the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt. There are prob­lems liv­ing as a her­mit, when you’re her­mit­ing with someone else and a cam­era crew. Fr. Lazarus, his host offered him his cave where he goes when he feels like a her­mit hol­i­day. The film crew leave Pete with a cam­corder to keep a diary and then with­draw to film him occa­sion­ally through a tele­photo lens for three weeks.

I’m not sure this epis­ode worked so well. The pre­vi­ous two epis­odes had him work­ing within a faith which was alien to him. So he was try­ing to make sense of the faith and its rela­tion­ship to the phys­ical exer­cises he was doing. For this epis­ode he’s with Christians and rather than try­ing to under­stand I get the impres­sions that so much of the famili­ar­ity meant he was accept­ing assump­tions rather than think­ing hard about them as he had before.

Nonetheless it’s not a bad epis­ode. If you live out­side the UK you can see some of it on YouTube. This clip needs a bit of set up. He’s vis­ited Fr. Lazarus who’s given him a cave. Fr. Lazarus is con­cerned because he thinks Pete Owen-Jones could be lit­er­ally in for a hellish time. The Bishop of the Monastery con­siders the cliffs too dan­ger­ous for his own monks. Fr. Lazarus has seen many pro­spect­ive her­mits driven from the rocks. He warns his guest the devil is in the cliffs and he will chal­lenge Pete. Lazarus prom­ises to look in on him from time to time, but they are sep­ar­ated by quite a dis­tance. In an emer­gency all Pete has is him­self and his camcorder.

Embedding is dis­abled, so you’ll have to watch the clip at YouTube.

Mark Steel: If you think Islam is medieval, look at Catholicism


Pope Benedict faces a spe­cific com­plaint, that when he was a mere car­dinal, he said the trial of Galileo by the inquis­i­tion in 1633 was “Reasonable and just.” The res­ult of the trial was that, for the crime of con­firm­ing that the Earth orbits the Sun, he was sen­tenced to exe­cu­tion, although this was later reduced to per­man­ent house arrest. This may seem harsh, so a typ­ical mod­ern defender of the sen­tence, the writer Vittorio Messori, jus­ti­fied it by say­ing: “Galileo was not con­demned for what he said but the way he said it.” So that was the prob­lem – the Vatican didn’t mind Galileo’s the­or­ies about the Universe, but he said them with his mouth full.

But maybe the most inter­est­ing side to Benedict’s defence of his 17th-century pre­de­cessors is ima­gin­ing the furore if a sim­ilar atti­tude happened within Islam. If the leader of the Muslim world declared it was reas­on­able and just to have sen­tenced one of history’s greatest minds to exe­cu­tion, piles of com­ment­at­ors would be telling us this proved Islam was a medi­eval, ignor­ant creed incom­pat­ible with Western values.

It does raise ques­tions about the Catholic church’s sin­cer­ity when they expressed regret. You can read the whole thing at the Independent.

Barbara Brown Taylor explains why she’d be a bad choice for jury service


It is not that the facts don’t mat­ter. It is just that they don’t mat­ter as much as the stor­ies do, and stor­ies can be true whether they hap­pen or not.

From “Home By Another Way,” in Home By Another Way by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley, 1999).

(thanks to Episcopal Café)

Nero and the Comets of Doom

Wonder or portent of doom? Photo (cc) Wonderferret.

Judith Weingarten at Zenobia: Empress of the East, has some thought­ful com­ments as a follow-up to The Star of Bethlehem Solved? in The Magi and Christmas. She starts by talk­ing about Marco Polo’s trip to the east, and it’s a great example of how his­tory can be a series of echoes from the past inter­act­ing with each other. She also raises three prob­lems with Jenkins’ the­ory and two of them high­light how little we know about ancient astro­nomy. Her most ser­i­ous objec­tion is that comets are not stars, and Matthew would not have con­fused the two. It’s a very good point and strikes at the heart of the prob­lem I have with some his­tor­ies of ancient astronomy.

One reason that it’s reas­on­able to state that a comet would not be con­fused with a star is down to Aristotle. Aristotle puts for­ward his the­ory of comets in book one of Meteorology. He argues they’re caused by exhal­a­tions of the earth and exist in the sub-lunar realm. This would explain their unpre­dict­ab­il­ity as for Aristotle the heav­ens were per­fect and con­stant. Aristotle was writ­ing in the 4th Century BC, but his ideas had great influ­ence. Manilius wrote wrote his Astronomica in the Augustan/Tiberian period largely accepts Aristotle’s explan­a­tion. This isn’t the only explan­a­tion of comets though, and we’re lucky that Aristotle records the opin­ions of other thinkers before dis­card­ing them. These explan­a­tions would sug­gest that some people in the ancient world were think­ing about comets as stars. In Book one, part six we get:

Anaxagoras and Democritus declare that comets are a con­junc­tion of the plan­ets approach­ing one another and so appear­ing to touch one another.

Some of the Italians called Pythagoreans say that the comet is one of the plan­ets, but that it appears at great inter­vals of time and only rises a little above the hori­zon. This is the case with Mercury too; because it only rises a little above the hori­zon it often fails to be seen and con­sequently appears at great inter­vals of time.

A view like theirs was also expressed by Hippocrates of Chios and his pupil Aeschylus.

Unfortunately I’m not sure how much this tells us about Matthew’s astro­nomy. Aristotle’s Meteorology is a book of ser­i­ous research notes. It wouldn’t have been access­ible to the aver­age farmer in the ancient world, nor neces­sar­ily reflec­ted the folk astro­nomy of the period. It’s the astro­nomy of an élite. This is a prob­lem every­where in ancient his­tory. It tends to be writ­ten by male élites and the vast bulk of pop­u­la­tion was not of interest to them. In con­trast Matthew’s gos­pel is a work of evan­gel­ism. It was inten­ded to be spread among the gen­eral popu­lace and so folk astro­nomy is import­ant if we take the star of Bethlehem ser­i­ously. How can you access this astro­nomy? It’s hard but there are clues in other texts.

Aratus wrote the Phaenomena, a poetic descrip­tion of the sky, in the 3rd Century BC. He only men­tions comets briefly, but the word he uses on line 1092 is κομόωντες. From Kidd’s trans­la­tion (page 557), this is from κομῆται ἀστέρες. Kometai asteres are lit­er­ally hairy stars. Pliny’s Natural History opens its sec­tion on comets in the Penguin trans­la­tion (page 19) with:

There are also stars of sev­eral kinds that sud­denly come into being in the sky itself. The Greeks call them ‘comets’; we call them ‘long-haired’ stars, because they bristle with a blood-red tail which is shaggy on top, like hair.

You can read the sec­tion on comets in a Loeb trans­la­tion on the Perseus Project. I can see that cer­tainly there would be a view among the edu­cated that comets were not stars, but I think there’s enough uncer­tainty to leave the door open to Matthew’s star being a comet.

Judith Weingarten’s second objec­tion is more ser­i­ous. Comets are bad news. Some authors like Aristotle think they’re bad news because the con­di­tions which lead to things like civic strife also cause comets. Manilius closes book one of the Astronomica (from line 809 onward) with a descrip­tion of comets. He can be bleak like around line 893–5 in the Loeb trans­la­tion:

Death comes with those celes­tial torches, which threaten earth with the blaze of pyres unceas­ing, since heaven and nature’s self are stricken and seem doomed to share men’s tomb.

Following that with Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men seems difficult.

Despite this, there are a few reas­ons to sus­pect that comets weren’t auto­mat­ic­ally bad news. My favour­ite is men­tioned on page 24 of Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology by Sara Schechner Genuth, which I found by acci­dent while search­ing on Google. She tells of Chaeremon the Stoic who I don’t remem­ber hear­ing of before. He wrote the book On Comets which sadly is lost, but in it he appar­ently argues that comets can be good news. Context is import­ant before we accept this opin­ion and in this case the con­text is inter­est­ing. Chaeremon was a tutor to Nero, who as I men­tioned in the earlier post, had a few comets vis­ible dur­ing his reign. It could be that this was a mat­ter of flat­ter­ing the emperor.

Another Neronian source is Seneca’s De Cometis, which is book seven of the Quaestiones Naturales. This dates from around AD 60, so it close to the gos­pels in date. There sadly not a lot I can say about that because I don’t have a copy handy. Liba Taub touches on it a few times in her book Ancient Meteorology, and it seems to be in part a mat­ter of writ­ing against fear of comets. Seneca even says that the rule of Nero “redeemed comets of their bad char­ac­ter”, but given Nero’s repu­ta­tion that’s debatable.

Pliny the Elder is the closest source in time to the Gospel of Matthew that I’ve looked at and he can be pos­it­ive about comets. From Natural History again:

It is thought import­ant to notice towards what part it darts its beams, or from what star it receives its influ­ence, what it resembles, and in what places it shines. If it resembles a flute, it por­tends some– [p. 1058] thing unfa­vour­able respect­ing music; if it appears in the parts of the signs referred to the private parts, some­thing respect­ing lewd­ness of man­ners; some­thing respect­ing wit and learn­ing, if they form a tri­an­gu­lar or quad­rangu­lar fig­ure with the pos­i­tion of some of the fixed stars; and that some one will be poisoned, if they appear in the head of either the north­ern or the south­ern serpent.

I’ve altered a couple of words to update the trans­la­tion slightly an emboldened the pos­it­ive sign because it could eas­ily be lost amongst the doom and fore­bod­ing. This is cur­rently the biggest prob­lem I see with Jenkins’ idea. It does require comets to be indic­at­ive of change as well as death and dis­aster. In the after­math of the fall of the temple of Jerusalem that may be a hard idea to support.

There are a couple more texts which give cir­cum­stan­tial evid­ence to sup­port Jenkins inter­pret­a­tion. Manilius writes in Astronomica 1.8146: In times of great upheaval rare ages have seen the sud­den glow of flame through the clear air and comets blaze into life and per­ish. This is the same guy that I quote above say­ing “Death comes with those celes­tial torches…,” so it’s not over-positive but it does show there’s another prob­lem in inter­pret­ing comets. Their mean­ings were not fixed in antiquity.

For Manilius this was a time of great change. Augustus had turned the Republic into an Empire and as part of this Augustus was engaged on a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent approach to pub­lic image. Part of this was the use of pop­u­lar astro­logy and so this was a very dynamic time in the use of astro­nom­ical sym­bols. Virgil uses a comet in the Aeneid as a divine sign. There’s a lot of room for dis­cus­sion of whether or not the Gospel of Matthew uses post-Augustan imagery and uses it to com­mu­nic­ate its own story. The arrival of the Messiah would be a time of change, and so the story could be using the lan­guage of cre­at­ing a new epoch, hence a comet. Judith Weingarten is abso­lutely right in identi­fy­ing this a prob­lem for his­tor­i­ans. The mean­ing of comets to a 1st Century audi­ence is uncer­tain. I expect that if this idea gains trac­tion, this is what a lot of the dis­cus­sion will be about.

Her final point is one that I simply can­not answer. She shows that Cassius Dio recor­ded the pro­ces­sion of the Magi as pro­ceed­ing over­land without passing through Syria. If I remem­ber rightly, Antioch is cur­rently the favour­ite loc­a­tion for the writ­ing of Matthew’s Gospel, which is well off this route. Why then is the pro­ces­sion in the gos­pel? I don’t have an answer. Nonetheless even this shows why Jenkins’ idea is appeal­ing. It’s a ques­tion that needs to be answered but, like the prob­lems above, it’s a ques­tion that can be dis­cussed by his­tor­i­ans. Most Star of Bethlehem ideas simply aren’t his­tor­ical answers. If you have an opin­ion then add it below or on the Zenobia blog.


The Magi and Christmas: Judith Weingarten’s com­ments on Rod Jenkins’ Star of Bethlehem paper.

What’s up with the star of Bethlehem?: Another col­lec­tion of views on what the Star might be.

The Comet Book: Not dir­ectly rel­ev­ant, but I don’t link to Bibliodyssey often enough.

Atheism with one god less doesn’t work

Christian Atheist
Christian Atheism. Photo (cc) zor­illa.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has spoken out this Christmas against fun­da­ment­al­ism, includ­ing fun­da­ment­al­ist athe­ists. It’s the kind of mes­sage I agree with, or at least I would if I knew any fun­da­ment­al­ist athe­ists. I don’t know any. Fair play to Dr Morgan, he doesn’t name any so I may never find out who they are. Presumably it’s not a ref­er­ence to Richard Dawkins because, for reas­ons I’ll show below, that would be a bit silly. It’s not sur­pris­ing Dawkins gets ratty about it. But while Dawkins isn’t a fun­da­ment­al­ist, it’s pos­sible one of his one-liners might explain where these fun­da­ment­al­ists come from.

Everybody nowadays is an athe­ist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

Technically two lines, but it is a prob­lem because this line doesn’t say what an athe­ist is. It’s a big point because there’s when you’re talk­ing about Thor or Apollo there’s a dif­fer­ence in depend­ing on whether or not you’re the sort of athe­ist who believes in gods.

An athe­ist who believes in a God? That’s the prob­lem.
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