Highlights of Astronomy from an Historical Viewpoint


NOTE: The following talk was delivered last week by Ed Dennison, a retired astronomical engineer. Ed and his wife Alice own the cabin on upper Hamlin Lake, in Ludington, Michigan, where Connie and I have been staying for the last month. They invited us to stay here last year as well. Their generosity has been (and continues to be) an enormous blessing to us!

Tonight I am going to talk about one of many astronomical discoveries – the reality that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  Like many astronomical discoveries, the first observations occurred at least 10,000 years ago but the definitive interpretation did not occur until very recently, 1838 to be exact.

Before I continue, I would like to remind you about the standard protocol of science.  New ideas often start with an intuitive bit of insight or hunch.  This initial concept starts in the human brain from one or more previous ideas.  The next stage is to make an observation of a fact.  A fact is statement that is generally accepted by many people who are knowledgeable about the topic.  Following the statement of fact is one or more interpretations.  These interpretations are generally not agreed upon initially.  These different interpretations often exist for many years or centuries.  Interpretations can change as new facts or analytical tools become available.

I point this out to remind you that anyone who says that they know the “Truth” about any subject should be viewed with skepticism.  This statement applies to science, history and particularly to religion.

The astronomical subject I will be talking about is the relationship of the Earth to the Sun.  The geocentric (the Sun revolves around the Earth) and the heliocentric (the Earth revolves around the Sun) views.

Let us start with some observed facts. 

Cancer Update: Great News - Cancer Free!


I met with my oncologist, Dr. Damien Green, a few days ago in Seattle to discuss the results of the blood test and CT scan I underwent the day before. The tests continue to show no sign of cancer and Dr. Green said he saw nothing that concerned him. He wants me to have another blood test done in 3 months and to fly back to Seattle in December for another CT scan.

Needless to say, Connie and I are overjoyed.

Thanks to all of you who have been holding me in your hearts!

For those interested, here's our itinerary for the rest of this year. And if you've not already done so, do check out our three separate podcasts: (1) America's Evolutionary Evangelists, (2) Inspiring Naturalism, and (3) Evolving Faith.

As you can tell, we've been having entirely too much fun!

[Posted June 14, 2010]

I'm Responsible for the Gulf Oil Crisis


"This Time Is Different"
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN - NY Times Op-Ed Columnist
Published: June 11, 2010 / Original link

My friend, Mark Mykleby, who works in the Pentagon, shared with me this personal letter to the editor he got published last week in his hometown paper, The Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina. It is the best reaction I’ve seen to the BP oil spill — and also the best advice to President Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where.

“I’d like to join in on the blame game that has come to define our national approach to the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word. It’s what we do as individuals that count. For those on the left, government regulation will not solve this problem. Government’s role should be to create an environment of opportunity that taps into the innovation and entrepreneurialism that define us as Americans. For those on the right, if you want less government and taxes, then decide what you’ll give up and what you’ll contribute. Here’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something. So again, the oil spill is my fault. I’m sorry. I haven’t done my part. Now I have to convince my wife to give up her S.U.V." ~Mark Mykleby.

I think Mykleby’s letter gets at something very important: We cannot fix what ails America unless we look honestly at our own roles in creating our own problems. We — both parties — created an awful set of incentives that encouraged our best students to go to Wall Street to create crazy financial instruments instead of to Silicon Valley to create new products that improve people’s lives. We — both parties — created massive tax incentives and cheap money to make home mortgages available to people who really didn’t have the means to sustain them. And we — both parties — sent BP out in the gulf to get us as much oil as possible at the cheapest price. (Of course, we expected them to take care, but when you’re drilling for oil beneath 5,000 feet of water, stuff happens.)

As Pogo would say, we have met the enemy and he is us.

But that means we’re also the solution — if we’re serious. Look, we managed to survive 9/11 without letting it destroy our open society or rule of law. We managed to survive the Wall Street crash without letting it destroy our economy. Hopefully, we will survive the BP oil spill without it destroying our coastal ecosystems. But we dare not press our luck.

Supernatural Is Unnatural Is Uninspiring (When You Think About It)

Sun loop smaller

In the 14-billion-year 'big history' of the Universe, and 4.5-billion-year history of Earth, evidence suggest that the only place that the supernatural realm has ever existed is in the minds and hearts (and speech) of human beings, and actually only quite recently.

As Benson Salem compellingly showed in his 1977 American Anthropological Association Ethos paper, “Supernatural as a Western Category”, the 'supernatural realm' only came into being as a thought form after we began to understand things in natural, scientific way. Only after the concept of “natural” emerged was it deemed necessary by some to speak of the “super-natural”: that which was imagined to be above or outside of nature. As I point out in the preface to the Plume paperback edition of my book,

How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural—they were prenatural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive. For religious leaders today to rely on prenatural answers puts them at odds not only with science but with one another—dangerously so. Their resistance, however, does make sense. Until scientific discoveries are fleshed into the life-giving forms of beauty and goodness (as well as truth and utility), scriptural literalism will command power and influence.

As we have learned more and more about the natural, the so-called supernatural has become less and less attractive. After all, supernatural and unnatural are synonyms. Anything supposedly supernatural is, by definition, unnatural. And most people find unnatural relatively uninspiring when they really stop and think about it. I mean, does this sound like "good news" to you?...

An unnatural king who occasionally engages in unnatural acts sends his unnatural son to Earth in an unnatural way. He’s born an unnatural birth, lives an unnatural life, performs unnatural deeds, and is killed and unnaturally rises from the dead in order to redeem humanity from an unnatural curse brought about by an unnaturally talking snake. After 40 days of unnatural appearances he unnaturally zooms off to heaven to return to his unnatural father, sit on an unnatural throne, and unnaturally judge the living and the dead. If you profess to believe in all this unnatural activity, you and your fellow believers get to spend an unnaturally long time in an unnaturally boring paradise while everyone else suffers an unnatural, torturous hell forever.

If this is supposedly “the gospel”, God’s great news for humanity, it any wonder that young people are turning their backs on religion and that the New Atheists are riding bestseller lists—while promoting Bible reading!?


Our 3 podcasts: "America's Evolutionary Evangelists", "Inspiring Naturalism", and "Evolving Faith"

The New Atheists Are God's Prophets
Religion Is About Right Relationship With Reality, Not the Supernatural
Is This the Meaning of Life?
God Is a Divine Personification, Not a Person
Idolatry of the Written Word
Evolutionary Christianity
Atheists Promote Bible Reading!?
The Salvation of Religion: From Beliefs to Knowledge
Evolutionary Spirituality: Coming Home to Reality
Christian Naturalism
God Is Not a Supernatural Terrorist
How and Why I'm a Pentecostal Evangelical


Secular Religion - Davidson Loehr

Davidson Loehr

NOTE: I received the following as an email from my friend and colleague, Davidson Loehr, in response to yesterday's post on "The New Atheists Are God's Prophets". He agreed to allow me to post it as a guest blog entry.

Michael; I had some free-associations on your new-theists-as-prophets piece:

A fundamental difference between priests and prophets is that priests are keepers of their community’s status quo—their orthodoxy, rituals, attitudes toward women and homosexuality, etc.  By doing this, they help stabilize their congregation’s way of life.  Prophets don't care about beliefs or rituals; they only care about behavior.  This always pits them against the priests and institutions, since effective prophets only seem to show up when that status quo seems, to the prophet, morally inadequate—like Amos telling the people God didn’t care about their sacrifices, etc.; God only cares about the inadequacy or immorality of their behavior toward others: selling the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of shoes, etc.  Hmmm, this is sounding a lot like what globalization is doing to third world countries.

On the surface, the new atheists are seen as criticizing incoherent belief; I think Bill Maher’s film “Religulous” fits here, as does Brian Flemming’s embarrassing “The God Who Wasn’t There.”   But in Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, I see their anger burning the hottest over the holy wars, persecutions, banning condoms in Africa, valuing an unborn fetus more than they value the mother, etc.  They attack the beliefs because of the behaviors the beliefs have led to.  That’s the sense in which they are functioning like cultural prophets, if not religious ones.

My sense of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures [i.e., the “old” testament] is that they identified themselves as being in the same broad religious tradition, and were calling “the faithful” to higher and more nuanced levels of actualizing their beliefs.  In this sense, I think Bishop Spong is the closest to a prophet today, as Martin Luther King Jr. was one of Christianity’s greatest prophets of the 20th century.

Voltaire’s sharp aphorism comes to mind:  Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.  If we combine it with James Russell Lowell’s pungent “Time makes ancient good uncouth,” I think we’re very close to the soul of a prophet.  Time can make customary beliefs—about women, gays, foreigners, heretics and those holding to all other beliefs—not only wrong or anachronistic, but simply uncouth.  We’re watching most of these statements of “ancient good” become uncouth all over the world, as people react to the world’s growing pluralism and the relativism of all beliefs.  Christians were once persecuted and killed for being atheists.  We’re all atheists regarding the overwhelming majority of gods of history, as Richard Dawkins has wittily put it.

What I see and feel from these four “atheist” writers—though they don’t put it this way—isn’t that God has died, but that God-talk can no longer frame our most important questions, and will almost certainly saddle us with absurdities and prepare us for atrocities because it's grounded in an ancient worldview that never existed—the three-story universe.

For all their differences, most critics from both inside and outside of religion share a remarkable area of agreement.  Their concerns are both this-worldly (secular) and centered on our moral responsibilities and ultimate concerns.  Taken together, they form a 12-point outline of what I’m calling Secular Religion:

The New Atheists Are God's Prophets

Michael at Negro Bill's Canyon, UT

NOTE: I cross-posted this on RichardDawkins.net, which generated some lively discussion and forced me to expand and clarify my message. I recommend reading the comments, in order.

Last September, the day I learned I had an especially aggressive form of cancer, I asked myself, “If I only had one message left to communicate to the world, what would it be? The answer that came was: Proclaim this: “The 21st century is humanity's rite of passage. Whether or not we survive this ordeal, which is our species’ adolescent crisis, only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: atheists are helping religious people mature, not the other way around. The New Atheists, speaking on behalf of reality, are divine prophets. They are helping all of us wake up, grow up, and come home to reality.” A few hours later, I recorded a 30-minute podcast titled “The New Atheists as God’s Prophets”. Even now, eight months later, with cancer (hopefullyin remission, this is still the core message I’m communicating to widely diverse religious groups. Strangely enough, it seems to be a meme (an idea) that resonates with quite a few people on both sides of the science and religion divide—that is, those who don't immediately run for the barf bag when they hear it.

Last week, for example, I was interviewed on "The Infidel Guy", a popular humanist/atheist pocast. The title of the program and the main subject we discussed was "The New Atheists as Divine Prophets". I also recently submitted something on the subject to Michael Shermer at Skeptic magazine, for possible inclusion in a future issue. (BTW, we interviewed Shermer yesterday for our new Inspiring Naturalism podcast series. We had a great conversation and Connie will be uploading it in a couple of weeks, after she posts the fun conversation we had last week with science blogger and biologist PZ Myers. If you've not yet listened to our conversations with David Sloan Wilson, one of the world's most esteemed evolutionary theorists, and David Christan, the grandaddy of big history, check 'em out. They're both awesome!)

Last night around midnight, as I was trying to go to sleep, the following thoughts came to mind. I got up, typed them out, and went back to bed. This morning Connie did some editing and produced a version that fleshes out and clarifies what I was trying to say. What follows is my original version followed by Connie's edited version. They are quite different, which is why I'm including them both.

Is This the Meaning of Life? - John Stewart


Editorial Note: Here I re-post a guardian.co-uk science blog by my dear friend and colleague John Stewart, whose distillation of the trajectory of evolution has profoundly shaped my own sense of the patterns in deep-time history—patterns which evoke in me gratitude for the past, inspiration in the present, and realistic hope for the future. John offers that despite the perception that science has stripped the meaning from life, recent developments in evolutionary theory suggest that humans have a central role to play in the future of the universe. Although John's vision of human participation in future evolution inclines toward what our species' intelligence might offer, evolutionists who celebrate the aesthetic and emotional progress of humankind (in finding kinship with all and in expanding one's sense of self and circles of compassion and care) will find commonground in John's portrayal of the fundamental trajectory and forces underlying cosmic, earthly, and cultural evolution. In an infinitely meaningful universe, there are, of course, a multiplicity of ways to find meaning in life. All it requires is being able to imagine how your life fits within a larger, meaningful pattern, or whole—how your story is part of the Great Story. For those interested, my wife Connie and I just launched two new podcast series: Inspiring Naturalism and Evolving Faith, which feature interviews with some of the world's most esteemed scientists and historians (Inspiring Naturalism), and theologians, ministers, and other religious professionals (Evolving Faith) who derive their meaning and inspiration not from mythic, otherworldly beliefs, but from an evidential, science-based, naturalist perspective.


Driving the evolution of intelligence across the universe gives meaning to life.  (Photograph: Corbis)
Original link (March 5, 2010 science blog in guardian.co.uk)

It is often assumed that the science-based worldview implies that life on this planet is a meaningless accident in a universe that is indifferent to our existence. Humans struggle to find purpose within this purely naturalistic understanding of reality, and so they supplement it with beliefs in supernatural processes and entities.

However, recent advances in our understanding of evolution are revealing a bigger picture that can, by itself, give meaning to life. This new worldview locates humanity within a much larger evolutionary process that appears to offer us a meaningful role to play.

This new understanding of evolution is founded on the recognition that evolution is headed somewhere – it has a trajectory. In particular, evolution on Earth has repeatedly gathered small-scale entities into cooperative organisations on a progressively larger and larger scale. Self-replicating molecular processes were organised into the first simple cells. Communities of these simple, prokaryotic cells formed the more complex eukaryotic cell. Collections of these formed multicellular organisms, and organisms were organised into cooperative societies.

A similar sequence appears to have unfolded in human evolution: from family groups, to bands, to tribes, to agricultural communities and city states, to nations, and so on.

This trajectory has applied regardless of whether evolution proceeds by gene-based natural selection or cultural processes. It is driven by the potential at all levels of organisation for cooperative teams united by common goals to be more successful than isolated individuals.

Cooperation trumps selfishness

Mainstream biology has been slow to accept that evolution moves towards increasing cooperation. The view has been that selfishness, rather than cooperation, is favoured by evolution. But this objection has been overcome in the past two decades by a large body of research on the evolution of cooperation. In short, this research shows that complex cooperation will emerge among self-interested individuals if they are organised so that they benefit from their cooperative acts – and if free riders and other non-cooperators are restrained or punished.

Crucially, this removes any conflict between self-interest and cooperation.

(Readers interested in a more detailed discussion of why biologists have been so slow to accept that there is a direction to evolution should read my pre-press article for the journal Foundations of Science.)

Where will evolution go from here? Extrapolating the trajectory into the future is reasonably straightforward, at least initially. The next major transition on Earth would be the emergence of a sustainable and cooperative global society. As with cooperatives at all other levels, the global society would curb internal conflict and destructive competition, including war and pollution. Past transitions demonstrate how this might be organised.

Mission / Purpose / "Must See" Links and Books

Sun rays

Note: On this first anniversary of the death of my beloved mentor Thomas Berry, and a week before I undergo another CT scan to see if I'm still cancer free, I'd like to share what shapes my evolving sense of life purpose. I begin with several paragraphs of background observations . . .

Coming into right relationship with reality is the great challenge of our time because it encompasses all of humanity’s challenges. Traditionally, maps of reality—that is, maps of how things are and which things matter—were embedded in a people’s cosmology, or creation myth—their sacred story. This big picture perspective provided answers to life’s great questions and guidance regarding what was real and what was important. Vital aspects of reality, or reality as a whole, were personified in sacred ways, as gods or goddesses. Evidence suggests that such personifications were the norm throughout human history. All cultures interpreted reality in meaningful ways using metaphors and analogies appropriate to their experience of the world. While factually realistic maps would be unavailable until modern times, these practically realistic maps of what was real (ultimately) and what mattered (ultimately) embodied the collective intelligence of a culture and vitally contributed to its survival. Inspiring and motivating stories and legends were those that contributed to the evolutionary fitness not only of the individuals within a culture but also of the group as a whole. Group-level solidarity and sacrifice would have been essential for fending off invasions—and also launching same. They did so by nurturing what Loyal Rue, in his landmark book, Religion Is Not About God, calls personal wholeness and social coherence, the two essential aspects of aligning individual and group self-interest.

Cultural fitness is impeded today in large part because the map of reality that science (the collective intelligence of our species) provides, and which urges us to unite in our diversity, has not yet been interpreted in ways that most people around the world find inspiring. As I state in the preface of my book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World,

Human beings do not live by truth alone. We require the sustenance of meaning—of beauty, goodness, relationship, and purpose. We require comfort in times of sorrow and suffering. We require a big picture that facilitates trust when we look to the future, gratitude when we look to the past, and inspiration to be in action in the present regardless of our challenges.

Until those feeling-states essential for human thriving can easily and consistently be obtained via meaningful interpretations of big history, our common creation story, it should not come as a surprise that billions of human beings who currently gain these states by way of mythic, belief-based stories will resist an evidential view of reality. And in a world of increasingly accessible weapons of mass destruction, a healthy future for our species and our planet seems unlikely if billions of us continue to be guided by competing, outdated, and inaccurate maps of how things are and which things matter. Thus, in addition to posting as a podcast series our occasional ruminations as "America's Evolutionary Evangelists", and in addition to teaching the epic of evolution as an inspiring modern-day creation story to kids and adults across North America, Connie and I are excited to have recently launched two new podcast series in which we interview and dialogue with leaders in science, education, and progressive religious initiatives: "Inspiring Naturalism" and "Evolving Faith".


Mission Statement:  To share what I call "the gospel according to science" (i.e., this-world good news from an evidential perspective) with as many people as I can, to proclaim the heavenly joy, individually and collectively, in coming home to realty, and to do my part in furthering the world-wide movement of those passionately committed to a healthy future for humanity and the larger body of life.

Credo: Reality is my God and integrity (honoring reality) is my religion. Thus, living in right relationship with reality and assisting humanity in this process is my calling and deepest inspiration.

Life purpose:  I serve the future by boldly (yet compassionately) evangelizing evolution, by celebrating our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality, and by offering deep-time eyes and a realistically hopeful vision of the future. I consistently affirm and invite others to update (naturalize/REALize) their maps of reality (including what they mean by "God") and to excitedly participate in bringing forth a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.

Actions: In every sermon, workshop, interaction, and creative project, I seek to inspire and motivate by:

1. Offering DEEP-TIME EYES (our current, most accurate map of reality) regarding,

Religion is About Right Relationship with Reality, Not the Supernatural

Ripple clouds and mountain

“The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.” Loyal Rue, Religion is Not About God

Reality is my God and integrity is my religion. By this, I mean that what is real is my ultimate commitment and being in right relationship with reality, and assisting humanity in this process, is my calling and deepest inspiration. To be clear: I am neither a theist nor atheist; I’m a post-theist, an emergentist—a religious naturalist. The concepts of theism and atheism came into use long before we had an evidential (reality-based) understanding of how the world, in fact, came into being and before we learned that the Universe itself is creative. Given what we now know about big history, I no longer find the theist-atheist dichotomy useful. Both presuppose a trivial, unnatural God and a mechanistic Cosmos that is not itself divinely creative.

Coming into right relationship to reality is truly what it's all about in human affairs. How to most effectively do this has been the great work of every age and culture. At each stage in human evolution our understanding of how things are and which things matter—what's real and what's important—must be answered anew. Reality is, of course, experienced differently around the world and at different times in history. Life in a rainforest is different from life in the desert, turdra, or city. Life in a tribe differs from life in a chiefdom, theocracy, or empire. Not surprisingly, reality has been personified, or relationalized, differently throughout the world. Gods and goddesses in lush, tropical regions have very different personalities than those in harsh, difficult regions. Theology is a child of geography and sociology. A culture’s cosmology (how things are/what’s real) and values (which things matter/what’s important) are both derived from their core narrative or creation myth, which includes their various personifications.

All religions facilitate personal wholeness and social coherence. These two, the therapeutic and political functions of religion, together with the need to live in ecological integrity, are the three essential components of right relationship with reality.

As humanity has progressed from clans, to tribes, to chieftains and kingdoms, to theocracies and early nations, to nation states, to social democracies, each advance in complexity required a fresh understanding of what’s real and what’s important, and a new mythic story emerged to expand the in-group and provide mechanisms to ensure trust and cooperation at a wider level than before.

God is Reality Personified, Not a Person

Rudolf Bultmann

God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality. If we miss this we miss everything.