We Can Do Better than Religious Holidays

Why not celebrate things that actually happened?

Even devout Bible scholars—aside from hard-core evangelical denialists—concede that the Jesus birth stories in Matthew and Luke are fiction. Yet they’re the focus of attention and adoration every December. Likewise, the Empty Tomb stories in the four gospels (“He is risen!”) swarm with contradictions, gaffs, and improbabilities; they fail to meet minimal standards as historical reporting. But of course, every Easter they are piously recited and celebrated; believers have been persuaded to take them seriously.

We can be grateful that secular—and less harmful—renditions of these holidays have emerged, i.e., Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, a symbol of fecundity, by the way, which humans have celebrated at springtime from time immemorial.

Humanity would be much better off in the long run if we celebrated things that we know actually happened, and that have advanced our understanding of the Cosmos and our place in it: how we happened.

Episode 7 in my series of Flash Podcasts on Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said has been posted on my YouTube channel. Under 5 minutes.

Here are four holidays that could boost humanity’s grasp of reality.

Celebrating Hubble: Waking Up to Our Place in the Cosmos

It was just about 17 years before I was born that a most stunning discovery was made, which is far more awesome than any Bible folklore. Edwin Hubble, of course, is a household name, because an orbiting telescope was named after him. But why did he deserve that honor?

A bit of backstory: In April 1920, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., there was a debate between astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis:

“Shapley took the side that spiral nebulae (what are now called galaxies) are inside our Milky Way, while Curtis took the side that the spiral nebulae are 'island universes' far outside our own Milky Way and comparable in size and nature to our own Milky Way.”

Only a century ago—just think of it—that issue was still up for debate. Enter Edwin Hubble:

“Using the Hooker Telescope at Mt. Wilson, Hubble identified Cepheid variables in several spiral nebulae, including the Andromeda Nebula and Triangulum. His observations, made in 1924, proved conclusively that these nebulae were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, entire galaxies outside our own…”

Cepheid variables are rare stars that can be used reliably to measure distances, and Hubble had spotted one in Andromeda. He marked “VAR!” on one photographic plate (a negative, with the center of the galaxy appearing as a black oval); this must rank as one of the most important photographs ever taken.

He presented his findings to the American Astronomical Society on 1 January 1925: “Hubble's findings fundamentally changed the scientific view of the universe.”

Hubble opened a new era in our understanding of the Cosmos. It turns out that our galaxy is one of billions, that our Milky Way—100,000 lights years across—is but a speck on the landscape of the Cosmos. Arguably, we would be much better off if every person on earth realized where we are in the scheme of things.

The primary lesson to draw from this is not how insignificant we are; we already knew that. Our star and its trailing planets is one of billions in our galaxy alone; just one orbit of the sun around the galactic center takes 235 million years. Humans might do better to contemplate how isolated we are and how much we don’t know about the Cosmos. There might be countless thinking species ‘out there’ in our galaxy alone, who have been contemplating the Cosmos many thousands of years longer than we have. But just consider this: the nearest star to our own star, Alpha Centauri (actually a three-star system), is about 4.5 light years away. So why doesn’t NASA aim a space ship that way to check it out? Our isolation is staggering: it would take the space shuttle, going 18,000 miles per hour, 160,000 years to get there.

Even in my seminary days, I’d begun to wonder how theologians—on earth, in our profound isolation, with no hard data—could posture so confidently about God. Sam Harris has been blunt: theology must now be considered a branch of human ignorance. Theological systems that have their roots in ancient speculations and superstitions have done little more than refine their ideas, in a vain attempt to keep up. Over the centuries, with the painstaking gathering of knowledge—as Timothy Ferris’ title puts it, we have been Coming of Age in the Milky Way—theology has become irrelevant because it can offer no data whatever to back up its claims. Theology specializes in bluff and apologetics.

The human race would be better off if we had a World Holiday celebrating Edwin Hubble’s curiosity, his patient hours at the telescope, his desire to know. What an example to follow. But what’s your guess? How many people on the planet know what Hubble found out, and have absorbed it into their worldview? Carl Sagan pushed us in this direction with his eloquent description of the Pale Blue Dot.

Joseph von Fraunhofer: Figuring Our What We’re Made Of

This is definitely not a household name. Fraunhofer was an optics maker who died in 1826, at the age of 39. According to Timothy Ferris:

“He had an instinct for the essential, and his spirited research into the basic characteristics of various kinds of glass soon established him as the world’s foremost maker of telescope lenses. Fraunhofer started out using spectral lines as sources of monochromatic light for his experiments in improving color correction of his lenses, but soon became fascinated by the lines themselves. ‘I saw with the telescope,’ he wrote, ‘an almost countless number of strong and weak vertical lines which are darker than the rest of the color-image. Some appeared to be perfectly black.’

“He mapped hundreds of such lines in the spectrum of the sun, and found identical patterns in the spectra of the moon and planets—as one would expect, since these bodies shine by reflected sunlight. But when he turned his telescope on other stars, their spectral lines looked quite different.” (Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, p. 164)

A generation later, physicists Gustaf Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen “...determined that district sequences of Fraunhofer lines were produced by various chemical elements. One evening they saw, from the window of their laboratory in Heidelberg, a fire raging in the port city of Mannheim ten miles to the west. Using their spectroscope, they detected the telltale lines of barium and strontium in the flames. This set Bunsen to wondering whether they might be able to detect chemical elements in the spectrum of the sun as well. ‘But,’ he added, ‘people would think we were mad to dream of such a thing.’” (Ferris, p. 164)

“Kirchhoff was mad enough to try, and by 1861 he had identified sodium, calcium, magnesium, iron, chromium, nickel, barium, copper, and zinc in the sun. A link had been found between the physics of the earth and the stars, and a path blazed to the new sciences of spectroscopy and astrophysics.” (pp. 164-165)

Lawrence Krauss knows that this knowledge far outclasses any awe that theology conjures:

“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements—the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life—weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.” (emphasis added)

Because Fraunhofer, Kirchhoff, Bunsen—and many others in their wake—were driven by curiosity, we now know what we’re made of, and how the elements in our bodies were formed. Guy Harrison: “I am made of atoms that were forged inside of stars billions of years ago. I am literally part of this vast universe. That’s a big connection, certainly enough to prevent an inferiority complex. Clearly one does not have to look to the gods to feel a connection to something grand and spectacular.” (50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God)

Why not have a World Holiday celebrating Fraunhofer’s close scrutiny of natural phenomenon—and what other careful scientists subsequently discovered? What an example to follow. But what’s your guess? How many people on the planet know this story—this epic discovery—and have absorbed it into their worldview?

Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson: Figuring Out Creation

Einstein’s equations for the General Theory of Relativity indicated that the universe was expanding; he assumed that, somehow, he had it wrong. But Hubble’s study of galaxies revealed that, the farther away they are, the more their spectrums are red shifted—meaning that they’re moving away faster. Physicist Georges Lemaître—also a Catholic priest—thought that both the General Relativity equations and Hubble’s data were correct. He proposed that the universe had indeed emerged from the explosion of a primordial atom…in the inconceivable distant past. In 1949, physicist Fred Hoyle, who disagreed, derisively labeled this idea the Big Bang.

But might the residue of that Big Bang, so long ago, still be detectable? In 1964, Princeton University professors John Wheeler and Robert Dicke were on the hunt for the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). But someone beat them to it, by accident, just a few miles away in Holmdel, NJ:

“The discovery of the background radiation was a serendipitous one. In 1964, Bell Laboratories technicians Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias racked their brains for an explanation of the noisy signal recorded by their radio antenna. When it turned out that the ‘noise’ was actually radiation from the CMB, the two engineers found themselves unexpectedly pulled into the growing field of modern cosmology. The detection of the CMB earned them the Nobel Prize.” (article here)

Lemaître had been right about the inconceivably distant past: the Big Bang was 13.8 billion years ago. This also gives us perspective about humanity’s place in the Cosmos. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and the oldest human ancestors—i.e., can be reasonable identified as human precursors—emerged maybe 5 or 6 million year ago. Humans learned how to write and build cities 5-6,000 years ago. And decided that the gods are preoccupied with us.

We are made in God’s image—no matter how you want to define this? Lemaître, by the way, was none too pleased when he got wind that Pope Pius XII was prepared to use Lemaître’s ‘big bang’ as proof for the Genesis story. He personally intervened to talk the pope out of it. Nice try, giving God the credit, but Lemaître the Scientist knew that no cause for the primordial explosion had been identified. How like a theologian to say, “Oh, we know!”

Do cosmologists think God was behind the Big Bang? See Sean Carroll’s essay, Why (Almost) All Cosmologists Are Atheists.

This sequence of serious thought and experimentation about the origins of the Cosmos—Hubble, Lemaître, Wheeler & Dicke, Penzias & Wilson—surely merits celebration as a World Holiday. We now know so much more about our place in the Cosmos—compared to those who lived just a hundred years ago. But what’s your guess? How many people on the planet are aware of these insights and discoveries—and have absorbed them into their worldview?

Charles Darwin: Figuring Out How Life Organizes Itself

When believers have their backs against the wall defending God, we commonly hear, “Well, where did all this come from? There had to have been a creator!” Then they might move on to crediting God with complexity. One fellow recently told me, “A Rolex couldn’t just happen from an explosion in watch factory.” There had to have been an intelligent designer, hence God. In 1802 William Paley famously argued that anyone who found a watch on the heath knows for sure there was a watchmaker somewhere. But, oh dear, the craftsman had lost track of the missing timepiece: a poor analogy for God.

Charles Darwin proved to be an extraordinary observer of nature. Well before the discovery of genetics and DNA, he figured out how evolution by natural selection works. His book, whose full title is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was published in 1859. He didn’t crave fame, nor did he savor the conflict with religion that followed in the wake of his publication. Few human beings have had more impact on the progress of our species than Darwin, and his insights have been confirmed overwhelming, especially after genetics and DNA came into the picture.

“The theory of evolution by natural selection, first formulated in Darwin's book "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring. Evolution by natural selection is one of the best substantiated theories in the history of science, supported by evidence from a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology.” (article here)

So we know how complexity in nature occurs—just the opposite of ‘an explosion in a watch factory’—we know why design looks like intelligent design, yet religion remains the preserve of those who still rage against Darwin. Well, not all religion, clearly; outside the fundamentalist/evangelical domain, evolution is accepted. Even at the Vatican!

Abby Hafer’s book The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not

But what’s your guess? How many people on the planet understand what Darwin accomplished—and have absorbed it into their worldview? We already have a Darwin Day (12 February, his birthday), but it should be boosted to a widely and wildly celebrated World Holiday.

Unfortunately, so many major discoveries and events have escaped notice; have not been absorbed into the worldview of most humans. The mythologies and superstitions that took hold of human minds thousands of years ago have remarkable staying power. Curiosity, skepticism, and critical thought are the cure. Former Southern Baptist preacher John Compere points us in the right direction (Outgrowing Religion):

“The myth of Paul Bunyan makes a good story, as does the story of Jesus. But neither tale withstands factual scrutiny or gives us a clue about the meaning of life. For that, we have brains.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.