How Long Will Obsolete Religious Fantasies Govern Sensible Secular Governance?

By Donald A. Collins | 27 February 2014
Church and State

Standing in front of the RC Cathedral in Cologne, Germany as I have done several times in my travels, most recently two years ago, one cannot fail to feel the power of its facade and its exquisite interior. Started in 1248 and not completed until 1880, it ranked as the tallest building in the world until 4 years after its completion.

Imagine the influence it held over people centuries ago, many of them illiterate and part of that medieval culture which preached the unity of the world and the sureness of its religious beliefs.

This morning, back from my usual walk, I picked up my daily copy of the Wall Street Journal which carried a story by Lee Holz “NASA Scientists Discover 715 New Planets” with the subtitle, “Data From Kepler Space Telescope Suggests 4 Alien Worlds Have Potential for Life”.

Mr. Holz tells us

NASA scientists announced Wednesday the discovery of 715 new planets around distant stars, including four alien worlds roughly the size of Earth that might be the proper temperature for liquid water to form and, therefore, potentially suitable for life.

The discovery, based on two years of data collection on 150,000 or so stars by the agency’s orbiting Kepler space telescope, brings the confirmed count of planets outside our solar system to nearly 1,700.

“We have almost doubled the number of planets known to humanity,” said planetary scientist Jack Lissauer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., who is a science co-investigator on the $600 million Kepler space telescope mission.

The team of three dozen astronomers, data analysts and planetary scientists detailed their findings in two research papers submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and discussed their findings Wednesday at a news conference held by NASA.

The data were collected before the Kepler telescope malfunctioned last year, leaving it unable to track stars precisely enough to continue the planet-hunting mission for which it was launched in 2009. The Kepler scientists are now seeking funding from NASA to operate the telescope for another two years in a reduced role, to study how planets form around stars.

Meanwhile, the researchers continue to pore through data collected while it was still working properly, which document several thousand candidates in the expectation they will be able to confirm the existence of several hundred more planets in orbit around other stars.

Almost all of the newly verified exoplanets—as the alien worlds are called because they are outside our solar system—are smaller than Neptune, a gas giant at the outer reaches of the solar system that is almost four times the size of Earth. The worlds are clustered around just 305 stars in solar systems that, like our own, contain multiple planets, the scientists said.

The researchers said that four of these newly confirmed planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, which means the force of gravity there would be relatively comfortable for creatures like humans, and orbit in the so-called habitable zone around their stars—the distance at which the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be right for liquid water. It wouldn’t be so hot that it would boil and dissipate into space or so cold that it would freeze solid.

One of those new planets, called Kepler-296f, is twice the size of Earth and orbits a star half the size and only 5% as bright as our sun, said Jason Rowe, a research scientist at the SETI Institute and a member of the Kepler science group. Details of the others—designated Kepler 174d, Kepler 298d and Kepler 309c—weren’t publicly available Wednesday. The total, though, “increases the number of Earth-sized planets by 400%,” he said.

Taken together, the new Kepler discoveries confirm that “small planets are extremely common in our galaxy,” said planetary physicist Sara Seager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wasn’t involved in the discoveries. “I am extremely excited about this.”

Write to Robert Lee Hotz at sciencejournal@wsj.com

Of course being of the older generation, I am dedicated to my printed newspapers. I obviously have recourse to the use of my iPhone to dig out this story, but in the print edition it is in the lower corner of page A3. I would have likely missed it if my only review was conducted on my iPhone.

This is not a complaint, but as I laughingly thought, simply a reminder of that old song, Me and My Shadow, the iPhone makes it mandatory for me.. In short, Me and My iPhone “walking down the avenue”—seldom without it. The powerful Internet technology and its handmaidens of delivery, the iPhone and the iPad allow us almost instantly to retrieve, massive amounts of all the accumulated knowledge from the ether, courtesy of the nearly 400 satellites circling our small orb.

Sir Francis Bacon, who died in 1626, was reputed to have learned all the world’s knowledge available then! He surely would not be up to it nowadays, just like religions!

This new (Internet) capacity, has to be regarded by non technical souls like me as MAGIC. This capacity as I think about it makes me quite akin to that illiterate worshiper arriving at the Cologne Cathedral and being in utter awe of its power and mystery.

Just think, we are only 111 years past the famous 21 second airplane flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. The technical leaps we have made since was underlined for me recently as I watched a NOVA program on our public broadcasting station, WETA, on the building of the new Super Tower, as it was dubbed, at the site of the World Trade Towers. The marvelous ingenuity which was brought to bear to create this Herculean rebirth in NYC gave me a sense of optimism about our future which I had not had in some time.

We may not live forever, but the time we have here can help create the most amazing advances in human history. The crutch of needing to say, “why bother if I won’t be around forever” is a stupid, selfish cry of pitiful immaturity.

Anyway, as we look deeper into the vast reaches of our solar system and beyond, the perspective of enhanced human possibilities grows broader every day. If, that is, we can keep from killing ourselves, which is not ever far from happening.

The level of human understanding varies so widely that I feel sure the majority of people alive today are not on board with this level of technology. However, with 7 billion cell phones in circulation (although not evenly available to the 7 plus billion people on the planet) the transfer of secular knowledge has been more rapid AND likely eye opening to the mystery of the universe than ever before.

My main point: Specific religious beliefs are now truly and obviously obsolete. Particularly the ones with their monotheistic male dominated cultures. In fact, looking outward as our space tools now permit, these religions will shortly seem to most people as lacking in their wildest projections of beliefs (e.g. their frequent claims of offering supplicants an after life).

Science can now predict (as the National Geographic Magazine’s March 2014 Black Hole cover story does) that our Sun only has another 5 billion years to go before its extinction. They know this as they have observed similar galaxies go down.

What moral and behavioral messages can we draw from these powerful new sources of knowledge? Frankly, exactly the primary message of this Church and State web site: Keep all religious influence out of secular governance.

Religions don’t own the key principles of correct moral behavior. Read the Christian 10 Commandments. Wikipedia tells us: “The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, are a set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship, which play a fundamental role in Judism and Christianity. They include instructions to worship only God and to keep the Sabbath and prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, dishonesty, and adultery. Different groups follow slightly different traditions for interpreting and numbering them.”

Hey, humans made this list and long experience taught people that murder, theft, dishonesty, etc. were not conducive to the most smooth running, safest and successful societies, but picking one’s God (which someone else has already likely picked for you) and wasting a weekend day to sit in a vaulted sepulcher should be entirely voluntary. So like the religions which adhere to the famous 10, the list is obsolete as to several of its key imprecations!

Watching the often dismal daily news and listening to the views of so many leaders who would impose religiously driven laws on abortion, same sex marriages, on everyone else are behaving obsoletely. Hey, you can be gay, and still be honest! As the late Rodney King so poignantly asked, “Can we all get along?” Not if we let religious biases into secular governance.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
ASIN: B00MA40TVE
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