Before I begin, I wish to express my deepest sympathies for the French People during this, their darkest of hours. They are paying a heavy price for championing freedom of expression. Liberty, freedom of expression and the right to believe as you choose are at the root of what it means to be human. These are inviolate, fundamental aspects of a free and open society and of civilization itself. Whether they are denied through force or coercion to an individual or a group, even at the point of a gun, they are unalienable and inviolate, innate aspects of every human person, irrespective of any despot, monarch or Theocrat. Vive la liberté! Viva libertad! Long live Liberty!
Before recorded history, our ancestors looked up at the sky and around them at the natural world and attempted to explain reality and their existence through creation myths and religions too numerous to count, ascribing what they didn’t understand to a deity. Even the brilliant Isaac Newton ascended to a belief in a “God of the Gaps”, those aspects of nature that he couldn’t explain or were outside the sphere of his imagination. Over the course of time and down the millennia since then, with a few – notable – exceptions, the power of reason and intellect would prevail. Since its beginning, what used to be known as Christianity with no distinctly “Catholic” or “Protestant” adjectives to describe it and to it’s credit, this religion held a world view that could best be described as a “duality” of faith, the belief in what you cannot see or measure and reason, the act of bringing to bear the considerable power of the human intellect to solve a specific problem. The modern Catholic church is the living embodiment of that worldview. Over the centuries, various attempts at reform caused a split in what used to be a single religion and we, thus, have numerous protestant christian sects today who adhere mostly to a strictly “sola scriptura” world view, one where complete authority is ascribed to the Bible. Faith without reason, to affirm, support and inform it, is nothing more than belief in one myth or another. Some well educated, well trained contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination are such individuals. It’s as though they ignore their scientific training, logic and reason and accept what couldn’t be described better than as a five-year old’s bed-time story. In the late 11th century (c 1090s) an infamous Muslim cleric, Al-Ghazali, rose to prominence in Baghdad, a city, heretofore, of great intellectual promise, being the center for astronomy, science and mathematics in the civilized world. Al-Ghazali condemned these higher studies in what could best be described today as “Devil Worship”. Baghdad and the greater Muslim-influenced world never recovered. The French, suffering yesterday’s horrific attack in Paris, and the greater civilized world, are now suffering the same brand of Muslim Extremism perpetrated on Baghdad almost 1000 years ago by Al-Ghazali. To be clear, no religion is exempt from extremism and Christianity doesn’t get a pass on this either. One doesn’t have to look too hard to discover the tragic story of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for not renouncing his high-minded science and opinion that the number of planets in the universe are as innumerable as the stars, Galileo and the many others who suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholic church through the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions.
Religious extremism of any kind is toxic and leads to dreadful consequences. Another example of religious extremism, albeit on a smaller scale and without the violence, is playing out in the Hawaiian courts and, ironically, has a direct impact on modern day astronomical research. The drama surrounds land use on Mauna Kea. The Hawaiian Supreme Court is going to have to reconcile Nativist religious interests (myths) regarding land use on the big mountain with a worldwide astronomical collaborative’s desire to erect the Thirty Meter Telescope on the same mountain. When completed, this instrument will be the world’s largest telescope. My full article on this can be found here.
So, what is the solution? It’s been often said that nature abhors a vacuum; loss of hope, vacuous lives and pursuits lead to emptiness and depression. What will fill this deep-seated intellectual and spiritual vacuum, the result of generations and decades of no education or, at best, a cursory education at the primary school level, often intermixed with religious zealotry by brutal instructors in the service of a Theocracy? Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries have such structures where the populace is subjected to brutal, inhuman treatment at the hands of ruling Theocrats imposing their Sharia law on the ignorant and oppressed. Lacking a basic science education, those voids are filled with religious nonsense and myths in the minds and souls of individuals who are looking for meaning and justice in their lives. Suffering economic or political oppression at the hands of tyrants also leads to such symptoms but, in most cases, will lead to revolution, something that is outside the scope of this article. The antidote to religious extremism is a new intellectual renaissance inspired by the light of reason and the thrill of discovery; young minds, fertile and open, yearning to explore and discover is the only, best hope there is for long-term survival into the next century. There is nothing like the thrill of discovering something new, something that no one else has discovered or imagined before. I know what it feels like because I have experienced such; I speak from personal experience and encourage others to pursue your dreams without boundaries, finish your education and, if possible, go on to graduate school in the field of your passion and don’t let anything stop you! This is the antidote for religious extremism, not more Predator Drones, bloated national defense budgets or hyped-up “terror threat levels”. If the US freely gave even 10% of its annual defense budget to targeted education programs in the developing world or to those countries in the Middle East who are suffering the tyranny of Theocrats, it would yield untold benefits for decades and generations. This is what will defeat ISIS and religious extremism without any loss of life and without firing a shot.
The brainchild of the IAU and UNESCO was the International Year of Astronomy, 2009, a worldwide, collaborative project one of whose stated goals was to put basic telescopes and science textbooks in the hands of poor school children in developing countries who are yearning to learn, explore and discover but lack the basic tools and support necessary to succeed. Many aspects and projects under the umbrella of IYA2009 are ongoing and still active and I encourage you to get involved. Getting involved in IYA2009 projects, becoming a Project Astro Classroom Astronomer or a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador would fill that internal vacuum so many people experience, have far reaching, positive benefits in the lives of many young people, positive effects that are compounded over and over again with the potential to change the world, one mind at a time. Be that change you want to see! Teach and inspire others, be that candle in the dark, the light in the darkness, grow to love the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night!
Reach for the stars! Ad astra per aspera!