Friday, July 24, 2015

Earth 2.0 and God

Earth has “an older, larger cousin.”

Yesterday, NASA made the announcement that its Kepler mission had confirmed the existence of “the first near-Earth-size planet in the ‘habitable zone’ around a sun-like star,” a recently discovered exoplanet designated Kepler-452b.

This is a momentous announcement for two reasons. First, this is a milestone in the search for life—including intelligent life—on other worlds. Second, as we approach closer each year to the technology for interstellar spaceflight, it is important for us to find Earth-like planets as candidates for potential human colonies. (If you find this idea of interest, please visit our Facebook group, “Humanity Must Go to the Stars.”)

A Huffington Post columnist has taken this discovery and confirmation in a controversial direction, a direction with important implications for human cultures on Earth—and a direction that I believe is stunningly misinformed, and that has the potential to do great harm.

Jeff Schweitzer, a Ph.D. in marine biology and neurophysiology, and former White House senior policy analyst, published a column on HuffPost yesterday with the (rather arrogant) title, “Earth 2.0: Bad News for God.” Schweitzer starts off well enough:

The discovery of Kepler-452b is not likely to see the public swoon with a collective rendition of Kumbaya. But this Earth 2.0 is a huge if under-appreciated discovery, not because Kepler-452b is unique but for just the opposite reason; there are likely thousands or millions or even billions of such earth-like planets in the universe. The discovery of just one such world is good evidence for many more: after all, we know of 100 billion galaxies each with as many as 300 billion stars (big variation per galaxy). Astronomers estimate that there are about 70 billion trillion stars. Math wizardry is not necessary to conclude we did not by chance find the only other possibly habitable planet among that huge population of stars.
 With this discovery, we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe. 

At this point, however, Schweitzer begins to go off the rails.

… let me speculate what would happen should we ever find evidence of life beyond earth even if you think such discovery unlikely. I would like here to preempt what will certainly be a re-write of history on the part of the world's major religions. I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens. I am not alone in this conclusion that religion will contort to accommodate a new reality of alien life.

It is important to look at that link that Schweitzer produces to support his contention that “religion will contort to accommodate” the discovery of alien life. The link is a quick survey of what the astronomer David A. Weintraub found in the course of researching his book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It? Contrary to what Schweitzer implies, Weintraub shows that several religions—including Hinduism, some forms of Buddhism, and Islam—have long held that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. Together, these religions have about 3 billion adherents, or close to half the population of the world, who will not have to do any special contortions at all to “accommodate” the discovery of alien life; they already believe that alien life exists, and in intelligent forms, as well. (Adherents of some smaller religions, such as the Bahá'í, also have this belief.)

As the survey of Weintraub’s book points out, even some Christian religions—including my own, the faith of the Latter-day Saints (LDS), also known as Mormonism—have long embraced the belief that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. (The LDS read this belief described in their unique scriptures, including the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 76:24] and the Book of Moses [Moses 1:29-35].)

The largest Christian group in the world, of course, is the Roman Catholic Church (with over 1 billion adherents). Some Roman Catholic scholars have been receptive to the idea of extraterrestrial life for a long time. Yes, the friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for this belief at the beginning of the 17th century, and Galileo’s support for extraterrestrial life was suppressed soon after. However, starting in the 20th century, a number of Catholic thinkers have found room for the concept of intelligent extraterrestrial life within a Catholic framework. (For example, the essays published in 2000 by Ernan McMullin and George V. Coyne, S.J., are particularly stimulating; see the references below.)

Despite what Schweitzer claims and implies, then, many of Earth’s religions have believed—some for millennia—that the universe contains a multitude of worlds with intelligent inhabitants.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because Schweitzer’s essay is another instance of the long-standing claim that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. Although there certainly have been times when religionists have done monumental harm to the cause of scientific knowledge—as scientists have said some remarkably stupid things about religion—I do not believe in an inherent, logically necessary conflict. Beyond that, I think that we do harm to ourselves and the human voyage to knowledge of our inner and outer universe when we fall prey to the belief that there is such an inherent conflict.

Accurate knowledge about both religion and science—and mutual respect and understanding between those who are illuminated by one, the other, or both—would truly be On The Mark.

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McMullin, E. (2000). Life and intelligence far from Earth: Formulating theological issues. In S. Dick (ed.), Many worlds: The new universe, extraterrestrial life and the theological implications (pp. 150-175). Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Coyne, G. V. (2000). The evolution of intelligent life on the Earth and possibly elsewhere: Reflections of a religious tradition. In S. Dick (ed.), Many worlds: The new universe, extraterrestrial life and the theological implications (pp. 176-188). Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

[The image of Earth and “Earth 2.0” is an artist’s conception. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.]

(Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On Millennia and Marriage: Memo to SCOTUS

United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, DC
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) began hearing arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. One of the concerns raised on the issue by the justices themselves (as reported in today’s New York Times) is the sheer amount of time over which marriage has been defined solely in terms of the union of a man and a woman. As the Times reported in another article today:
“The word that keeps coming back to me in this case is millennia,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy….
            “You’re asking us to decide it for this society when no other society until 2001 ever had it,” added Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justices Kennedy and Scalia are indisputably correct: same-sex marriage has never been recognized as legal in any culture at any time, throughout human history, until legalized by Massachusetts, effective 2004. Some would build upon this fact to argue that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and should never be legalized, because such legalization would break with millennia of precedent. To many people, this would be a compelling argument. However, there are problems with this line of thought:
This argument is totally illogical—it is, in fact, a classic error of logic. It also runs completely against the most basic of American values. It is contrary to the Enlightenment values that have advanced Western civilization over the last four centuries. As such, it is one of the worst arguments that it is possible to make against same-sex marriage.
The “it’s been done this way for millennia” argument is another way of saying that “it is this way, and so it ought to be this way,” a type of argument that was identified as deeply illogical by the Scottish philosopher David Hume over 300 years ago. (The basic issue is simple: there just is no logical connection between the descriptive statement that something is a certain way, and the prescriptive statement that it ought to be that way.)

But let’s get beyond logic, to values. As I’ve pointed out, the “millennia” approach says, “everyone’s always done it this way, so we should keep on doing it this way.”

How American is that?

Not very.

Let’s look at four important areas in which the U.S., and Western civilization generally, have rejected the “everyone’s always done it that way” argument.


The very founding of the United States was a literally violent break with the past. Before the establishment of the U.S., there had not been a real democracy as the basis of a major national government since the days the ancient Athenian Council of the Areopagus and the Roman Republic—each of which was eradicated before the days of Jesus of Nazareth. That would be two millennia ago. Aside from those two examples of democracy, governance by an absolute ruler was the practice throughout all of human history—for over fifty-five centuries, or over five millennia—until the founding of the U.S.

Rule by king, emperor, or pharaoh, throughout almost all human cultures, over almost the entire prior history of humankind, was the ultimate historical precedent. The ratification of the Constitution of the United States changed all of that, fifty-five centuries of human tradition, by establishing a representative democracy. Somehow, the founders of the nation found it possible to toss over five thousand years of precedent, to forklift over five millennia of all-but-universal practice. As a country, we’ve never looked back.

Religious Freedom

Much has been made about the implications of same-sex marriage for religious freedom. Although that topic must be addressed separately, we should consider how precedent-shattering the American notion of religious freedom was when the 1st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified effective 1791. From at least as far back as the days of ancient Egypt, states had sponsored some religion or religions, and often forbidden or strictly regulated the exercise of others. This was the nigh-universal practice of the major civilizations of the West from the days of Alexander the Great and the glory days of Greece, right through the days of the Roman Empire, continuing on through the middle ages and the Renaissance. Only during the European Enlightenment did this begin to be questioned. It was only with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution that the right to believe and worship as one pleases become established in a major Western nation.

Here again, somehow, the founders of the nation found it possible to toss over five millennia of all-but-universal practice—without regrets.


The institution of slavery has existed since the earliest days of recorded human history, at least since the empires of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Sumer, and the Indus. The Bible—both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian New Testament—describe slavery without giving any indication that the basic institution should be abolished. Slavery was common throughout the ancient Greek city states, and the entire Roman Empire, as well as through many countries of medieval Europe. Slavery was certainly the rule in many European colonies, including many that later became the United States.

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and when the U.S. ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, America was breaking with over five millennia of tradition and accepted practice. Somehow Lincoln wasn’t swayed much by the “I think of millennia” argument.


Until quite recently, women throughout Western civilization were completely subservient to men, virtually as controlled as slaves, and had been so for many millennia. Just considering the Roman Empire, women could not own property or make contracts in their own names; they could not vote or hold public office; and, they were totally subject to the rule of their fathers until marriage, and their husbands thereafter. The Roman practice was itself built on millennia of precedent in most nations of the ancient world, and the Roman way continued to be practiced throughout many of the nations of Europe into the 19th century and even beyond.

In the United States, the right of women to vote was not secured until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Women’s legal rights in other areas—such as access to credit—were not established for many years after the right to vote, based on the millennia-old practice that I described above.

Giving women the right to vote, own their own property, and make their own financial decisions, broke with five millennia and more of tradition and precedent. Last time I looked, the sky had not fallen. 


America was built upon a willingness to abandon millennia-old practices on the basis of moral principles. The “it’s been done this way for millennia!” line of thought has been rejected time and again as America progressed from being a set of colonies oppressed by Great Britain, colonies where slavery was widespread, women were all but men’s property, and certain religions were ‘official,’ to being an independent and democratic nation where slavery has been abolished, women have equal rights to men, and the right to choose one's own religion is unimpeded.

The Supreme Court now has an historic opportunity to give full rights to another portion of our population. May it not be swayed by the idea that they are changing the practice of millennia.

That’s just being American.

And it is certainly On The Mark.

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[The photo of the Supreme Court of the United States building was created on October 28, 2010 by Wikipedia user 350z33 and cropped by Wikipedia user Pine. It appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.]

(Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The State of the Union Address
--as a List of Body Parts

My take on the 2013 State of the Union message: It can largely be described in terms of body parts.

The President wants to develop the brain of America through preschool, high school with more focus on math and science, affordable higher education, and a huge amount of research and development.

He want to put the hands of America to work through his Fix-It-First program, increasing the manufacturing power of the country, and bringing business back from abroad.

In his delivery, he showed that he has heart, and knows how to appeal to our hearts.

And in his willingness to challenge Congress, this speech shows that the President has definitely found his -----.

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(Copyright 2013 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why the Newtown CT Shootings Happened:
Mike Huckabee Vs. Me

So: Mike Huckabee says the Connecticut shooting happened because we "removed God from the schools."

What an imbecile.

Great Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, and West Germany all have no prayer in schools and are about as secular as they can get; their church attendance is a small fraction of America's. Last year, those four countries together had 105 deaths from handguns, while the USA had 10,728. 

No, it's not because we removed God from schools. It's because we removed reason from our thinking.

It's because by some pretzel logic we take a Constitution that guarantees armed militias and interpret that to mean that regular citizens can carry semiautomatic handguns and purchase what amount to be assault rifles. THAT'S why.

It's because we won't admit that the Constitution, written in an era of single-shot weapons, never anticipated the revolver, let alone handguns with 30-shot magazines. THAT'S why.

It's because so many citizens have learned to respond to real-life issues with knee-jerk ideology. THAT's why.

I'd like to see Mike Huckabee say this idiocy face to face with the parents of the twenty dead children in Newtown, Connecticut. I doubt he'd make it out of the room alive.

God gave us brains and reason. May we use them.

Mike Huckabee, for making political hay out of a horrifying event, shame on you. The Just Judge shall judge between us at the last day.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why Jews Favor Mormons & Muslims Over Evangelicals—And Why You Should Care

A recent news item creating consternation in various quarters across the American nation involves a poll of American Jewish values: as a group, American Jews favor Mormons and Muslims over conservative evangelical Christians, who have long supported the state of Israel. Whoops!

The poll was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, whose website describes it as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to work at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.” In early April, PRRI issued a report, Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012: Findings from the 2012 Jewish Values Survey. This report described a wide-ranging survey of values and attitudes among American Jews, using a sample of 1,004 Jewish adults canvassed in February and March 2012 (p. 31). One part of the report addressed Jewish attitudes towards other religious groups:

Respondents were asked to rate their feelings toward certain groups on a 100-point scale, where ratings between 51 degrees and 100 degrees indicated that the respondent felt favorable and warm toward that group, while ratings between 1 degree and 49 degrees meant that the respondent did not feel favorably toward the group. Ratings of 50 degrees indicated that the respondent did not feel particularly warm or cold toward the group. (p. 18)

When asked to rate Mormons …, American Jews, on average, rated them at 47. The average rating for Muslims was somewhat lower, at 41.4. By contrast, when asked to rate the Christian Right, American Jews report an average of 20.9, a score indicating that American Jews hold considerably unfavorable feelings toward members of the Christian Right, significantly more so than towards Mormons or Muslims. (p. 19)

This finding is extremely controversial for some in the Jewish community. The Christian Right—basically, conservative Evangelical Christians—have been stalwart supporters of the state of Israel. However, as the PRRI survey shows, there is considerable distrust on the part of Jews in regard to the Christian Right. As reported in the Forward: The Jewish Daily:

“I find this shocking and concerning,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the first major group to engage evangelical Christians in support of Israel. Eckstein and other activists working on Jewish-evangelical relations expressed a sense of betrayal, accusing Jewish liberals of being prejudiced against Christian conservatives and of clinging to pre-conceived notions and stereotypes about evangelicals’ beliefs and goals.

Concern over these findings has been the subject of an article in The Blaze (later reposted on the Yahoo! News portal), which stated, about the PRRI survey, that “these results are sending shock-waves through some faith communities. 

But why is this finding such a surprise? The fact is that the Christian Right, at the same time that it supports the political state of Israel, harbors elements that endanger religious freedom in the United States for Jews—and for everyone who is not an Evangelical Christian.

Look at the facts. Last summer, Texas Governer Rick Perry (remember him?) sponsored a national prayer event called The Response. The event was financed by the American Family Association (AFA), an Evangelical Christian group which teaches that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and FOX News. This notion about the First Amendment is clearly expressed by AFA-sponsored bloggers, such as Bryan Fischer.

Really! If the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion only applies to Christians, then of course Jews would be endangered. No wonder, then, that Jews would have overall a less-favorable opinion of Evangelicals, despite their support for the political state of Israel (which is, after all, a convenient ocean and continent away).

But is it only Jews who should be concerned in this way? Oh, no.

It is important to note that, for many Evangelicals, most of the people in the United States who call themselves Christians are somehow “not really Christian.” (I explain this in detail in an opinion column on the Yahoo! Contributor Network.) Catholics? Not Christians to these Evangelicals. Same with members of the Orthodox churches, the Latter-day Saints/Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists—basically, anyone who is not an Evangelical Christian.

Now put these two thoughts together:

a)      the First Amendment freedom of religion only applies to Christians,
b)     Catholics, Orthodox, Mormons, and other non-Evangelicals are not really ‘Christian,’
c)      the only people to whom the First Amendment freedom of religion applies are Evangelical Christians—and nobody else!

Yes, there really are people who believe this. Millions of them. But this kind of political position is utterly unacceptable within a true democracy.

The religious beliefs of the Christian Right/Evangelical Christians are their own affair. However, concerned Americans of any political or religious stripe should make it a point to highlight their concerns about religious freedom with political candidates, particularly those of an Evangelical persuasion. Do these candidates believe that the First Amendment only applies to Christians? It is a good question to ask.

First Amendment freedoms for all in America: That is truly On The Mark™.

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(Copyright 2012 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joe Paterno Must Go--Today

Coach Joe Paterno at the 2006 Penn State
Homecoming Game against U of Illinois
By now, anyone who’s up on the news is aware of the scandal involving recently rediscovered accusations of sexual abuse of young boys on the campus of Penn State University, allegedly committed by a then-member of the Penn State football coaching staff. It appears that, in one or more instances, this abuse was reported to head Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who passed the allegations to his athletic director—and no farther.

Everyone agrees that Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibility by informing his athletic director (who, allegedly, did not pass this information farther on to the police). But the issue to focus on is Paterno’s moral responsibility, and here it seems that Paterno left his responsibility unfulfilled, in a catastrophic display of loyalty to the Penn State football program, over the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Paterno has alleged that the information given to him about the incident was too general to merit contacting the police. Others deny that as an issue of fact. Even if the material were general, however, as David Jones, a sports reporter for the Patriot-News put it in an article today 

Purely from an ethical standpoint, how specific did the story need to be for Paterno to simply immediately call police himself?

Had it been his grandson in the shower with [coach] Sandusky [the alleged abuser] and McQueary [the student observing the abuse] reported to him any version of inappropriate behavior, would Paterno have merely called his technical “superior” and left it at that?

Would [athletic director] Curley and Gary Schultz, Penn State’s vice president of finance and director of the university police force, still have finally gotten around to meeting with McQueary “approximately one and a half weeks later”?

In the midst of all of this, sports blogger Matt Hinton reports that Paterno is headed for a resignation—but look carefully for what Hinton says about the timing:

According to the New York Times, Penn State's board of trustees has initiated discussions about how to handle the 84-year-old standard bearer's exit "within days or weeks," amid allegations that Paterno effectively turned a blind eye to charges of sexual abuse by his longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Another report, by the Associated Press, describes support for Paterno among the board as "eroding." The precise timing hasn't been determined, but the inevitable is a reality: Forty-six years after he was promoted to replace Rip Engle as Penn State's head coach, this season will be Joe Paterno's last. Saturday's game against Nebraska will be his final home game in Beaver Stadium.

But why should Paterno get a “last game” in? If Paterno’s behavior was such as to merit his resignation—and it most assuredly was—then his resignation, voluntary or forced, should be immediate. Joe Paterno should leave Penn State—today. No last game, no tribute, no nothing.

Oh, I can hear the moaning from misguided fans. “You’ve got to balance whatever Paterno may have done wrong against the rest of his career,” they’ll say; “he’s such a great man, surely you’ve got to recognize that and have some perspective and give him his last hurrah,” they’ll say.

No, I don’t. This is all just misguided rhetorical sobbing that obscured the mixed-up nature of our society’s priorities.

Folks, at the risk of stating the obvious: Football is a game. Period. Yes, it generates massive amounts of revenue, but at its core it is just as game. As a game, it cannot possibly be used to excuse Joe Paterno for not picking up the phone within five minutes of hearing even the wisp of a hint of an allegation of sexual abuse by one of his coaching staff. And the fact that Paterno did not do that should incur massive and immediate consequences.

It’s important to point out here that, if Paterno had called the police, this would likely have prevented sexual abuse. But he didn’t do that. And that kind of passivity when faced with the allegation of sexual abuse cannot, must not, be tolerated.

Anything other than insisting on Paterno’s immediate departure sends the message that football is ultimately more important than protecting children from sexual abuse. I surely don’t believe that. Do you?

If you agree that Joe Paterno should go immediately, without a victory lap, then call Penn State and express that opinion to Mr. Rodney A. Erickson, the Executive Vice President and Provost, who reports directly to the President; his office telephone number is 814-865-2505, and his fax number is 814-863-8583. (The President of Penn State, Mr. Graham Spanier, is facing calls for his own resignation in this scandal. I think you’ll have an easier time reaching Mr. Erickson.)

For good measure, you may wish to call the main Penn State telephone number (814-865-4700) and ask to speak with someone in the office of the Board of Trustees.

The message to leave with these Penn State officials: Dismiss Joe Paterno immediately, certainly before the game on Saturday. Don’t send the message that football is more important than protecting children from sexual abuse.

Putting the highest priority on the safety of innocent children is surely On The Mark.

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[The photo of Joe Paterno has been put into the public domain by its creator, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)