August 30, 2011

Respected Astronomer Predicts the End of the World

Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal. Ever heard of him? I’m sure you have if you live in Great Britain, or if you’re an astronomy buff. He has a doctorate in mathematics from Trinity College in Cambridge, and is Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He researches / teaches / lectures / and all that, in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. He’s won a lot of awards and prize money, which is how scientists make a living. Just recently, Sir Rees won the prestigious Templeton Prize, $1.6 million given to a living person "who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension."

Modestly, Sir Rees said, "I didn’t think I had the credentials."

He’s probably right about that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going after this guy. From what I’ve read, he seems very nice—and kind—like a grandfather. And I happen to think he's a handsome man. But I am still going to point out a little inconsistency in his professed beliefs.

The Templeton Prize is shortened from "The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion," which before that was: "The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities."

In the first decade, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion was given to people like Mother Teresa, but they quickly ran out of living saints. A politician or two sneaked into the winner’s circle between spiritual and religious leaders from around the world, then scientists began showing up—eleven of them, and a philosopher, in the last twelve years. Oh, the hypocrisy of that. Science and religion mix like vinegar and oil, like birds and fish, like astrologers and astronomers. One has to wonder: What were they thinking?

You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure it out. As once written and oft repeated on Romulus Crowe’s blog, "If you want to get to the bottom of something, follow the money trail." In our current global economic hardship, funds for scientific research are being cut. Donations and gifts aren’t as plentiful as they once were. Would you sell your endorsement of God for a million point six? You wouldn't have to prove He exists. You only have to concede that He might.

So what could be in it for the Templeton Foundation? You know they have an agenda. No one gives that kind of money away without one. What the Templeton Foundation gets is a nice blurry line between science and religion.

Sir Rees doesn’t come right out and say he’s atheist. He says he’s a professed nontheist. Makes it sound less harsh to the human ear, doesn’t it? Like calling it "nontheist" is a well-considered decision made after many long, dark nights of the soul, as opposed to some arrogant yahoo who claims himself atheist but can’t say why. Rees clearly states, "I have no religious beliefs myself."

He claims to be an "unbelieving Angelican" (member of the Church of England) who goes to church once a week, "out of loyalty to the tribe." What does that mean? Who’s in the tribe? Should we take that to mean that he goes out of respect for tradition?

He says he enjoys the choir and the readings from the King James Bible. The choir part…okay. I get that. But reading from the Bible, for someone who doesn’t believe a word of it? That really stretches the imagination.

Sir Rees doesn’t believe in astrology, either. Long dismissed as no better than fortune telling, it has been attacked repeatedly as a pseudo-science by the Royal Astronomical Society. In a radio transmission on June 8, 2010, of the Reith Lectures 2010: Scientific Horizons, Lecture 2: Surviving the Century, Sir Martin Rees began his speech thus:

"As an astronomer, I often get mistaken for an astrologer, but I cast no horoscopes and I’ve got no crystal ball. And in fact, scientific forecasters have a dismal record." Let’s go over that again: Scientific forecasters have a dismal record.

A few years earlier, in a Zenit Daily Dispatch / The Future is Reserved to God, London, January 12, 2002, the royal stargazer noted that people use astrology to satisfy a desire for "comfort without the demands made by more traditional religion." He encouraged readers to "live with uncertainty and ignorance, and not be seduced by easy answers that bypass the slog of scientific investigation."
Come again? "Live with uncertainty and ignorance?" Did he really say that?
I’m all for scientific investigation, Sir Rees, and I challenge you to enlighten us as to how much investigation you’ve done into astrology? I’m just curious. Give us a figure, will you? An hour? A day?

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance– that principle is contempt prior to investigation.
~ Herbert Spencer

In the Sunday Times, on May 16, 2004, Sir Rees described astrology as absurd, adding: "There is no place for astrology in our scientific view of the world; moreover its predictive claims cannot stand any critical scrutiny."

But wait! What is this? Could it be? Could it really be a prediction about the future by the celebrated Sir Martin Rees? Last year, at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Rees claimed that civilization has only a 50% chance of surviving to 2100 without suffering a man-made catastrophic event. He believes mankind will face threats not only from self-inflicted problems such as global warming and over-population, but also from Al-Qaeda-style terrorist groups obtaining nuclear weapons.

Whoa. There’s a prediction I could never have made. (Yes, Sheldon. Sarcasm.)

His colleague, Professor John Brown, also made a prediction: that threats are more likely to come from a random event from outer space such as an asteroid falling to earth, or solar flares. At least, that’s a prediction based on their field of expertise.


  1. I don't call myself atheist. I'm an apathist. There might or might not be a God, I don't care.

    Also, I accept that science can never prove nor disprove God.

    Also, I read things I don't believe every day. Newspapers, government announcements and so on. Increasingly, New Scientist.

    And I believe in an afterlife because I've seen it (not the heavenly version, a rather more grubby earthly version so far).

    So, when do I get my $1.6 million?

    I'll take a cheque.

  2. Is New Scientist one you like, or disbelieve more and more?

    I thought it was hypocritical of Rees to denounce astrology as rubbish, then make his own predictions that aren't even based on his field of expertise.

  3. I used to like New Scientist but it's become a politically correct hack-rag in recent years. Global warming, all the health-nut control freakery, they support it all without question and allow no dissent.

    It was better before it became political.


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