In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe.
"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
Up until this week, Mitt Romney had played down explicit demonstrations of his Mormon faith during the campaign. However, earlier this week he invited the press to follow him and his wife in to join him in a Church of Latter Day Saints Sunday service, and it was just announced that a member of the Mormon Church would deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention. We may now feel freer to begin to openly question to what extent this candidate for the highest office buys into the explicit doctrines of his faith, because these doctrines defy common sense, history, and scientific knowledge.
Much has been made of the fact that until 1978 the LDS did not allow blacks into their priesthood, but a history of racism, and sexism would not distinguish Mormonism from most of its sister religions. What is more remarkable, and dubious, are the origins of the Church, and the maintenance of the outrageous claims made by its founder.
Joseph Smith had been involved in unsuccessful claims to be able to divine buried treasure (leading to a trial in 1826 based on a suit brought by a disgruntled business partner) for years before escalating his claims to a new level: to have found golden tablets left for him by the Angel Moroni, who helped him complete a translation of the otherwise undecipherable Egyptian script in 1830, not into the lexicon of the time, but rather into the 17th century English of the King James Bible. Needless to say, the tablets subsequently disappeared, and were returned to heaven by the accommodating angel before any independent confirmation of their existence could occur.
Among the remarkably dubious claims within the translated book of Mormon and the ‘revelations’ that derive from it is that an otherwise historically and anthropologically undocumented and unrecorded lost tribe of Israel somehow made it to the Americas in antiquity and flourished here, and that the resurrected Jesus visited what is now Missouri, where the Garden of Eden apparently had been located, and where he will return as a part of his second coming, commuting from Jerusalem as time permits.
It is difficult to imagine how such a history would not provoke at least a smidgen of healthy skepticism, and it would be good to know if Mr. Romney, who is vying to hold the highest office in the land, simply takes it on faith. Maybe it would be relevant to understanding whether similar faith is the basis of his assertion that his and Paul Ryan’s fiscal proposals will reduce the national deficit.
However, as an astrophysicist, one of the most intriguing claims of the Mormon religion cannot help but be an astronomical one. It is that after an observant life on planet earth ends, good Mormons can achieve semi-divine status, each ruling a new planet somewhere in the Universe.
In this regard, Mitt Romney can take solace from the discoveries of the Kepler satellite, which has revealed a plethora of new planets surrounding other nearby stars, over 2000 so far. The data suggests that perhaps every star may house a solar system, many of them with exotic properties hitherto thought to be at best unlikely, based on ideas about how our own Solar System formed. So there may be 100 billion solar systems in our galaxy alone, more than enough to assign a planet for each person alive on Earth at the present time.
Of course of the 2000 planets so far detected, no Earth-sized planets in what is known as the “habitable zone”, where liquid water and an Earth-like atmosphere might exist, have yet been observed. Most are either uninhabitable giant gaseous orbs or smaller scorched rocky planets that, like Icarus, have moved too close to their suns. But, by the evidentiary standards of Mormon faith perhaps this is merely an inessential detail.
As a bishop of his church one might imagine that Mr Romney has bought into this doctrine, as well as the ones described earlier. If he does, all of this puts Mitt Romney in a position that is unique amongst all major previous presidential candidates. He cannot lose. Even if he does not win this election and with it the opportunity to govern the most powerful nation on Earth, he is guaranteed one day to rule over, not over merely an individual country, but an entire planet. One can only hope that in his case, it won’t be a gas giant.
Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His most recent book is A Universe from Nothing.