Science and Religion in the Planetarium
William J. Fischer
Department of Astronomy
University of Massachusetts
710 N. Pleasant St.
Amherst, Massachusetts 01003
[This article -- minus the text of the responses-- originally appeared in the Planetarian, the quarterly journal of the International Planetarium Society, September 2002. See the copyright notice at the end.]
Changes in the culture of the United States in recent decades have required new approaches to religion in many venues. As part of a general move towards the acceptance of diverse views, many people have challenged traditional assumptions about the role of religion in society. At the most basic level, it is no longer appropriate to assume that all people or even the majority of people in a given population self-identify as Christian. Conservative religious believers, especially those within Christianity, have reacted to these changes by taking a more vocal role in politics, education, and other realms. The effect of all of this is that religion has become an extremely sensitive topic. Many people, including some planetarium professionals, have opted not to discuss religion in any form, despite the important role that religion in general continues to play in American society.
The difficulty with this approach is that the planetarium is a vehicle for communicating culture as well as science. As an astronomy outreach institution, the planetarium is a zone of interaction between science and religion even if many in the field wish it were otherwise. The religious views of planetarium professionals as well as those of their guests make it impossible to ignore the impact of religion in the planetarium industry. This article examines the thoughts of some planetarians on the role of religion under the dome. The phenomenon of the Star of Bethlehem, a specific and popular example of the interaction between science and religion, is reviewed as well.
In 1993, a paper entitled "Religion and the Planetarium" appeared in the Planetarian (1). In this paper, Richard H. Shores asked the following question:
Sometimes, members of the audience bring up religious explanations for astronomical topics such as "God did it," for the rising and setting of the Sun, or they will make a comment after a show that they disagree with a particular area of your presentation because it goes against their religious beliefs. How do you handle such comments without alienating the responding individual?
In Shores' paper, the responses of six individuals appeared. In April, 2001, I posted the same question as well as three others to Dome-L, an electronic mailing list for planetarium professionals (2). (The text of all four questions as well as self-reported information about the respondents appear in an appendix to this paper.) Fifteen individuals responded to at least one question. The results hold no statistical significance because of the voluntary nature of the responses, but they are nonetheless helpful in identifying certain approaches and philosophies that may be common in the field at large.
There were three approaches to dealing with religious questions that appeared in the responses. None of these approaches was dominant, suggesting that the approach to religion may be strongly related to the individual's experience with religion and personal religious beliefs. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect a standard to exist within the industry given the highly personal nature of the subject.
The first of these three approaches is to avoid discussing religion as much as possible. Jonathan Ausubel explains, "Generally, I respond that, while such ideas are worthy and important, science is not equipped to take them up. In other words, I respectfully avoid discussion, telling patrons that these are questions they might better discuss with their religious leaders." This approach is easy, safe, legal, and it is in keeping with the scientific mission of the planetarium. Nonetheless, one wonders if there is something that can be said about religion without compromising science or offending audience members.
Another approach is to accommodate the beliefs of religious guests. David Totzke explains this method:
I recently did a school show for a Christian academy [that] consisted of [the] solar system, constellations, and stars. I simply edited the program to remove anything that might seem inappropriate. Most of the show deals with the planets and recent scientific discoveries. The school sent information about the curriculum that mentioned that Earth was the only place God put "intelligent life," which allowed for a statement about the idea that algae or some other simple life form could be on Europa.
This approach involves editing the content of a show to satisfy the audience. While such an approach is admirable for its sensitivity, at what point does the accommodation strategy endanger the scientific mission of the planetarium? Many would argue that scientific knowledge exists independently of the objections of people or groups, and that the role of a planetarium is to communicate that knowledge regardless of the reaction of the audience. It is clear that nothing is lost by telling an audience that there may be simple life forms on Europa. However, if an audience thinks it seems inappropriate to discuss a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth, one should not ignore the scientific consensus by telling them that Earth is only 6,000 years old.
In contrast to the above approach, some respondents suggested that it is the role of the planetarium to fix mistakes in religion. For example, Michael Miller writes, "It is important from a scientific viewpoint to clarify (i.e. debunk) the errors of religion, just as one would debunk the errors of astrology." There is probably general agreement that one of the goals of the planetarium is to correct popular misconceptions about astronomy, and as such, the corrective approach is a reasonable one. There is a danger, however, in being overly zealous. It is definitely an error to suggest that the sun orbits Earth, but it is not an error to suggest that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere in the universe. On the latter issue, science has nothing to say (yet). Such statements, although they may be unscientific, are not strictly erroneous and must not be handled as such.
Furthermore, it is important to consider the last sentence in Shores' question: "How do you handle such comments without alienating the responding individual?" It is the mission of the planetarium to spread scientific knowledge, correcting errors if necessary, but one must correct errors in a way that encourages further learning about astronomy. One must speak to audience members in a way that debunks their misconceptions, religious or otherwise, but shows them respect and keeps them coming back to the planetarium.
In a separate vein from the three approaches listed above, one respondent in the 2001 survey made it clear that any presentation of religion in the planetarium must take religious diversity into consideration. Pamela Shireman reports the following treatment of Christians who claim Biblical inerrancy:
I point out that our audience, our country, is very culturally diverse and I do not feel comfortable discussing ANY religion. I add that there may be other audience members that are Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish - and I do not wish to insult or isolate them because of their religious beliefs.
While it may not be necessary to completely avoid discussion of religion, it is clear that in a society where minority religious voices are becoming increasingly well-represented, any statement that can be taken as support of any particular religion has no place in the planetarium.
As a specific example of the interaction between science and religion in the planetarium, I wish to examine treatments of the Star of Bethlehem as reported in the second chapter of the book of Matthew in the Christian Scriptures. Since 1980, twenty articles have appeared in the Planetarian on this topic (3), so it is clearly an important issue for many in the field. A review of the literature shows three traditional treatments of the topic.
The most common treatment is the historical approach. This term, borrowed from a paper by John Mosley and Ernest Martin (4), applies to any presentation that treats the Star of Bethlehem as an actual astronomical event. The possibilities presented are numerous, but it is not the purpose of this paper to review each of those, so it will be sufficient to note that a conjunction of some kind is the explanation offered most frequently. There are many benefits to the historical approach. In a response to the 2001 survey, John Mosley explains some of these:
Our Christmas Star show has a LOT of astronomy. People come away learning about planetary motions and the solstice and seasons. They also look at the sky through the eyes of people who lived long ago and learn how they thought about the sky and how that is different than how we think of the sky today. The show is cultural as well as astronomical.
Our experience is that Christians who see the show gain insight into a story they have always heard about. They have a new way of thinking about something familiar, and they enjoy it. Their faith is not challenged. A few come away with their faith reaffirmed because, in their view, we've provided an explanation for how God worked this particular miracle; a few are disappointed that "we removed God from the picture." (This is also the case for every planetarium show we present.) Non-Christians, who are a large percentage of our audience even at Christmastime, are not challenged by our approach, in our experience. They seem to enjoy learning about a story they might or might not be familiar with; at any rate, they see the planetarium projector in heavy use as we demonstrate a lot of good astronomy while gaining a few insights about the culture they live within.
Alongside these benefits, however, there is also a significant difficulty with the historical approach. The idea that a particular event in the sky signified an important occurrence on Earth is simply a repackaging of astrology to many guests. Most planetarians consider astrology to be something of an evil twin to astronomy and as such, they are not interested in promoting it. In a response to my survey, Mickey Schmidt states,
We have considered the overall effect of the astrological significance of God planning a conjunction at 'just' the right time ... The conclusion one can make from the 'facts' as presented in such programs is that astrology works and God is the chief astrologer since he controls the universe.
This argument is presented elsewhere in the literature (5), and it is a valid one. Addressing this concern independently of Schmidt's remarks, Mosley states in his survey response,
I'm actually equally concerned about appearing to promote astrology in our Christmas shows. We do not. We go to great pains to emphasize that finding something that could be interesting to an astrologer is not the same as proving that astrology works, and I think our audience gets this important distinction.
It seems reasonable that the Star of Bethlehem could be presented in such a way as to avoid promoting astrology. The script could emphasize that conjunctions and other astronomical events happen quite frequently. Because of this, the presence of a conjunction near the time of Jesus' birth could easily be attributed to coincidence.
It is necessary, however, that this explanation be more than just a minor paragraph tacked on to the end of a lengthy list of possibilities. If ninety-five percent of a program is spent listing a variety of scenarios and five percent is spent countering the claims of astrology, the audience is not going to remember the five percent; nor will they take it seriously. It must be clear throughout the program that astrology has no scientific basis and that the institution sponsoring the program does not promote astrology.
Carl Wenning elaborates another treatment of the Star of Bethlehem in a 1980 paper (6). He suggests that the event was the Shekhina, "a term describing the visible manifestation of God's presence on Earth." In other words, the star was not an astronomical event; it was a miracle of God. There are several advantages to this explanation. It removes the requirement that an astronomical phenomenon exhibit the unusual behavior described in Matthew. Furthermore, God appears in a similar fashion elsewhere in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. God's presence is frequently described as a cloud, fire, or various other sources of light. It seems reasonable to audiences familiar with these references that God could just as easily appear as something that looked like a star.
The difficulty with this approach, however, is precisely that the explanation merely seems reasonable. It cannot be evaluated beyond that. The claim that the star was a miracle, although it often appears among the list of possibilities, is not a scientific one. This is essentially a religious claim, and as such, it is not appropriate for a religiously diverse audience. Furthermore, most planetarium professionals would see such a statement as inappropriate given the mission of the planetarium to further scientific knowledge. It may be acceptable to include a statement to the effect that some people believe the star was a miracle, but one should not go into any further detail.
Carl Wenning also presents an alternative explanation for the star - that it is an example of midrash (7). As defined by Wenning, midrash is "a literary tool developed by an author to show seeds of truth that would in no other way be obvious to the reader." More generally, "Midrash in Hebrew means investigation, and, when applied to Scripture, Midrash means investigation of the meaning of Scripture, hence, interpretation" (8). Essentially, to claim that the story found in Matthew is midrash is to claim that it was a myth, not corresponding to any real event, and intended only to enhance the argument that Jesus was the Messiah. Many Christian theologians have begun to look to midrash as a method of understanding scripture passages that are difficult to explain in literal terms but nonetheless have important religious meaning. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that the story of the Star of Bethlehem is another example of midrash. But as with the Shekhina explanation, it does not seem appropriate to present a theological debate as part of a planetarium program.
It is clear that there are difficulties in using any of the three approaches presented above. The historical approach may promote astrology if the script is not written carefully, and the theological approaches of Shekhina and midrash are not appropriate for a diverse audience in a scientific venue. The question remains, then, as to what approach meshes best with both audience expectations and the planetarium's mission of scientific outreach.
One possibility is to eliminate mention of the Star of Bethlehem entirely. A show can be constructed entirely without reference to the topic. Ritter Planetarium, on the campus of the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, presented such a program in December 2000. This show, "Old Lights for a New Millennium," begins with standard information about daily motion, winter constellations, and stellar magnitudes and distances. Light from distant stars is presented as "old light," which allows a transition into a section about the importance of astronomy, particularly the winter solstice, to ancient people. This section also presents the reason for Earth's seasons. The program then covers modern use of lights during the holiday season, specifically the lights associated with Hanukkah and Christmas. The ancient Roman holiday of Natalis Solis Invicti receives mention as well. Certain other astronomical phenomena are then introduced, including aurorae and the December meteor showers.
The final section of the show includes a description of the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, focusing on the exchanging of gifts, the closing of schools, and the kind treatment of the less fortunate. Parallels are drawn to the modern-day continuation of these practices, and the program closes with an injunction to "remember the spirit of the Roman festival of Saturnalia this year and help those less fortunate than ourselves." Some may object that this comment gives preferential treatment to the religion of the ancient Romans by promoting the practice of Saturnalia. It is doubtful, though, that anyone would seriously take this as an admonition to abandon his or her present beliefs with regard to religion.
The absence of the Star of Bethlehem did not result in a significant number of complaints. Out of several hundred guests who saw the program, only two specifically expressed negative opinions about this aspect of the program. Furthermore, the program continues to feature much of the religious content that guests have come to expect at the planetarium in December. The major difference is that a variety of religious practices receive equal exposure, as opposed to the traditional focus on Christianity.
It does appear to be possible to properly include the Star of Bethlehem in a planetarium program during the month of December. The historical approach of John Mosley and Ernest Martin combined with a strong anti-astrology stance fits the mission of many planetaria, and such an approach can be constructed in a way that does not promote Christianity. Nonetheless, the experience at Ritter Planetarium suggests that the public can be satisfied without any coverage of the Star of Bethlehem. Further study is necessary, however, to affirm or deny this conclusion. Surveys of audience opinion after similar planetarium presentations in other regions of the United States would be quite useful to this end.
On the larger issue of religion in the planetarium, several points are self-evident to those in the planetarium industry. Guests of the planetarium expect to hear about religion, especially during the month of December. The use of religious elements, such as Native American mythology and passages about nature from various sacred books, can add to the audience's sense of wonder about the universe, and such material is culturally relevant. Nonetheless, as a counter to the use of religious material, the planetarium audience is religiously diverse, and the primary mission of the planetarium is a scientific one, not a cultural one.
In light of the above information, I offer the following conclusion: Since planetaria are meant to serve the public, it is impossible to ignore the fact that much of the public is interested in religion. Science does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Planetarium presentations can include religion, even specific religious elements such as the Star of Bethlehem, but they must in no way advocate religious views. Furthermore, as a way of addressing religious diversity, it is helpful to draw religious material from a wide variety of traditions, both present-day and historical. In this way, planetaria can continue to expand upon the holistic approach to science that is necessary to communicate the wonders of astronomy to non-scientists.
References and Notes
(1) Shores, Richard H. "Religion and the Planetarium." Planetarian 22. 3 (1993): 36-37, 55.
(2) Dome-L is a moderated electronic discussion list requiring owner approval to subscribe. The list is intended for planetarium professionals and astronomy educators. For information on subscribing, visit http://www.topica.com/lists/Dome-L@topica.com.
(3) A subject index of all articles that have appeared in the Planetarian is available at http://www.griffithobs.org/IPSindex.html.
(4) Mosley, John, and Ernest L. Martin. "The Star of Bethlehem Reconsidered: An Historical Approach." Planetarian 9.2 (1980): 6-9.
(5) Kanagy, Sherman P. "Religion and Pseudoscience in Christmas Star Shows: Attitudes Within the Planetarium Community." Planetarian 16. 4 (1987): 12-20.
(6) Wenning, Carl J. "The Star of Bethlehem Reconsidered: A Theological Approach." Planetarian 9.2 (1980): 2-5.
(8) Neusner, Jacob. Invitation to Midrash. Harper and Row, San Francisco (1989): vii.
Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 31, #3, September 2002, with additional text not included in the original article. Copyright 2002 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.