Update: On NASA, theology, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation

On June 6 I reported that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) gave a $1 million grant to the Center for Theological Inquiry to study the societal (read “theological”) implications of looking for extraterrestrial life. In other words, U.S. taxpayer money was going to finance people to figure out how Jesus would save aliens.  To me, this seemed like a violation of the First Amendment: an unconscionable entanglement of church and state.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) thought so too. Only three days after I reported this, and sent it to the FFRF, they sent a letter to NASA laying out the problematic legal issues and asking that NASA rescind the grant. They also filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with NASA to get all the details about how the grant was submitted and approved, and who was involved.  Since then there have been three developments, which I report with permission.

First, NASA said they’d investigate the issue:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 1.02.11 PM

Then NASA quickly responded to the FOIA request. You can do this by filling in an online form (here it is), and NASA’s response came only two days thereafter, saying they couldn’t process the FOIA request because it wasn’t specific enough. You can see in the indented bits what the FFRF’S lawyer, Andrew Seidel, asked for. NASA’s refusal is problematic to me and to the FFRF because it asks the FFRF to specify names and dates, things that nobody outside NASA could possibly know. What they should be sending is everything related to the grant.  In other words, they’re refusing to comply fully.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 1.01.19 PM
Seidel then clarified his request on June 15, asking for all records relating to the application and approval of the grant, including things like emails and phone notes. NASA responded (below) within a day. As you can see below, NASA agreed to send just the “grant file,” which doesn’t include all communications but presumably only the formal application, review, and approval. NASA says they’re “unable to conduct a wide-ranging search for all communications related to this grant.” That, of course, is completely bogus, for they can sweep their servers for emails and the like:
Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 1.00.52 PM

The question is this: why is NASA being so obstructive in providing the materials that were legally requested? The people at FFRF are being charitable and simply making no assumptions, but I’m not part of this case, so I’ll surmise that NASA is hiding something embarrassing.

Maybe I’m wrong, but we shall see, for the FFRF is going to go after them again when it gets the case file. Their request will presumably include every email and every phone note and communication from every person named in the grant file.

Stay tuned.



  1. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I will stay tuned on this SETI broadcast! [SETI := Search for Embarrassing Theology Intelligence.]

    • Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I like this new acronym but is there any intelligent theology? Just asking.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      I’m not entirely sure that “Theology” and “Intelligence” can be used together.🙂

      • john mckeating
        Posted June 30, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        You just did it, but I cant think of another example.

        • Posted July 1, 2016 at 3:15 am | Permalink

          Some science fiction writers have been highly intelligent. Chess players too. And if mathematics is tautological, then what?

          Entity realists like Ian Hacking and Nancy Cartwright think that scientific theories are mere mental constructs.

          The problem is not with the person who is doing the thinking (i.e. intelligence), but the object and means of the thought processes and the verifiability of evidence and predictions.

          For deists and other adherents to natural theology the challenge was at least epistemology. Possibly ontology as well, arising from the dichotomy between matter and spirit.

          For adherents to revealed religion, it ought to be a matter of the chain of evidence leading back the witnesses to the act(s) of revelation.

          What did the prophets or the apostles witness and how do we know they were reliable witnesses? How can we be certain that the existing records of the things witnessed are reliable documents?

          I notice that intelligent religionists deal with these questions by “suspending disbelief” more or less as we all do for novels and movies.

          And as I suspended disbelief when I was a Catholic 50 years ago.

          “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

          This is not the only part of the New Testament that non-believers can accept.

          Jesus said, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” quoting the Torah (Leviticus 19:18) and Rabban Hillel and possibly Rabban Gamaliel, his great-grandson.

          This behaviour may be characteristic of primates, at least it is of Pan paniscus, the bonobo.

          Based on having lived and worked in 18 countries, I tend to believe in the natural “goodness” of mankind.

          Even the fellow who held the muzzle of his machine gun so close to my nose I could smell the machine oil, because he soon invited me to a fiesta.

          But that’s another story.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted June 30, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        The problem with much theology is that it follows the principle that many computer scientists have formulated of GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out). In comp sci, that means that if a computer program is fed bad data, it gets bad results.
        As Wikipedia puts it,
        “computers, since they operate by logical processes, will unquestioningly process unintended, even nonsensical, input data (“garbage in”) and produce undesired, often nonsensical, output (“garbage out”). The principle applies to other fields as well.”

        And there is some theology that is sufficiently lacking in internal consistency that I would also regard it as just flat out dumb, being worse than the equivalent of this famous list of software bugs.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted July 1, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          There’s the whole “subject without an object” thing too. It seems a bit pointless to spend your life divining the meaning of God before you’ve even proven he exists.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted July 1, 2016 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        My intelligence on Church of Beerology theology is oats are taken religiously. [ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Church-of-Beerology/1426341847678981 ]

    • Kevin
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      They could at least search for Asgard….that would not be so embarrassing.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 2, 2016 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        That’ll get a Bifrosty reception.

  2. Marilyn
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this, Jerry. I hope that people who follow you also go to the FFRF site and check it out. I really admire all the work they do and how they never give up. Sometimes it seems like they fight the same battle, over and over and over…that’s the saddest part!
    Please, please join this organization and donate to their legal fund. They deserve all the support they can get.

    • Larry
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      I recently joined the FFRF for reasons such as this. Without them trying to keep creeping religionism in check, and without the lawsuits, the country would be worse off.

  3. Dan McPeek
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Professor Coyne and the FFRF, of
    which I am a member, and I wish everyone who
    frequents and/or comments here would
    seriously consider supporting and joining
    this organization.

  4. nicholas.v
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Apparently this collaboration (and subsequent grant) was the brainchild of Mary Voytek of NASA and William Storrar of CTI.

    Princeton Magazine tells the story in this article:

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      I wish I could find the correct and polite words to convey the probability that this tax payer’s grant is circling the bowl.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Many thanks for that interesting link. Templeton are all over the CTI like a bad suit. I see that in the second year of this project they plan to involve “philosophers and scholars in literature and the arts, bringing…interpreters of life into dialogue with scientists of life”. Should be a bundle of laughs. Get your applications in now!

      I see also that their subject for 2012-13 was “evolution and human nature”. Anyone see their breakthrough discoveries? Me neither.

  5. Kevin
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I submitted an inquiry for justification to some NASA officials and heard nothing back.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    My best guess is that NASA approved this grant to appease some right-wing, bible-thumping member of Congress who has influence over their budget.

    • eric
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      That’s my guess too.

      Also I think Jerry’s being a bit too harsh on NASA. Responding to a FOIA request within days is spectacular responsiveness. The FBI and DOD often slow roll requests for months before even bothering with a “sorry, need more information” response. Legally, they had 20-30 days to issue even their first non-response without litigation being an issue.

      This sounds to me like a legitimate difference of opinion from a group that has to balance employee privacy concerns against openness. Frankly, I wouldn’t give up employee emails either without a darn good reason. Jerry, would you want the University of Chicago to give up “any and all work emails from Jerry Coyne relating to….” to someone within days, without any push back on what specific info and emails they actually wanted? I know UChicago is private, but government managers care about their employees’ privacy just as much as private organizations do, so the analogy is apt – NASA bosses are behaving the same way your bosses would, the same way you’d want your bosses to.

      IMO if they’re turning forms over within a week of the request (again, that’s approximately 23 days before they even legally have to respond), they are coorperating. And if they’re not turning over “any and all documents,” its because they want you to be more specific before they give out info about their employees, not because they’re unwilling to give information about the project. And if you don’t believe me, file a FOIA request for something with the FBI. See if you hear back from them within 2 days.

      • Ben
        Posted July 1, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        +1 – a good summary.

  7. Posted June 30, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    NASA, like climate scientists, probably needs some means of fending off intrusive inquiries designed as political retaliation (or in NASA’s case, fending off UFO enthusiasts too), so I’m not surprised they have a fairly narrow FOIA policy.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      That was my thought too: they probably get enough crank inquiries to warrant a policy of just saying no to open-ended fishing expeditions, no matter who they come from.

  8. alexandra moffat
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    hey – that is exciting! Depressing that such is necessary but exhilarating to watch. All cats (and dogs – aw, come on) bless ffrf and all who protest the too many attempts to mix religion and state.

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Just a speculation here, but this does seem logical:
    NASA is full of engineers and managers and we know that many of them will be Christian. So the resistance being encountered is b/c someone in the sequence is having a conflict of interest.

  10. mikeyc
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    “The question is this: why is NASA being so obstructive in providing the materials that were legally requested?”

    I think the response from NASA is pretty much boilerplate; if an FOIA request doesn’t match precise requirements established by the agency responding it is routinely bounced. It isn’t (necessarily) because of the nature of the FOIA request.
    Most government bodies, and NASA in particular, are so strapped for funding that they don’t have the employee bandwidth to process all FOIA requests – or at least that how the situation is characterized by many government agencies.
    So they place nearly automatic hurdles in front of FOIA requests, partly in the hopes the requester just gives up, but also because without very specific requirements the agency could spend a long time and a lot of employee hours hunting down items or returning to archives to look when the ones they find are not what the requester wants.
    For many government agencies responding to FOIA requests can be a bit like trying to drink out of a firehose. Best if you slow it down a little so you can catch your breath and your teeth don’t get knocked out.
    I hope the FFRF keeps at them until it is THEY who give up and comply.

    • Zado
      Posted June 30, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      I hope so too. “Center for Theological Inquiry” sounds like something out of medieval Christendom.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 2, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        like something out of medieval Christendom.

        Somewhere with hot oil, and … creative … tools for manipulating skin, muscle and bone separately.

  11. tubby
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    To quote Heath Enwright: “It’s not rocket science… and that’s the problem.”

  12. Posted July 1, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    This is part for the course when I’ve filed FOIA requests. I once asked my town to send all records related to my property and permits obtained. They said they couldn’t because I wasn’t specifying which permits I wanted to see. I don’t know if this is simply incompetence or antiquated systems or both, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume NASA is hiding something.

    Of course, we don’t need those records to know this is a waste of money. What exactly is going to be looked at to determine the theological impacts of E.T.? Can’t the theologians just make something up like they usually do?

%d bloggers like this: