This post is to bring you up to date on the the battle over the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) giving over $1 million dollars to a theological organization to study the implications of extraterrestrial life for theology. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is trying to get NASA to rescind the grant on First Amendment grounds, but NASA is fighting back, avoiding disclosing what the grant actually said. I’ve posted three times about this.
First, NASA gave a $1.1 million dollar grant to the Center for Theological Inquiry, an organization at Princeton that emphasizes Christian theology. The CTI’s director crowed about it, but revealed a seemingly illegal entanglement of religion with government (NASA is a government organization):
Announcing the NASA grant, CTI’s director William Storrar said, “The aim of this inquiry is to foster theology’s dialogue with astrobiology on its societal implications, enriched by the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. We are grateful to the NASA Astrobiology Program for making this pioneering conversation possible.”
I brought this to the FFRF’s attention, and they wrote to NASA, also filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all materials related to the grant. (See the FFRF’s letter at the link.)
Then NASA largely stonewalled, refusing to provide much information unless the FFRF specified authors, dates, and so on—things that the FFRF couldn’t possibly know. It was at this point that I began to suspect that NASA had something to hide.
Now I suspect that even more. Here are the latest developments:
- NASA did cough up some information: the notice of the grant award and the contract between NASA and the CTI about the grant. The grant itself was not provided, nor were any emails about it. They also provided an uninformative evaluation of the grant, only two pages long and given it an “E” for excellent.
- NASA also provided a five-page discussion of how the proposal was evaluated, emphasizing its social aspects and downplaying its religious aspects. (All these documents are publicly available and I can send them, but please don’t ask unless you intend to do something with them.)
- NASA provided CTI’s ongoing “progress report” of the grant’s accomplishments, which, to me at least, are not impressive. (How could they be? It’s theology, Jake!) The “fellows” arrived at CTI and had some seminars, and now are supposed to disseminate their results. Here’s an excerpt of what has been done so far (my emphasis)
The writing projects undertaken by the CTI fellows this year are book-length projects that will be completed in the coming year or two. Also Lucas Mix has published an article in the June 2016 edition of the journal Zygon; the article is titled “Life-Value Narratives and the Impact of Astrobiology on Christian Ethics.” Zygon, vol. 51, no. 2 (June 2016): 520- 535.
Many of the fellows are planning to incorporate their immersion in astrobiology into their teaching at their home institutions. For example, Ulrike Auga will run a seminar on astrobiology and visual culture at the Humboldt University, Berlin, summer 2016. Others have proposed panels on astrobiology and society at various scholarly conferences.
The results of this project have already been disseminated through the CTI Blog (blog.ctinquiry.org) and through CTI’s Fresh Thinking Podcast, which has featured conversations with Mary Voytek, Edwin Turner, Frank Rosenzweig, and Caleb Sharf, along with the CTI fellows. The podcast was created in October 2015 and since that time it has been listened to more than 1,300 times. 12 episodes have already been published and 4 more episodes will be released this summer. A link to the CTI podcast with Frank Rozensweig and Robin Lovin was also posted on the NASA Astrobiology Program website. The Kluge Center, Library of Congress, webpage also referenced CTI’s Inquiry.
Abstract. “Pale Blue Dot” and “Anthropocene” are common tropes in astrobiology and often appear in ethical arguments. Both support a decentering of human life relative to biological life in terms of value. This article introduces a typology of life-value narratives: hierarchical narratives with human life above other life and holistic narratives with human life among other life. Astrobiology, through the two tropes, supports holistic narratives, but this should not be viewed as opposed to Christianity. Rather, Christian scriptures provide seeds of both hierarchical and holistic narratives, each of which may flourish in different environments. By attending to which aspects of human life are valued—or disvalued—relative to biological life, we can better understand how life-concepts do work in ethics, anthropology, and soteriology in secular as well as theological contexts.
I’ve never seen any paper that didn’t acknowledge the organization that provided financial support.
Finally, NASA simply refused to provide two important things: the internal and external email communications about the grant, and, most important, the CTI grant proposal (my emphasis). Here’s NASA’s reason for refusal:
A total of 25 pages are being released in full while Center of Theological Inquiry proposal, totaling 14 pages, is being withheld in full pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3), “. . . specifically exempted from disclosure by statute, (other than section 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types matters to be withheld.” Statute 10 U.S.C. § 2305(g), “Prohibition on the Release of Contractor Proposals – (1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), a proposal in the possession or control of an agency named in section 2303 of this title may not be made available to any person under section 552 of title 5. (2) Section (1) does not apply to any proposal that is set forth or incorporated by reference in a contract entered into between the Department and the contractor that submitted the proposal. (3) In this subsection, the term “proposal” means any proposal, including a technical, management, or cost proposal, submitted by a contractor in response to the requirements of a solicitation for a competitive proposal.”
Their excuse is that the CTI is in effect a “contractor”, and contractor proposals can by law be kept secret. For proposals to the Departments of Defense, and the four armed forces, that makes some sense as a matter of national security, and these departments are specified. So is NASA, and in some cases that’s justifiable too. But, as Andrew Seidel, the FFRF lawyer handling this case, wrote me, “The problem is that the government was trying to protect defense contractors from certain FOIA provisions, which makes a certain amount of sense given what they do, but lumped NASA in because of some of its sensitive work. CTI’s proposal clearly doesn’t fall within the ambit of that original purpose, it could not be less sensitive either technologically or militarily, but it got swept in anyway.”
Now NASA is arguing that the phrase “may not” means it lacks discretion in releasing the CTI proposal; that it’s prohibited by law from doing so. The FFRF disagrees, and has appealed NASA’s refusal to release the grant in a letter to NASA that’s highlighted in this press release (the letter is too long to put here).
This is a big chunk of change, and I don’t want money earmarked for space research to be involved in furthering theology. Have a look at Lucas Mix’s paper if you want to see the enormous and ludicrous waste of time and effort involved in pondering the effects of astrobiology on Jesus. What can we do?
It’s not clear if NASA will release the theology grant, as they have some legal standing to withhold it.
But even if NASA won’t release that grant proposal, there’s no reason why the Center for Theological Inquiry can’t. In fact, if they want to be transparent about things, and think they’re doing a public service, they SHOULD release it. I for one will be writing the CTI asking them to release the grant, and perhaps some public pressure will help with this. If you want the Center for Theological Inquiry to make its grant from NASA public, you can write to Dr. William Storrar, head of the Center for Theological Inquiry. You can send it to him via the address firstname.lastname@example.org