What’s up with the NASA grant to study theology?

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.

 I read the one tangible result: the Zygon article, which I’ll make available if you want it. The interesting thing about it is that although it’s said to be the fruit of this NASA/CTI collaboration, it neither mentions nor cites the grant or NASA for its support. And its explicit Christian nature can be seen in its abstract:

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 cti@ctinquiry.org


  1. Bernardo
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what Carl Sagan would think of this

    • GBJames
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure we know what he would think of it. He’d be appalled.

  2. David Evans
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Suppose NASA’s real motive is looking for arguments to sell space exploration to a largely Christian electorate? You could understand them not wanting to spell that out.

    • Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      No matter what, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of embarrassment to be had from both NASA and CTI on the matter. Which might explain their reluctance…but that’s also exactly why we have sunshine laws in the first place.

      If you’re in government and you don’t want people to know what you’re about to do or in the middle of doing, don’t do it. And if it’s too late to stop doing it…sorry, but you should have thought of that before. Best now to come clean rather than add obstructionism and coverups to your list of misdeeds.

      …after all, aren’t you also going to be even embarrassed when word gets out that you’re engaging in a coverup on top of everything else you did that you shouldn’t have done? Won’t it be easier to make the case that you’ve reformed if you’ve got actual evidence to present of your reformation?



  3. Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Email sent.

    I would note that the Great Commission, which is, presumably, the theological underpinning of the whole exercise, should also, presumably, compel the widest possible dissemination of everything related to the grant.



    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Good on you Ben.

      As a non-USian and a nobody I suspect an email from me might piss them off and therefore be counter-productive. I hope others feel able to do this, especially Princeton alumni.

      • Posted August 18, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Indeed; I agree with the sentiment as well but I do not think having mail from non-Americans is helpful …

        (The only time I’ve signed a petition, for example, in a foreign context, was in support of the Turing pardon.)

  4. Bruce
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I’ll try to follow up on everything you’ve provided – and thanks for that but the way – but of course, as previously noted, I’m not American.

    For now, some comments:

    This seems political, perhaps in the hopes of future funding? I realize it is NASA providing funding now but the future…? I can’t say that for certain as I don’t know enough about either institution.

    Why would CTI Princeton need to learn more about astrobiology? Don’t they already know?

    Lastly, the withholding of the CTI Grant Proposal strikes me as a weaselly way of avoiding controversy at the very least.
    At worst, it stinks to high heaven! ; )

  5. GBJames
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Once more I’m proud to be a member of FFRF.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the update

  7. Kevin
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Email sent and also to NASA grant agency. I worked off of NASA grants for two years. My experience suggests its mostly engineers and managers who lost any interest for innovative science long ago. Alas, they have to make very complicated things work…I will give them that. But that does not mean they have to do things that are not scientifically interesting.

    I would be completely ashamed in front of my peers if I wrote a theologically motivated astrobiology paper. I would feel sick to my stomach if I had to explain myself to reputable scientists.

  8. Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Am I interpreting it right that the “may not be made available” applies to “any proposal … submitted by a contractor in response to the requirements of a solicitation for a competitive proposal”?

    If so, Jerry, perhaps you could ask the FFRF to ask NASA which solicitation this proposal was submitted to, and which grant panel evaluated it. All of that would be public information.

    • Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I think there was just a call for proposals in general, and I’ll try to find it. It may be in one of their documents.

      • Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        I’ve submitted to a few NASA calls for proposals, and they’re usually pretty tightly specified in terms of what each call is looking for. NASA does too wide a range of things to really do general calls.

  9. David Harper
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking at some of the other papers in the June 2016 issue of “Zygon”, and shaking my head in disbelief. There are papers on astrotheology and astrochristology. These people certainly know how to pile absurdity on top of utter irrelevance. I can only hope that the authors of those steaming brain-turds didn’t receive research grants that could have been used for real science.

    • Draken
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      This Prof Dr. Ulrike Auga has the “Chair for Theology and Gender Studies” at Humboldt University. Theology and Gender Studies, where a quantum implosion of reason and logic occurs today.

  10. Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    One implication of extraterrestrial life for theology is that if such a life is proven to exist, the Catholic church will finally be forced to apologize to Giordano Bruno.

    • somer
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      even so they never will

  11. GBJames
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why the publishers of that journal, Zygon, named it after Doctor Who monsters.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I have no substantive point to make other than that CTI too specifically Christian for this to be a viable use of government tax-payer money.

    But I feel compelled to post this picture.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink


    • Stephen
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      This reminds me of Arthur Clarke’s novel Rendezvous With Rama where he has a character on the spaceship going to meet the alien craft identify as a member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut. You guessed it already, they think Jesus was an alien.

      • nwalsh
        Posted August 17, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        I remember several years ago in Maui I had just finished reading Rendezvous with Rama, and thought the sequel would be good beach reading. Part way in one of the cosmonauts felt the need to consult the pope. I was so p off I took it back and have never read it. It was co-authored with Gentry Lee which I guess explains the need to involve a Deity. Arthur would never have written such drivel.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the update! For reasons I’ll try to get around to mailing in a few hours.

    Meanwhile, how does Mix mean “soteriology in secular as well as theological contexts would work!? It is an exclusively theological idea!

    • Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Remember: to a theologian, the gods are as real as atomic elements. As such, salvation is going to be as important to understanding biological evolution as chemistry is. The “sacred / secular” divide is seen more like the “hard science / soft science” one, rather than as two fundamentally conflicting epistemologies.

      Yes, the proposition that the gods really are really real is bizarre and incomprehensible in the modern world. But, if you somehow manage to reach that conclusion, the rest does follow consistently. And, indeed, it’s historically consistent…modern science descended from “natural philosophy,” which, at the time it was called that, was considered the complementary twin to theology. Theologists studied the gods, whilst natural philosophers studied that which the gods created. Today’s theologists typically espouse exactly that perspective.



      • GBJames
        Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        “…the gods really are really real…”

        I’ve been watching The Almighty Johnsons. Maybe they really are real!

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point. Unless you broaden the concept of “soteriology” to include the general pursuit of health and well-being the CTI statement makes no sense. But such a broadening denotes a break with classical Christianity. Benjamin Franklin has been interpreted as putting forward a “secular soteriology” in his writings, but this means he broke from traditional Christianity altogether!!

      Some historians of religion distinguish between soteriological religions (mainly the Abrahamic ones) and sapiential religions (such as Confucianism or Taoism) but again it makes no sense to ask about “soteriology in secular as well as theological contexts”

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      I suspect they thought the resulting word salad sounded intellectual, in a PoMo sort of way.

      Third attempt (in case the other two turn up)

  14. Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    The US Government is preparing to reveal to the general population what the tin foil hats have known for years, that we are visited by aliens and there are aliens among us.

    This will be no problem for skeptics if solid evidence is presented. But for those with a WMT world view, this will be the end of belief as they know it. That’s why a new theology is needed to be infiltrated into current theology in advance of the announcement.

    ….or maybe it’s something else.

    • David Harper
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      “we are visited by aliens and there are aliens among us.”

      Well, that would explain Donald Trump, at any rate.

  15. Roger
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Wow they sound deeply religious. Gosh I hope they aren’t “storing up treasures on earth” or not “turning the other cheek”.

  16. Filippo
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . the fruit of this NASA/CTI collaboration . . . .”

    NASA is no less obligated to have a NASA/CFI collaboration.

  17. eric
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    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

    Is this that surprising? I didn’t think it was ever standard to release a winning grant proposal; it gives competitors an ability to plagiarize and then lowball someone else’s good idea the next time the grant is offered. I also thought ‘closed’ proposal evaluations were pretty much the standard. In this case, its because granting agencies don’t want losers going through the winning evaluation with a fine tooth comb and then suing the agency over a dropped comma or something else.

  18. Larry
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    This sounds so similar to post-modernist bullshit expressionism.

    • InnerCurl
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      What’s post-modernist about it?

    • Posted August 18, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      “holism” and even more so “narrative” used excessively are pomo vocabulary items, yes. “Decentering” is one in spades.

  19. Dionigi
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    If there ever turns out to be self aware biological life on ther planets, for them to be christian, they would have to have an Adam and an Eve so that they could commit original sin.
    For this to happen more than once it must have been planned, which would mean that the whole concept of original sin and atonement by the death and suffering of Jesus is nonsense as he cannot atone for a sin which we did not choose to commit. Extraterrestrial life would prove once and for all that christianity is rubbish.

    • Michiel
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      But then of course christianity was proven to rubbish a long time ago already and that hasn’t stopped them.

      • Michiel
        Posted August 18, 2016 at 12:48 am | Permalink

        *to be rubbish*

    • Richard
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Have you read James Blish’s novel ‘A Case Of Conscience” (pub. 1958)? It’s an interesting exploration of much the same idea.

    • Posted August 18, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Well, for what (little) it is worth, C. S. Lewis and such have worried about this for quite a long time.

      On the other hand, I remember a novel (I think it might have been one of the Star Trek novels I read too many of as a kid) where some non-humans offer bafflement in response to “being saved”. This is actually the more problematic notion theologically, according to some: the idea is that a non-Christian is supposed to be somehow aware that he needs Jesus, etc. (People still use this, despite *Locke’s* still decent evidence against it.)

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    The quoted abstract from the Zygon article is written in recognizable English and follows the conventions of grammar and syntax. But I’ll be damned if I can grab ahold of a single solid idea anywhere in the paragraph. It resembles Orwell’s parody of a verse from Ecclesiastes translated into “modern English of the worst sort.”

  21. Damien
    Posted August 18, 2016 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    We put a man on the Moon, how come we cannot solve the problem of theodicy ?

  22. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 18, 2016 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    After more delays, mail sent!

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