There Are No Atheists in… Rockets? July 9, 2011

There Are No Atheists in… Rockets?

How do you get someone to say two slanderous things in one sentence? Ask astronaut Col. Mike Good for a soundbyte:

“They say there’s no atheists in foxholes, but there’s probably no atheists in rockets,” said Catholic astronaut Col. Mike Good, who believes his faith in God was solidified by the awe-inspiring views he saw from space

The “atheists in foxholes” thing has been debunked repeatedly. To say that (and mean it) suggests willful ignorance or an inability to do a 5-second Google search.

I’d never heard the one about no atheists in rockets before… but it just seems strange. Maybe because I figure people who are astronauts are probably really strong in math and science, and people who are really strong in math and science are the ones least likely to believe in a god.

In any case, let’s put a quick stop to that one.

Christer Fuglesang, the first Swedish man in space, is openly atheist.

And I’m guessing most of those Soviet Cosmonauts were, too…

Hmm. I’ve never proved an astronaut wrong before.

It was pretty easy to do.

NASA’s hit a new low.

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  • Heidi

    You know, part of the reason these people have trouble finding atheists in foxholes is that the god-botherers freaking SHOOT them once they know they’re atheists. Pat Tillman. Ahem.

  • Lee

    “Maybe because I figure people who are astronauts are probably really strong in math and science, and people who are really strong in math and science are the ones least likely to believe in a god.”

    You would think that is true, but I am a lab technician and every chemistry lab I’ve worked in is crawling with creationists. The only atheists I’ve ever encountered in my work were two Chinese immigrants. I’ve been made to stand in prayer circles at work, been griped at for talking about evolution, etc. I wrote a blog entry about my experiences if you are interested in reading it.

  • AJ Chalom

    Astronaut Judith Resnick, a mission specialist who died on the Challenger Explosion was an agnostic and a Secular Jew.

  • nathan

    This suprised me as well. If I was in space for even 10 seconds, I can say that I would see even less reason to believe in god. God’s awe-inspiring-ness would be completely out-shined by looking at the glory that is space.

    You can have your small gods that care about small things.

  • Surgoshan

    The line “Hmm. I’ve never proved an astronaut wrong before.” just made me laugh and laugh.

  • Holly

    As an atheist who works for NASA, I take issue with your “NASA’s hit a new low” statement. It’s entirely based on the words of one individual speaking about a personal experience. NASA gives us things like Hubble, Chandra, COBE, Voyager, etc, the tools needed to further science and inspire new generations of scientists. While obviously Good’s statement was proven wrong, he is only human and yes, even astronauts make mistakes (working with them you see it more than once). So, NASA didn’t do anything…one employee said something untrue. Blame them, not the agency as a whole.

  • Ollie

    What about the people who did the basic science to make the rockets possible? 🙂

  • Michelle

    That was probably one of the more poignant parts of the Tillman story for me; not only was there an Atheist in a Fox hole, he saved the other guys life because he was and atheist and didn’t have his head in the clouds.
    Also, seriously believe what you want, but stop trying pin your nonsense on the rest of us, even if you are an astronaut.

  • Steve

    Apollo 8 became famous for the Bible reading in lunar orbit. And it was Genesis of all things. Madalyn Murray O’Hair unsuccessfully tried to sue NASA over that.
    Buzz Aldrin later admitted that he took communion after landing on the moon.

    You’d think they’d be less religious, but it not true. I doubt all of them are though

  • Ian

    Enjoyed your comment “Hmm. I’ve never proved an astronaut wrong before.” haw haw. A new low, even for NASA.

    Lee–sorry you are in such a situation. Try asking a few subtle questions.

    I see the space program (all of them) as one of the great achievements of humanity. A human achievement, intelligence, science, technology, and bravery. I view it as a direct rejection on xian ideology, which views humans as glove puppets of god.

  • Johnjay

    I would have hoped things had changed. I have followed the Space Program since I was a kid. In 1968, I was 15 and very much into science. All the family was watching a live Apollo 8 broadcast from the first humans to go into orbit around the moon. Its the first time I can recall having what today is called a total facepalm moment when the astronauts read verses from Genesis. GENESIS! The most anti-science part of the bible. I think at that time my mom figured out my feelings on religion by my total WTF look.

    For those who are too young or don’t believe this… here’s a clip:

  • CelticWhisper

    Wasn’t Yuri Gagarin quoted as having said “I don’t see any god up here?”

    If so, “no atheists in rockets” is pathetically underresearched.

  • ntd371

    As someone who is a space geek and a NASA employee, I can add a little bit of insight.

    There are many religious astronauts. For the Apollo missions, most were test pilots with military affiliation. For Shuttle missions, the Commander and the Pilot needed exceptional flying skills and they invariably came from the military. For this reason, the result of having a more religious military is a more religious astronaut corp. Also, many are from the more religious Midwest and South.

    However, the Mission Specialists on Shuttle missions are not usually from the military and often have PhDs in science or engineering. If you watch their interviews they are usually very pro-science and talk about discovering how the universe came to be, evolution, life on other planets, etc. They are not going to start criticizing religion due to societal pressure. I’ve seen some dance around “philosophical” interview questions to avoid sounding too non-religious.

    Some possible counter examples to what Col. Good said:

    Alan Bean (Apollo 12): In interviews he’s made the insightful comment that people who go to space tend to come back with their previous beliefs reinforced. Religious people more religious, atheists more confirmed atheists. He sounded like an agnostic, and said something like “No one knows if there is a god or not.” He didn’t sound religious.

    Gene Cernan (Apollo 17): When asked he talks about the infinite blackness and emptiness of space and the insignificance of Earth. He also said that religion was invented by humans, and some general statements that the grandness of the universe isn’t captured by human beliefs. (Reminding me of Sagan’s “small god” statements) He said he is spiritual and not religious. I don’t know if he means spiritual like some vague supernatural stuff, or “Dawkins” spiritual.

    Also what about the Japanese Shuttle astronauts? I don’t think many Japanese people are religious.

    More generally, working at NASA and other places filled with smart technical people, here’s a few anecdotal trends I’ve noticed. There are four groups:

    1. Straightforward atheists. A pretty small group. I have seen people with FSM dolls hanging from the ceiling over their cubicle, and I make it pretty clear that I don’t “go in for” religion.

    2. Empiricists. A large group is made up of people that think religion is stupid superstition and think people that are too religious are worth mocking. Many people I’ve worked with (including supervisors) have talked about the over-the-top “Jesus people” and made fun of religion in general. They live by data and reason, and don’t have time for metaphysical speculation.

    3. Nominally religious. Probably still the plurality. People who go to church a few times a year. They believe in God and stuff, but it’s more of a peer pressure thing, not a real strong part of who they are.

    4. Religious nuts. A small group, but much larger than the out atheists. They have Jesus calendars, and talk about Jesus, can’t stand the Federal GLBT month (and get slapped down for that by upper management), and are very “God Bless America!”. Many NASA centers are in the South, so these people pop up everywhere.

  • Tom


    You know, part of the reason these people have trouble finding atheists in foxholes is that the god-botherers freaking SHOOT them once they know they’re atheists. Pat Tillman. Ahem.

    I have complete confidence in the integrity of my fellow soldiers, theist or no, to do everything in their power to keep myself, an atheist, alive in whatever the situation. To suggest that fratricide is endemic in the military for any reason is extremely offensive and I’m having a very difficult time keeping calm as I reply to you. My atheism has never been the cause of any issues with any other members of my platoon or my leadership because we are professionals. We do an ugly job and we do it with more proficiency, integrity and humanity than any other military in history.


    NASA’s hit a new low.

    That’s paramount to my saying that because of what Heidi said above, Friendly Atheist has hit a new low. The actions, decisions, beliefs and unfortunate statements of an individual do not define an entire organization. If NASA responded with a loud and thunderous endorsement of his statement, then they would have hit a remarkable low point.

  • Miles McCullough

    The top comments on that youtube video are about how atheists should shut up and stop being dickheads in the face of such a beautiful moment.


  • @Johnray

    I would have preferred them reading from “The letters from the Earth” by Mark Twain which starts as follows:

    The Creator sat upon the throne, thinking. Behind him
    stretched the illimitable continent of heaven, steeped in a
    glory of light and color; before him rose the black night of
    Space, like a wall. His mighty bulk towered rugged and
    mountain-like into the zenith, and His divine head blazed
    there like a distant sun. At His feet stood three colossal
    figures, diminished to extinction, almost, by contrast —
    archangels — their heads level with His ankle-bone.
    When the Creator had finished thinking, He said, “I have
    thought. Behold!”

  • Johann

    Wasn’t Yuri Gagarin quoted as having said “I don’t see any god up here?”

    That one’s commonly misattributed – it’s from a later speech by Brezhnev about Gagarin’s flight, not from Gagarin himself.

  • As bad a line as it is, I’m not sure it is meant as a truism or fact so much as a kind of proverbial saying that suggests that atheism is the product of comfort – people in danger are more likely to turn to God. Whether that’s true or not is debatable of course!

    I figure people who are astronauts are probably really strong in math and science, and people who are really strong in math and science are the ones least likely to believe in a god.

    Interesting that you would counter one assumption with another of your own.
    Theism is much higher amongst physicists than it is amongst biologists, and of course, the Professor of Mathematics at Oxford is an evangelical Christian.
    Despite what some would have us believe, science does not logically demand that one hold to philosophical naturalism.

  • ACN

    Despite what some would have us believe, being a scientist doesn’t mean you hold up all of your beliefs to scientific levels of scrutiny.

    Humans are REALLY good at compartmentalizing incoherent belief systems.

  • wright1

    Agreement with Tom and Holly. Hemant, no need to paint with such a broad brush; that’s what theists like Col. Good do.

    Having said that, believers who make patently ignorant statements need to be called on it; no question. It’s all part of educating society in general about the existence of atheism.

  • Bacopa

    I see two NASA employees have already dropped in to defend NASA’s reputation. I will just merely point out that the Galveston Bay communities near the Johnson Space Center are known for having fairly active skeptic and atheist communities. Same goes for Huntsville, Alabama.

  • Charon

    If NASA hits a new low, it’s only going going to be because Congress cuts their funding for the only flagship observatory foreseeable in the next couple decades: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

    As an astronomer, I can say that we’re quite grateful to Shuttle crews for repairing Hubble a few times… but I’m not interested in what repair techs think about science or philosophy, even if they’re amazing repair techs.

    They only ever put one actual scientist on the Moon, you know. And it wasn’t until Apollo 17, and then only under pressure.

  • Heidi

    @Tom: And what, exactly, do you have to say about what happened to Pat Tillman? Oops? That was not an accident. Go rage at someone else.

  • earthforce_1

    Did you ever suspect that we haven’t been contacted by extra terrestrial intelligence because they think we are an insane species?

    I wonder if out there some sentient life forms know we exist, but are taking bets as to when we will destroy ourselves.

    Sadly, it seems we are not yet evolved enough to leave this planet. We might never be.

  • Steve

    He wasn’t fragged

    Friendly fire incidents happen. It’s always been a fact of modern war. During the first Gulf War, a huge part of the allied causalities were from friendly fire. One big cause is the fog of war. Limited situational awareness, confusion and lack of communication – especially when operating with troops from different nations who use different tactics, protocols and communications equipment. Soldiers see someone else and mistake them because they are unaware of the location of another platoon for example. That’s exactly what happened to Tillman.

    Other causes can be technological, like the shooting down of friendly aircraft because of incompatible IFF transponders or lack of coordination and communications. Others are sheer recklessness like the Tarnak Farm incident.

    The scandal about Tillman is not that it happened. But that they tried to cover it up and turn him into a hero.

  • Ken

    With so much of the manned space program centered in Texas and Florida, there seems to be a lot of Christian references floating around NASA. If you watch the launch coverage (including the STS-135 launch) you get to see LOTS of hand-made signs saying things like “God Speed” and “God Bless America” being displayed by the ground crews.

    Also remember that the early space program crews in the US was mostly from the military of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where your religious fervor was sometimes required for promotion.

  • StarScream

    Hemant said: “Maybe because I figure people who are astronauts are probably really strong in math and science, and people who are really strong in math and science are the ones least likely to believe in a god.

    Actually, you’d be surprised to learn that that a strong education in the social sciences and liberal arts is more likely to make people secular than one in the natural sciences. I remember reading the study backing this up, but for the life of me and after ten minutes of searching cannot locate it. If anyone else knows what I am talking about please link to it.

    Anyway, the reason why this is so is that an education in the social sciences and liberal arts like literature force people to take others’ perspectives and this leads to a more secular outlook since individuals realize that the reason people believe in Jesus is the same reason they use to believe in Poseidon.

    An education in the natural sciences and mathematics often lacks this component. If I remember correctly, education in the natural sciences lowered beliefs in creationism and the like, but not God(s).

  • Tom

    @Heidi: Fist, Steve is correct. Second, you are using one unrepresentative incident to suggest that the entire Army consists of religious nut jobs who will gladly and willfully kill a fellow soldier who has a different belief system. You’re painting an entire group with a very broad and offensive brush due to a single example. What other groups do that? There’s a saying that you can tell the quality of a person by the company they keep. You’re not on very good footing right now.

    I am telling you from first hand experience that not only are you wrong, you are being offensive. You can take or leave the offensive part of that, but I would imagine that as someone who, I’m guessing, identifies as a skeptic, you would take into consideration a reasonable first-hand account that contradicts what you believe to be true. However, you choose not to do that, instead falling back even more firmly into your already accepted beliefs and responding with a dismissive, angry comment. Again, what company are you keeping?

    If you would like to know about the company I keep, feel free to ask. I will be more then willing to spend the rest of my Saturday afternoon describing the men I serve with, men from various backgrounds and with different beliefs, religions and, yes, even sexuality who work, play and fight together. I will describe for you, in detail, the sacrifices that have been made by professional men who do what you and your elected officials ask with strength and integrity. I would be happy to explain for you exactly how wrong you are.

    I would much rather just enjoy my weekend, though. It doesn’t seem like we’ve had a lot of free time on our hands for the last decade.

  • StarScream

    Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the total number or percentage of religious/ non-religious among those educated in the natural sciences. I’m aware that compared to the general population they are more secular. (In that regard Hemant is correct.)

    The point is about the effect of the type of education on modifying beliefs.

  • Susan Robinson

    Does anyone know about Neil Armstrong’s beliefs? Just curious.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    GENESIS! The most anti-science part of the bible.

    My vote always goes for Leviticus chapter 11. It’s a font of biological wisdom. Bats are a type of fowl, rabbits chew their cud, insects have 4 legs, etc etc etc.

  • Trace

    “Christ fills all the heavens”…

  • Alex

    Maybe Col. Good is just a little bit nervous about riding a rocket built by low bidders.

  • Jake

    An old Yuri Gagarin quote:

    I looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.

    So, uh, yeah. That’s something.

  • The chemistry teacher at the school I teach at is phenomenal. He knows his stuff backwards and forwards, and he’s constantly looking for new ways to convey it to the kids. He’s also a fundy Christian with whom I’ve had…interesting…discussions.

    You’d be amazed how those with a science base can be hornswoggled by mythology.

  • Alec

    Interesting that you would bring up Christian Fuglesang; just two days ago he attempted “suicide” in a square at a place called Almedalen in Sweden, Almedalen is a place where the countrys politicians gather for a week once a year to meet the people.

    Why I say “suicide” is because Fuglesang, as the rationalist he is, wanted to debunk homeopathy and its drugs. He took a bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills and swallowed it down with water, and of course, nothing happened.

    There were 9 more participants in this attempted “suicide” from the group Science and Popular Education. I saw this on Reddit earlier and then the group was wrongfully translated by another swede to something involving “Skeptics”, which it really isn’t about. Sure the people in the group probably don’t believe in God but they haven’t defined themselves as skeptics and it’s wrong to brand them as such by us online.

  • Aaaii… *facepalm*

  • Matt

    “There are no atheists in foxholes” isn’t an argument against atheism. It’s an argument against foxholes.

    -A Vet.

  • Dan W

    Considering the number of astronauts and cosmonauts that have been in space, it’s likely that several atheists have been in space already. That list of cosmonauts is pretty long, and here’s a list of astronauts that’s at least as long if not longer.
    Besides the ones already mentioned, there could be several other atheists who have been in space.

  • Steve

    Laurel Clark, who died on the Colombia, was UU. Close enough to atheism I suppose :p

  • Kaylya

    I just saw this the other day – the Globe and Mail had some of the well known Canadian astronauts answering questions.

    Humera Jabir asks: I would like to ask the astronauts how going to space impacted any religious or personal beliefs they may have? Big question, but I would just like to know what comes to mind for them.

    Marc Garneau: This is a personal question and every astronaut will answer it differently.

    Like most humans, I have sometimes struggled with my faith. At certain moments, it has been strong and at others, I have experienced doubt.

    When you are strapped into the shuttle and waiting for it to launch, you certainly reflect on your faith and as with all intense moments of this kind, you hope that God is with you because you really need him.

    I have to say that when I arrived in space after the wild ride that took me there and first looked down on the majesty and the beauty of planet Earth, I experienced a quiet but very strong conviction that God does exist.

    Intense experiences can open your mind and make you see things differently. Although I am basically the same person now as I was before my first spaceflight, I have also been altered in important ways by the experience. I see the world and indeed life itself differently.

    Unfortunately, given how personal the question is, they are only having each question answered by one astronaut.

  • Ben H.

    To be fair to NASA, this is Col. Good’s opinion and not that of the agency he works for.

  • Ben H.

    Holly beat me to it. Go read her comment.

    I am also an atheist who works for NASA (well, a contractor).

  • AnnaG

    I have to agree with other comments here that science education doesn’t necessarily lead to agnosticism or atheism. I used to work at a liberal arts college and now work at a science and tech university, I was much more comfortable and more out at the liberal arts college than here, and that liberal arts college was Jesuit!

  • frizzlefrazzle

    I like sarcasm. Is it because of this, that “if” I worked for NASA, I wouldn’t have taken the last line in the post so serious?

  • Tra_byrd

    What about all the other Christian astronauts who make up the majority?

  • anonymous


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