In 2015, the NASA Astrobiology Program gave a $1.108 million grant to the Center for Theological Inquiry.
If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you’re not alone.
The project is intended to refresh and expand scholarly and public dialogue on this subject, which is of growing interest due to the discovery of thousands of extrasolar planets and the ongoing search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system and beyond. With this $1.108 million grant, CTI will oversee a resident team of visiting scholars in theology, the humanities, and social sciences that will conduct an interdisciplinary inquiry on the societal implications of astrobiology, the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
This inquiry will extend over two academic years from 2015 to 2017…
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.”
To put that another way, NASA made a million-dollar donation to a religious group so that it could study how the discovery of extraterrestrial life would impact Christianity.
Why was NASA funding any sort of dialogue about the intersection of science and religion?
That’s what the Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted to know in a letter sent to the organization:
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits any ‘sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity,'” FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to NASA officials. “Specifically, the government may not fund religious projects, as various courts have ruled over the years.”
Then there is the issue of use and misuse of scarce taxpayer dollars. The utilization of a significant amount of tax money to determine how theology — by definition a faith-based belief system — might respond to speculative future scientific discoveries is wasteful for two reasons.
First, religion deals in matters of faith, not fact, and faith-based arguments inevitably boil down to arguments that cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence. Second, history shows that religion does one of two things when presented with scientific discovery: denial or incorporation of the fact as “evidence” or “proof.”
There was still a year left in the grant and FFRF was asking NASA to refrain from throwing any more money toward the project. FFRF also pointed out that the John Templeton Foundation, known for funding projects that promote an overlap between religion and science much to the ire of many high-profile atheists, was co-sponsoring this project:
If the Templeton Foundation wishes to fund religious research, it can use its $3 billion to do so… the U.S. government may not.
Since that letter was sent, FFRF didn’t let up. They filed a FOIA request to learn more about NASA’s grant, and we now know more details about what NASA did with the cash.
With the NASA money, the Center of Theological Inquiry hired 11 theologians — 10 of them Christian — and only one actual scientist. That wouldn’t be problematic if they were doing secular work, but they weren’t. The work proposed for the grant included:
- formulating a “Christian response” to scientific studies on morality,
- developing a new model of biblical interpretation,
- relating themes from First Corinthians, a book in the Christian bible, to astrobiology,
- reconciling a potential astrobiology discovery with Christian theology,
- looking at how astrobiology would affect the Christian doctrine of redemption,
- examining Christian ethics and Christian doctrines of human obligation,
- looking at societal implications of astrobiology with “theological ethics”,
- and writing a monograph on Christian forgiveness.
It gets worse.
NASA Technical Officer Mary Voytek, who was managing the grant money, had a questionable business relationship with Center of Theological Inquiry Director William Storrar:
While administering the first grant but prior to approving the supplemental grant to the Center, Voytek participated in a panel at a 2015 Center of Theological Inquiry conference in the United Kingdom. Emails reveal that the Center arranged for Voytek’s travel to and from this event. In another email sent during the same period, Voytek talks about a 2014 invitation for a trip to Florida to meet the Center’s board members and thanks Storrar for his “thoughtful gifts.” The records do not reveal the nature of these “thoughtful gifts.”
It’s against federal law for Executive Branch employees to accept gifts from people who do business with their agencies.
“FFRF is saddened that an institution such as NASA whose work we have so admired over the years has wandered woefully astray from science,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “This grant raises a whole lot of questions that need to be immediately resolved.”
This was always a remarkable waste of money for an organization that’s already underfunded. It’s much harder to make that case that NASA needs a greater slice of our federal budget when it’s spending that money on something that wouldn’t advance our knowledge in any meaningful way. But to know that there’s even more shadiness beneath the facts we already knew makes this situation even more disturbing.
Seidel has sent another letter to Dr. Penelope Boston, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute informing her of FFRF’s findings and asking them to once again rescind CTI’s grant. FFRF has also “submitted yet another FOIA request to learn more about Voytek and Storrar’s relationship.”
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)