Did NASA Once Pander to the Religious?

Did NASA engage in a secret conspiracy to pander to religious people by making astronauts read from the Bible?  Jerry Coyne seems to think so.  He used something Dawkins heard in order to vindicate their fellow Gnu atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 

First, here is the video of O’Hair making her claim (what’s with the “Jews” argument toward the end?):

According to the Gnus, she has been vindicated because Dawkins posted the following:

Last year, at the splendid STARMUS conference in Tenerife that brought together astronauts and scientists, I had many agreeable conversations with Bill Anders, astronaut who famously read from the first Chapter of the book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Apollo 8 in 1968. Major General Anders, a gallant, intelligent and entertaining man, told me he has no respect for religion. He read the Bible in space only because he was told to by NASA.

Another Gnu activist, Mano Singham rushed forward to declare her vindication:

I have been hailing NASA’s achievement with respect to the Mars Curiosity landing. But while the scientific and engineering achievements of NASA are admirable, it is also an organization depending upon public support and thus not above pandering to what it perceives as public sentiment.  For example, when Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon in 1968, one of the astronauts started reading from the book of Genesis.

[…]

Times have changed. I doubt that NASA would insert religion into its work in such an obvious way now. In fact, Neil Armstrong’s first words on stepping foot on the Moon in 1969 (“That’s one small step…”) was also scripted (though he blew his lines) and had no reference to god, although it would have been a good place to insert one. So maybe after the 1968 mission, there was some kind of internal revolt by the astronauts at being forced to do such blatant religious pandering.

Gimme a break.  Let’s use some critical thinking, shall we?

 

First, if Anders told Dawkins that he read the Bible in space because he was told to by NASA, that does not establish the existence of any “Experiment-P1.”  Nor does it indicate NASA was pandering to religious people for their support.  Nor does it confirm any type of conspiracy.  Nor does it indicate anything was scripted by NASA two months earlier.  All we have is Anders, who is quite old now, remembering being “told to by NASA.”

The problem is that the other two astronauts remember it differently:

“We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice,” recalled Borman during 40th anniversary celebrations in 2008. “And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.”

“The first ten verses of Genesis is the foundation of many of the world’s religions, not just the Christian religion,” added Lovell. “There are more people in other religions than the Christian religion around the world, and so this would be appropriate to that and so that’s how it came to pass.”

There is an easy way to merge these different accounts without accusing anyone of lying.  NASA told the astronauts that on Christmas Eve they would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice and they should do something appropriate.  Lovell or Borman came up with the idea of reading from Genesis.  Anders objected and NASA sided with the others.

See?  No need to invoke some conspiracy of “Experiment P1.”  No need to invoke the specter of NASA forcing astronauts to read from the Bible for purposes of pandering.  A couple of team members came up with the idea and NASA then expected them all to work as a team.

Why do the Gnus automatically assume NASA would dictate to the astronauts like this?  And why does Singham raise such a laughable idea about some “internal revolt” in the moon landing mission?  Did you know that astronaut Buzz Aldrin took Communion on the moon and it’s quite clear it was his idea to do so?  So what is so hard about believing Borman and Lovell had previously come up with the idea of reading from the Bible on Christmas Eve?

Second, let’s assume NASA did order the astronauts to read from Genesis and Madalyn is part-way right.  Is this evidence of the government trying to pander to religious people because they wanted more funding?  No, not at all.  These genius gnus overlook the fact that the space missions were all part of the Cold War.  It’s nice to believe our reasons for going to the moon were rooted purely in scientific and intellectual curiosity.  But the cold reality is that it had much more to do military and political posturing in the Cold War.  As such, recall that it was reported that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, had previously said he did not see God in space after he returned to Earth.

According to Wikipedia:

 In a 2006 interview, Gagarin’s friend Colonel Valentin Petrov stated that the cosmonaut never said such words, and that the quote originated from Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU about the state’s anti-religion campaign, saying “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.”

Either way, this all gives us a whole different way to interpret that Genesis reading.  It was not some act of pandering.  It was another tiny expression of the Cold War, where the Americans returned propaganda fire and poked the Soviets in the eye by reading the Bible “to the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice.”  It’s called psychological warfare.

See?  No need to invoke the specter of NASA forcing astronauts to read from the Bible for purposes of pandering.

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7 Responses to Did NASA Once Pander to the Religious?

  1. Heh, I’ve never seen a video of O’Hare before. I think the bit about Jews at the end was just meant to point out that they don’t celebrate Christmas and they didn’t get a “Happy Hanukkah” blasted out to hundreds of millions of people from the friggin’ moon courtesy of several hundred billion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money, despite the fact that the astronauts were reading from the Old Testament, a Jewish book which, from the Jewish perspective, was rather bizarrely appropriated and misinterpreted by Christians. Maybe she brought this up since some of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit were Jews.

    I don’t think one needs to postulate some kind of massive conspiracy or anything, just a little bit of thoughtless cultural insensitivity from the then-virtually-dominant WASP class. Whether or not the Bible reading and Merry Christmas thing seems like a big deal (to e.g. Jews or atheists) could well depend a lot upon whether or not you are a member of that class and how sensitive vs. tolerant you are of the dominant culture fairly obliviously promoting its religious views. If an atheist, or a Jewish guy, went up in space on a rocket powered by a few billion dollars of NASA money and proceeded to broadcast to the whole planet that Jesus was a nice guy but sadly the New Testament was mythological bunk and Christmas is founded on a lie about a guy who actually died and stayed dead, I think you might find that emotions like O’Hare’s are not all that rare after all.

    It’s quite plausible that this was planned down to the second, though, just because orbital dynamics of NASA missions, and international broadcasts, are so planned. And probably the choice to orbit the moon on Christmas Eve was partially deliberate, even today NASA often plans landings etc. for holidays to get more viewers.

  2. Oops O’Hare –> O’Hair

  3. Michael says:

    First, they were trying to be culturally sensitive: ““The first ten verses of Genesis is the foundation of many of the world’s religions, not just the Christian religion,” added Lovell. “There are more people in other religions than the Christian religion around the world, and so this would be appropriate to that and so that’s how it came to pass.” BTW, you should bother yourself to listen to Aldrin’s broadcast of his taking communion. It will set your hair on fire.

    Secondly, that side issue is not the point I am addressing. I am addressing the kooky Gnu point that NASA had conspired to engage in “blatant religious pandering.”

    There is also another point we can derive from all this. It shows us that modern concerns about some Coming Theocracy are pure crackpottery.

  4. Apollyon says:

    Hard to say if this is a case of lying or simply misinterpreting the evidence due to preconceived notions.

    As to the bizarre comment about Jews at the end…It’s hardly offensive if Christians, who accept the book of Genesis, also wish everyone a ‘Merry Christmas’ (what percentage of the population was Christian?). Secondly, the comparison about “an atheist or a Jewish guy” stating “that Jesus was a nice guy but sadly the New Testament was mythological bunk and Christmas is founded on a lie about a guy who actually died and stayed dead…” is very different to reading a portion of Scripture that applies to both Christians and Jews. The equivalent would be if ‘a theist or Christian guy’ said “Jews are completely wrong, Jesus is the Messiah, deal with it”. Big difference.

    While Jews believe Christians have misinterpreted the Old Testament (as it is known to Christians), this does not mean they are being disrepectful by reading a sacred Text (to both). If a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness read the same passage, it would not be disrespectful to Christians (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) just because they believe Jesus and Satan are brothers (Mormons) or that Jesus is Michael the Archangel. Irrelevant.

    “There is also another point we can derive from all this. It shows us that modern concerns about some Coming Theocracy are pure crackpottery.”

    That part is always baffling. They tend to either ignore or dismiss the theocratic Muslim countries (and the theocratic goals of many Western Muslims) but believe in this imaginary threat from ‘Fundamentalist Christians’.

    Curiouser and curiouser…

  5. “While Jews believe Christians have misinterpreted the Old Testament (as it is known to Christians), this does not mean they are being disrepectful by reading a sacred Text (to both).”

    OK, so you’ve presented an argument about how it’s not disrespectful towards Jews because Genesis is part of their religious tradition also.*

    But what about those for whom Genesis is no part of their religious tradition? Was it disrespectful to them?

    Or is it a percentages thing? If your religious tradition has less than X percent of the population, you have no rights about being respected in this matter, unless you’re jewish, in which case we worry about whether or not you are respected despite your small percentage in the population?

    I’m just trying to figure out what the principles are that you guys are basing your judgments on here…

    * (ignoring for the moment the Merry Christmas part, which O’Hair argued christianized this event, and which if you are serious about what Christmas means, refers to the Messiah which the Jews and everybody else nonchristian don’t believe in).

  6. chunkdz says:

    Matzke, you do realize that nobody is bitterly outraged about reading the Bible in space except gnu atheist jackasses like yourself, right?

    Was there some incensed outcry from Zoroastrians that I’m not aware of?

  7. physphilmusic says:

    I have heard no cries of outrage from Muslims. I think that most Muslims think it natural that a Christian astronaut riding a spaceship funded by a Christian-dominated country would read a passage from the Bible, or take communion in space. Of course, if they ever get to do the same thing (launch their own spaceship), it would be impermissible to deny them the right to read the Koran and perhaps even pray towards Mecca in space.

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