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.