In 2014, NASA gave $1.1 million to the Center of Theological Inquiry, an independent institution “rooted in Christian theology.” The grant supports an initiative to study “the societal implications of astrobiology.”
Surprisingly, it took more than a year for anyone to complain.
The potential issue here is obvious: NASA is a government agency. The Center of Theological Inquiry is, well, a center of theological inquiry—an institution that seemingly has a religious, and specifically Christian, orientation. At least in theory, the government is barred from sponsoring religious activities. And doing theology about extraterrestrials does sound kind of religion-y.
Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked NASA to withdraw the grant. In an interview with RD, the Foundation’s staff attorney, Andrew Seidel, suggested that they might sue.
Seidel probably doesn’t have a viable case. But the relationship between NASA and CTI poses a fascinating set of questions, with implications that go beyond a single grant: what is the place of theology in the public sphere? Is theology inherently religious? When should scientific inquiry overlap with religious thinking? And why does NASA care about the societal implications of astrobiology, anyway?
Not just Roswell
Let’s get a key term straight here: astrobiology involves studying the origins, conditions, and scope of life in the universe. It does not involve little green men, and, to the best of my knowledge, it has nothing to do with Roswell. NASA has an entire Astrobiology Program—they’re the ones who awarded CTI the grant—that does things like study the origins of life on earth, look at extremophiles, and analyze samples brought back from space.
These kinds of questions can sound abstract, but they’re part of basic research—scientific work that addresses foundational questions, but that doesn’t have immediate or obvious applications. Funding for basic research can occasionally upset Congressional Republicans or generate catchy headlines for Fox News, but it’s an important part of science, and it can yield huge breakthroughs.
In the case of astrobiology, all these Big Questions can pull scientists into a speculative-philosophical space that sounds like the domain of the humanities or even, yes, theology. What, exactly, is life? What does it mean to be alive? Where do we draw the line between the human and the alien? What are the possibilities for sentient life in other places? How would we relate to that alien sentience, if it turned up tomorrow? How would that discovery change humanity’s sense of our place in the universe?
In general, there are two ways to slice up astrobiology-and-society questions. Some are consequence-oriented: what would happen to politics/society/the economy/religion/etc. if NASA announced that it had made contact with an alien civilization, or at least had found some fossilized microbes on Mars? Other question are theory-oriented: how does the possibility of extraterrestrial life force people to think differently about sentience, human worth, the importance of Earth, or God?
NASA seems to think these are serious concerns. “Astrobiology is expected to play a large part in future politics, economic life, and the human self-understanding provided by various disciplines including, but not limited to: theology, philosophy, and the arts,” NASA explained, somewhat cryptically, in a statement to RD. (The agency did not make any officials available for interview, and Mary Voytek, who runs the Astrobiology Program, did not respond to an interview request).
Since 1998, part of the Astrobiology Program’s role has been to address the societal implications of the field, mostly through a series of initiatives at the Library of Congress (although there’s also an astrobiology-themed, NASA-funded student debate competition. Most recent topic: “Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law.”) The Library has a Chair in Astrobiology and hosts dialogues about astrobiology-and-society issues.
Robin Lovin, a prominent Methodist theologian and a senior research fellow at CTI, had been involved in some of the Library of Congress dialogues. At some point, NASA approached the CTI about applying for a grant to host an initiative studying astrobiology and society.
In the fall of 2014, NASA awarded CTI $1.1 million to start a two year-long Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology. That grant was followed by a $1.7 million donation from the John Templeton Foundation. “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,” CTI director William Storrar said in announcing the NASA grant that May.
CTI works on a distinctive model: each year, it invites a cohort of scholars to spend a year at the Center, which is located in Princeton, N.J. While there, they pursue independent research projects and hold discussions around a common theme. For the astrobiology inquiry, scholars were invited to apply if they were “open to new ways of thinking” on questions like “If there are many different forms of life…how would philosophy relate these diverse forms life to one another and establish the limits of what it means to be ‘alive’?” or “How might the world’s religions respond to the discovery of life on other planets?”
CTI is taking two cohorts of scholars for the astrobiology program—one group is just wrapping up its year; another will be in residence from 2016-2017. The majority of the scholars are Christian theologians, but there are exceptions. For example, Susan Schneider, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, is working on a project about superintelligence and the human mind.
“‘What is life?’ is both a physical and a metaphysical question. So is ‘What is the disribution and future of life?’” said NASA-funded biologist Frank Rosenzweig in an email. Rosenzweig, a professor at Georgia Tech who is part of CTI’s incoming cohort, said his job will be “to keep science front and center in all our discussions” while he works on a few scientific projects and oversees his lab.
Lovin emphasized that the scholars will focus on “the way the science relates to society, the humanities, and religious questions.” Lovin emphasized that the inquiry was more concerned with questions of science and society than with specifically religious concerns. “What we want to encourage is the kind of thinking in theology that sees the political or the social or the natural order as whole,” Lovin said.
I asked Lovin why it was worth dealing with such abstract questions. “When we think about the long-term human future, we have to ask how we’re going to organize ourselves as a society,” he said. “This seems to me to be an imperative for the future at a time in history when we as a species have an enormous impact on what the future of life on the planet is going to be.”
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