Religion, space, and the power of cultural connections

That's a picture of an Orthodox Christian priest, blessing the launch of a Soyuz spacecraft.

It seems like a weird and outdated pairing: Religion and space exploration. But they're actually a lot more intertwined than you might think, writes Rebecca Rosen at the Atlantic. A lot of astronauts are religious. A lot of astronauts that aren't really religious seem to have an urge to carry the cultural traditions of religion into space. And religion returns the favor. For instance, The Book of Common Prayer now includes an astronaut option in its prayer for travelers: "For those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord."

I'm sorry. I'm an atheist and that just kind of gave me the shivvers. Basically, being out in space, so far from your fellow humans and in such an alien environment, makes for a really good example of the way religion (and ritual) can serve as a tie binding us to the rest of humanity. For some people, it's a connection to a bigger sense of history. And when they look the future (and/or the vast emptiness of space) full in the face, they need that connection to humanity. It doesn't work for everybody. But the relationship between religion and space travel is a good place to start when you want to have a conversation about the fact that there really don't have to be conflicts between religion and science. (Really, people. For serious.)

Here's the scene: It's Christmas Eve, 1968. The spaceship with three men on board had hurtled toward the moon for three days, and they have now finally entered the moon's orbit, a move requiring a maneuver so dicey that just a tiny mistake could have sent the men off into an unwieldy elliptical orbit or crashing to the moon's surface. But all went smoothly, and they are orbiting the moon. On their fourth pass (of 10), astronaut William Anders snaps the famous Earthrise shot that will appear in Life magazine. On their ninth orbit, they begin a broadcast down to Earth. Astronaut Frank Borman introduces the men of the mission, and, then, this:

"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said, 'Let there be light," Borman read.

Read the rest of the article at The Atlantic

I can't remember who sent this story to me. If it's you, let me know, and I will credit you here!


  1. As a full fledged christian I can personally say that I love science, and im not alone, its been my experience that other christians pursue science almost as a form of worship, we believe in a God that created everything in existence and we love to learn about how it all works

      1. of course, honestly though, i think alot of the ‘christians/ other people of faith hate science and cover their ears screaming’ stereotype is due mostly  to the vocal minority ruining it for the rest of us

        im not ignorant to the way those people act, ive been just as frustrated by them as anyone, and they have their counterparts on the other side that are equally frustrating

        1. “vocal minority ruining it for the rest of us”

          While it can be applied to more than religion, i wonder how much the built in drive for conversion makes certain religions especially obnoxious regarding this. What is also interesting is that they are about the only religions that are not linked to a specific people/region.

      2. I would assert that very few Christians oppose science. Most Christians I know and most doctrines of traditional Christian faith actually embrace scientific method as beautiful, natural and necessary.

        1. Sampling bias matters a lot here. I grew up in a lot of Christian communities that didn’t really feel that way. I think it’s unreasonable to say that all Christians are anti-science. And I’m glad pro-science Christians exist. But based on my experience, it’s also unreasonable to downplay the numbers of American Christians that do see lots of conflicts between science and religion and tend to dismiss science. 

          1. I agree. Conflict however is not the end of open discussion. What good is a belief if you don’t absolutely believe it? What good is calling a God ‘living’ if there’s no possibility for change? Clearly, even religious revelation changes over time. The assertions of science are only as good as the current collected data, I believe the same is true of religion, however, religion moves much more slowly than science and we’ve been culturally conditioned to like faster things.

      1.  and/or that faith is fully inconsistent with a proper scientific method.  (“ok that data-point was ineffable, but this one is uh… quite effable, selah.”)  There are, of course, vast impressive philosophical tracts on how the two can be made to co-exist, but i’ve yet to see any supporting data for faith-based science.   yes yes… “but famous scientist-X believed in god” …’proof by association’

        1. i agree with you

          science should let faith be faithand faith should let science be science

          humanity would be better served by not trying to mix them, science can be a powerful thing to a person of faith just as much as faith can be a powerful thing to a person of science but that doesn’t mean that they should be mixed together

          we all just need to accept that for a pretty good chunk of the population religion and curiosity for cold hard physical facts are both parts of the human experience

          1.  hear-hear!  they’re entirely orthogonal, as the math geeks would say.   no prayer in the labs, no pipettes on the altar.

      2. there is a reason its called ‘faith’ it doesn’t have to provable and it can even be disprovable and people still believe it

        i think science could get alot farther with people of faith by discarding the ‘our science disproves your faith’ tactic

          1. i cant speak for anyone but myself but i can personally say that its almost a dare for me to learn what scientist discover and theorize and see if it shakes my faith, after 31 years of learning i still have my faith

            i don’t see faith as a ‘caveat’ telling me to stop learning or ignore science, i see it as something i have to deal with and examine on a personal level 

          2. You don’t need to be a musician, a sound technician, or be able to write a dissertation on sound wave behavior to appreciate music. I might be curious about it though. Just because I love and may even talk about the way it stirs my soul doesn’t mean I can’t be curious about it technically.

          3.  Right.  If you insist on believing that which you know is disproven, you’ve turned your back on science.

        1. Problem is: There are multitudes of faiths, most of them contradicting each other and even explicitly calling the others wrong, if not evil.

          So it’s a waste of time to try to disprove them anyway – they are a moving target. 

          1. What, there are a lot of competing scientific theories, many of them contradicting each other and explicitly calling the others wrong, and ergo, all scientific theories are wrong?   Is that the gist of your argument?

            I’ll grant you the evil part.

          2.  the traditional epistemology applies, we tend to seek proof over disproof  (and “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof” yadda yadda).  because disproving every blatant assertion can waste way too much time; or so my  ancient-psychic-tandem-war-elephant i keep in my backyard assures me …which you must now devote your career to disprove the existence of.

          3.  “@tristan competing scientific theories do not work like that”

            Yes, competing scientific theories and religious worldviews operate in a completely different fashion, but that isn’t really the point.  I still think your argument is weak because: there are many different competing scientific theories regarding the precise origins of life, many of which are more divergent from one another than the basic ideas espoused by the monotheistic religions.  But this fact in itself tells me nothing about scientific theories regarding the origin of life in general, or individually; scientific theories regarding the origin of life are not invalidated by the presence of many competing variations; how then, are religious ideas invalidated by the presence of many competing variations?

          4. @TristanEldtritch:disqus It’s perfectly possible to follow and hold true to two competing scientific theories at the same time. People usually invest their time and, admittedly, their emotional attachment to only one at a given time, but it is perfectly possible to do so. 
            They are, after all, just a set of rules to explain observable phenomena.

            The same is not true for religion. It is not possible to adhere to the Nicene creed and the Muslim proclamation of faith at the same time, for example.  

            It’s not possible to belief that human live begins at conception  or that human live begins at both at the same time.

    1. Same here. I graduated from a conservative Bible college in the midwest and am a member of an Evangelical church – and Astronomy Picture of the Day is one of the websites I HAVE to visit daily. It was my dad who fostered my love of science: astronomy, geology, engineering, you name it. He’s a church elder.

      “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies above proclaim his handiwork.” Psalm 19:1 (ESV)

      Scientific study is, to me, a magnificent form of worship.

      1.  How does your dad feel about paleontology, biology, genetics, and evolution?  I’ve never understood how the religious justify picking and choosing when it comes to the scientific method.  Does he talk about these things with other church elders?  How do they react?

        1.  He believes (and I believe) that saying that paleontology, etc is contrary to Scripture is a misunderstanding of both subjects. Science is concerned with how things work. Religion is concerned with why. How we came to be – the mechanics of it – does not tell us why we’re here, and vice versa. If we evolved, if our biology changes naturally over time, that doesn’t mean there is no God, no afterlife, etc. It just means that Genesis Chapters 1-3 is yet another spot where the author was vague about time. (Pretty common for Jewish writers, it seems – Judges is completely out of order.)

          Conversely, if we’re talking about a divine being with the intelligence and power to manifest the entire universe – our own mind-bogglingly vast and complex universe – out of nothing, and who exists independent of time and space, who invented the physical laws that govern our universe, I don’t think anything would really prevent him/her/it from creating a universe that is exactly as it would be if it *were* billions of years old. And I’m not sure we could tell the difference.

          My dad’s not the only science geek on the elder board. My church is pretty geek-friendly and science friendly, and these things are discussed without hysterics. (Most of the time.)

          1. Can’t follow that.  Science is concerned with how things work and why things work that way.  We don’t just observe and record data, we also search to define the underlying laws of physics that create those data points.  That is the “why” of science.  Why do we have an appendix?  Why is the sky blue?  Why do some spiders eat their mates?

            Religion seems more concerned with why things happen the way they don’t.  Why does the sun revolve around the Earth?  Why did God put fake fossils in stone?

            The mechanics of how we came to be tells us exactly why we’re here.  We’re here because we got lucky.  Among all the other physical, chemical, biological, and evolutionary throws of the dice, we’re one of the few that didn’t fail, yet.  If that leaves you wanting a better explanation, why don’t you ask the same thing of every customer who leaves a casino richer than they arrived.  Most lose; a few win.  It’s just chance.

  2. I think it is more likely that religious people are picked to be astronauts because that is valued by the the people making the hiring decisions.

    1. And the reason THOSE people get picked is because religiousity is valued by the people voting for them. 

    2. I’m pretty sure the information process behind this comment is “I saw the movie Contact seven times, and thought Jodie Foster got a raw deal. Therefore the religious run the world. ” 

  3. I’m concerned by this. You’re correct in one sense that religion and science don’t have to collide, but in another, very important sense, they do. The problem is, for example, when a majority of Americans believe in creationism, which is clearly contradicted by science. There is also clearly one right answer. If we can move past these sorts of contradictions, where we can convince the general public and explain to them why it’s a contradiction and why they should believe the scientific answer… then I’d be fine with society wanting to believe whatever it wants otherwise.

    1. But those Americans don’t have to believe in creationism. They choose to, probably mostly for reasons of social politics. But there’s nothing in religion-in-general that compels that particular belief. Plenty of religious people aren’t creationists. 

      1. In the 1920s through 70s, most Americans managed to believe in both religion and science without any conflict. Creationism outside of the Bible Belt is a recent phenomenon.

    2. So, here’s the thing with Creationism. That can mean a lot of stuff. It can mean an absolute conflict where only religion or science can be right … or it can mean a fuzzier “prime mover” kind of thing where evolution and scientific cosmology are (to some people) expressions of HOW their deity created the world. 

      The former is a problem. The latter is just fine. I’m talking about the latter. 

      1. I would say the latter conflict has been solved by the The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    3. There is only “one right answer” if you make the question multiple choice.  Thank God, there is room for many right answers, and many wrong but interesting ones, and we aren’t all required to be raving fundamentalists…  of either kind.

    4. How deeply have you dug into the polling data re: creationism? Have you read the actual polling questions? How was “creationism” described? Have you parsed the results? How was the poll conducted? Who conducted the poll? Who did they call, when did they call, how many people did they call? Did they even call at all, or was the poll conducted via clipboards and in-person interviews? Was the poll conducted outside of a church at 1:00PM on a Sunday? Or randomly on the streets of New York? Or Salt Lake City? Have you accounted for bias, errors in the gathering of the data, and so forth? Is there more than one poll? Or is there a specific result upon which you base your belief in that result?

      In other words: have you directly evaluated the quality of the evidence which girds your assertion of the fact that “a majority of Americans believe in creationism?”

      Or do you just have it on good authority?

    5.  “There is also clearly one right answer.”

      If the only two possible “right answers” are (a) God did it all six thousand years ago or (b) the whole universe is the result of blind chance, sorry, I’m not playing that game.

  4. “Hi guys, the fantastically complex technological artefact behind me has contributed more to the elevation of man than I ever have. However, I still get to stand in the foreground and hog the mic, so take that, ‘rocket scientists’!”

    1. “Hi guys, the incredibly complex philosophical and spiritual breadth of knowledge created and preserved by religious systems through the historical length of society is something I never bothered to learn or understand. However, I still get to comment here and dismiss thousands of years of learning and writing with a single sentence, so take that!”

      1. You are confusing breadth and erudition for knowledge.

        Religious systems have, admittedly, been very good at absorbing the smartest available people on churning out enormous volumes of ‘sacred’ texts, commentaries, annotations, meditations, disputations, systems of metaphysics, theodocies, and whatnot. This material can be great fun(though the more mediocre scholastics earned all the mockery they received, and then some, talk about dry…) and some of it even rises to the level of poetry or literature.

        However, there’s a problem: the overwhelming majority of this ‘incredibly complex philosophical and spiritual breadth of knowledge’ is just an onanistic chewing and re-chewing of inherited axiomatic cud. Some of the chewers are incredibly clever within the confines of their sterile skeins of syllogism. Others aren’t. That just isnt’ enough to change the fact that what they are spinning has so little substance.

        It would certainly be more convenient if I were merely ignorant of this ‘knowledge’. No such luck. I’m hardly world class; but I’m familiar with a decent chunk, and I am, however fond of it as literature and recreation, of the opinion that there just isn’t much ‘there’ there. ‘A’ for effort, not so much for results. 

        Even if I were feeling charitable about the value of religious knowledge, it would still strike me as pretty weird for him to standing at the mic at a rocket launch. Why not invite an entomologist, or a mime, or a philologist? Those are all perfectly legitimate fields; but wouldn’t make much sense at a launch.

          1. Never trust somebody who professionally leads haemophagic rituals designed to achieve eternal life to keep vampires away(unless you appeal to his instincts of territorial competition…)

        1. just an onanistic chewing and re-chewing of inherited axiomatic cud

          This is the problem with this kind of lack of knowledge. The only thing possible for you to make are statements that are so wrong that they are simply unfathomable. Also the sentence above: yikes. Also like “sterile skeins of syllogism”. yikes man. Yikes.

          It’s difficult to measure the effect that religion has had on the Western world considering that theological thought and education was basically the vehicle that preserved ancient greek philosophy, that absorbed and developed the perfect beauty of logic, that transmitted it through the middle ages, that transmuted it in the renaissance. If you like logic, you basically have religion to thank for its creation and existence. Thinking and writing about religion, the endless debate over thousands of years, has shaped every facet of our culture, our art and even formed the basis for empirical science.

          So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t actually believe that you know “a good chunk” of 2500 years of thought and art, and maybe only know a cursory amount, enough to basically arm yourself with a few tidbits to be used as weapons.

      2. Hi guys.  We’re the thought-police who put Galileo under house arrest because he was undermining our scam.  Trust us!

        1. Great Schism: 1054. Galileo sentenced to house arrest: 1633.
          Not all churches are Catholic…

          1. …but the RCC and the ROC are branches of the same religion.  Red Team or Blue Team, they all play the same game come the weekend.  I believe the ROC favored burning uncooperatives at the stake. 

  5. This is disturbing. Space isn’t that special. Being on a sailing vessel two centuries ago would be far more disconnected from the rest of humanity than astronauts orbiting the Moon. Not surprisingly, sailors were extremely superstitious and saw omens in everything. Unfortunately astronauts appear to following that same superstitious tradition, peeing on the tire before launch or whatever.

    1.  All well and good – but what exactly makes it disturbing? Is it any more harmful than lucky underwear?

      1. It is disturbing that highly educated astronauts turn to superstition. It is understandable why uneducated sailors hundreds of years ago would do that. Why intelligent people today would do that is disturbing.

        1.  I think it’s  a faith in a higher power – not a superstition. I believe there is a difference. Believing in god doesnt make you a nut job fundamentalist.

          1. I understand that it doesn’t. But it puts you further on that spectrum than if you use reason.

          2.  I understand that in terms of consequences, there’s a gulf of difference between simple belief in god and being a nut-job fundamentalist. However, I still can’t see any qualitative difference between one set of beliefs without evidence and another set. The fact that one leads to bombing infidels and the other to afternoon tea with the vicar is a testament to the malleability of human nature, not the validity of the beliefs.

          3. Heng, what if one system of beliefs leads to creation of the big bang theory, or the pioneering of genetics?

        2. Actually, I think it’s pretty reflexively human. 

          I don’t believe there’s a god. (Or, that, if there is, it’s unlikely to be the sort of personal god that cares whether I believe in it.) I like to think I am, generally, a pretty rational person. But magical thinking happens. Our brains are wired to go that way, we’re wired to find patterns where patterns don’t exist and then obsess about the patterns we think we found. 

          Basically, I don’t think it’s disturbing. I think it’s neurobiology. And I know plenty of people who can recognize that fact even as they also recognize that wearing their “lucky” socks makes them feel better. 

          Part of being a humanist, to me, means accepting that humans aren’t instinctively Spock-like. Instead, we’re pretty contradictory creatures and as long as that’s not hurting anybody else or holding back progress, I don’t care. Hell, I’ll celebrate it because culture is cool, too. And culture is also part of what makes us human. 

          1. Yes, faith is human. The fact that it has developed in so many diverse cultures and circumstances validates that. Faith is something that was needed by early humans to survive. I don’t doubt that. And faith has been absorbed and become part of our culture. In some cases it has been a benefit. In many others it has greatly hurt society. Overall, I would judge the effect as positive for early humans and greatly negative for people today.

            Faith isn’t reason. It is in opposition to reason. For example, people oppose the teaching of evolution because of faith. People perform male genital mutilation of their children because of faith. People do many, many horrible things due to faith. And while many people claim they do good things due to faith, it is more likely it is purely due to compassion (something we are also inherently receptive to). Faith has served its purpose in our history and is no longer needed. The fact that humans are naturally receptive to it is understandable, but reasonable people need to reject it. Astronauts should be reasonable people.

          2. You just seem to want to make everyone in the world be you. It’s not going to happen.

          3.  @bzishiI am  sure if we looked around we would find some irrational fear or belief that you hold.  Unless you’re a robot or a Vulcan, you’re not much different than an astronauts who believe in a god – and I assume no less reasonable.

          4. @Mister44:disqus  I agree. I have many irrational fears and beliefs. I know, for example, that I am about 100,000 times larger (or more) than most spiders. But my mind says I’ll die if they even touch me. I have experienced psychosis before (I felt my friend was going to murder me). And I suffer from OCD (I will drive back and forth across town to check that my garage door is shut) as well as other mental disorders.

            Many of my fears and beliefs are due to mental illness. And I have had to confront them and challenge my beliefs. The way that I see myself and the world is not the same as what most people do. I would hope that others in a more sane mental state could do so with greater ease.

        3. Your sentence structure indicates two things. 1) You know why “highly educated/intelligent people” turn to “superstition,” and are disturbed by that; and 2) that you’re using the word “superstition” as a substitute for “stupid.” Which means you’ve characterized what the “highly educated/intelligent astronauts” are doing as “stupid.”

          So, first: do you actually know why “highly educated/intelligent people” turn to what you call “superstition?” If you don’t, why are you disturbed by it? If you do…well, why do they do so, and why is that disturbing?

          And, second: perhaps you could a) reexamine your conception of “highly educated/intelligent;” b) reexamine your conception of “superstition;” or c) reexamine your conception of what the “highly educated/intelligent” astronauts are actually thinking.

      1. It isn’t that special as far as the superstitious feeling that the ape-mind gets when it is out in the middle of nowhere. If you’ve ever been on a ship in the middle of the ocean you will also feel superstitious. The enormity of the ocean and the unsettling feeling of being beyond any help if something goes wrong are frightening and overwhelming. These feelings, however, do not justify ignoring reason and turning to superstition to try to calm your mind.

        1. Faith is trust in the unknown and, for now, the unknowable. Mythology is a fictional story that speaks of otherwise unknowable truth. Superstition is a cultural or personal way of dealing with fear via thought and ritual. These three things are different from each other. Faith is not superstition.

          1. Faith is superstition. Superstition is the belief that a supernatural force is acting on the natural world. This is what faith is based on.

            Trust in the unknown or unknowable isn’t faith. A mathematical axiom meets that definition just as well. But axioms don’t require magic–faith does.

        2. These feelings, however, do not justify ignoring reason and turning to superstition to try to calm your mind.

          ‘Justify’?  When did it become necessary for everyone to ‘justify’ themselves to you for their beliefs?

          1. It has nothing to do with people justifying their beliefs to me and you know that. It has to do with justifying to yourself of the rational vs. the irrational.

        3. You make the mistake of thinking you are a rational being. You are not. You are an emotional being with a capacity for rational thought.

          Ignore the non-rational nature of your inner world at your peril.

          1. @boingboing-7eb3c8be3d411e8ebfab08eba5f49632:disqus  Our subjective experience is constructed emotionally and rationalised after the fact. Objectively this can be understood rationally, but for many of us the language of symbolism and mysticism is the most satisfying way to resolve the paradox of being.

  6. I bought a cat toy where the cats have to dig the kibble out of little towers. At first the cats could not figure out how to get the kibble they knew was there – they could smell it. Eventually, as we sat there and watched, they figured out first where the food was and then how to reach inside and pull it out. (Turns out scratching at the base of the tube is a no-go.)

    My wife and I had an immense amount of fun just watching them use their little kitty brains to solve the problems of their day.

    I imagine God watches mankind in the same way. And just like how Man doesn’t think he needs God because we’ve figured out how to get to the moon, invented the internet and discovered the Higgs Bosun(ish) particle – it seems that my cats no longer worship me in the same way they never did.

    1. Hail to thee, Cat God!

      But wait!  Wouldn’t that mean you’re worshiping some astral schmuck who is the analog of you and your wife and your cat-toy tricks?  Yikes, that must be kind of embarrassing!

      1. It would be, perhaps, if I didn’t worship the same way my cats don’t. 

        …or something.

  7. That part of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer has been in there since 1979. Whenever I led the Prayers of the People, I’d add that part in (the brackets make it optional).

    My favorite Eucharistic Prayer is C, which includes the line:
    “At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”

    Some people don’t like C, and refer to it as “The Star Trek Prayer”.  I’m quite okay with that.

    (p.s. the current elected leader of the Episcopal church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, has a Ph.D. in oceanography and did her research on cephalopods.)

    1.  Cephalopods!  Why that explains everything!  XD

      Also, I would pay good money to hear grumpy old Episcopalians complain about the Star Trek Prayer.

    2.  This is related. I take no joy in it–I dig John Shelby Spong a bunch–but the numbers indicate that the Episcopal Church is in serious decline. That’s a shame, in my opinion.

  8. Please, that priest looks like he’s about to rip off that robe and start playing some monster metal riffs!

    1. My understanding is that that is not a real quote. I’ve read a couple of memoirs from cosmonauts who knew Gagarin and heard his broadcasts back from space. They say he never said that, and that was just propaganda. 

      It doesn’t really matter. Some astronauts don’t believe in god, and some do. But the quote is probably spurious and I thought you should know that. 

  9. you want to have a conversation about the fact that there really don’t have to be conflicts between religion and science.

    kind of translates to:

    there doesn’t have to be anger, fear, and hatred when rational and irrational people interact.

    I’m afraid I don’t share this optimism. Only rational people are going to “get it.”  Once you have irrationality, you’re always going to have anger, fear, and hatred among the irrational people whose tenets are challenged. It’s hard enough among the rational, who can at least agree on what they disagree.

      1.  Heck no!  I may start selling them as souvenirs!   Go ahead, try and prove I didn’t sell you a bag of them.

        1. Sure I can: I don’t see any.

          But, to be fair, I must build a massive machine to confirm that I don’t see any. Which means I have to move, because the HOA was all “No frickin’ way, dude, we learned our lesson with the Hendersons’ tokamak.”

          But after that, yeah.

  10. Re: there really don’t have to be conflicts between religion and science. (Really, people. For serious.)

    Love your articles. Including this one. But, on this point you are wrong.

    Religion: based on faith. You just gotta believe.

    Science: based on skepticism. Okay, not really. But the contrast with “faith” made me say it ;-> Science is based on observation, which is even more powerful than skepticism.

    Science and religion are by their very natures in conflict.

    1. Thanks, I wanted to say exactly this.  Science and religion are absolutely in conflict at their very foundations! Religion is all about received knowledge; the truth is given to you from religious authority and you must believe it . Science is all about questioning and discovery; you begin with the search for knowledge and continually test reality to discover what is actually true.

      They could not be more opposed. Anyone who suggests otherwise is an accommodationist or just doesn’t understand the basis of science. Of course, I know Maggie does understand science, so I am disappointed.   

    2. “Science and religion are by their very natures in conflict.”

      Or else Science and religion are by their very natures complementary.

    1.  And if the guys on Apollo 13 said “Jesus Christ!  What the hell was that bang?”, would that mean they believed in the Christian trinity and eternal damnation?  God only knows…

  11. Unfortunately, Ramon was killed during the space shuttle Columbia’s re-entry, so we don’t have his post-mission reflections on what that experience was like.

    Haha, so THAT’S why I should be sad about his death, eh?

  12. There’s a lot of human experience that is beyond explainaton, but not necessarily beyond articulation. This is what art, music, religion and poetry are for, to express the otherwise inexpressible. If its currently unquantifiable, those who believe in science as the be all end all of knowledge and experience have faith that someday science will be able to quantify it.

    1.  There’s a lot of the human experience that used to be beyond explanation, but is now explainable.  Learn from past mistakes; don’t assume the boundaries of knowledge will never expand beyond their present location.

  13. Sad. Our country is on the fast-track to become a theocracy supported by a broken system of corporate communism and we’re still arguing whether science and religion is compatible? Religion was never about the betterment of mankind but control. Space, science, and reason threatens that control.   

    1. Actually, from what I learned while getting anthropology B.A., religion is just a human cultural institution. It’s been used for control. So have our other institutions (though, perhaps, few do it as effectively as family and religion…patriotism works pretty well, too, though). 

      But religion has also been used for practical, rationally good things: Such as, for instance, providing an impetus to expand our circle of empathy beyond the people we were related to or the people in our tribe. 

      Anyway, short story: Religion, it’s got some big fucking problems. But to say “it never did anything good” or that “it is always bad” is pretty ridiculous. 

      1. I’m no theologian, but I absolutely agree, as a Christian, that religion is a human cultural development. That’s not the issue for believing Christians; of course it’s a human institution, but in response to what? The key question is, is it inspired by God or not. Supposing it is, it’s unsurprising that even inspired revelation and religious practices would be used to assume power and become corrupt in many instances. Of course it will, that’s just human nature.

        1. Sean, I think you’re misunderstanding the comment I was replying to. This wasn’t about what Christians think. It’s about what some non-religion people think of religion. 

      2. “…for instance, providing an impetus to expand our circle of empathy beyond the people we were related to or the people in our tribe.”
        I’m trying to count the religions that haven’t been used as a reason to kill those beyond our relations or our tribe.  I haven’t run out of fingers on the first hand.

        1. Did you not read my post? Religion is used for shitty things. It’s also been used for good things. So telling me that it’s been used for shitty things doesn’t do anything to prove me wrong. 

          1.  He might not had set out to prove you wrong. 
            Diogenes pointed out that the imbalance between the Good and the Bad, achieved by religion, is blatant. 

          2. Ipo hit it.  It’s all about balance.  The Mafia sometimes helped protect their neighborhoods from petty crime.  It didn’t outweigh their immoral acts and organized criminal enterprises.  Religion has done some good, but compared to the suffering it has caused, the good pales.

  14. It’s particularly appropriate for that article to feature a Russian Orthodox priest. Religious belief was heavily persecuted by the Soviet government, and Russia’s been undergoing a religious revival since the fall of communism. Your average western observer would assume this would lead to some kind of anti-science backlash, but that’s not really the case. Russian culture still places a lot of value on the hard sciences, and Orthodox theology isn’t really going to raise questions about the Big Bang or evolution. 

     I’m involved with the very small Russian Orthodox community in the US, and its quite amusing to visit parishes near large research universities and see how they’re supported in large part by donations from PhD/scientist parishioners. A US-based Russian Orthodox priest (later bishop) worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

    1. No, Russian Orthodoxy doesn’t have the crazy literalist, anti-science bent that fundamentalist protestants in the US have. 

      But the Russian Orthodox church has an unhealthy closeness to the Putin regime.  Both institutions aid the other.  Currently Russian Orthodox is recognized as the preeminent religion.  Catholics, Jesuits, and others have severe restrictions.

      Russia would be a paradise for US fundamentalists (uh, if they practiced Russian Orthodoxy) in terms of the preferences afforded the majoritarian religion.

    1. Well, you know which direction points toward Earth, right?  That’s close enough, I should think.

      1. It should be easier. I mean, you just look out the window. How hard is it to find the Arabian Peninsula from up there?

    2.  Hahaha. I’ve actually been wondering that myself, since I was a child. And also, what happens on other planets?

  15. There’s reality.

    And then there’s the human perceptive meatsuit, which is ensconced within reality.

    If you believe that the human perceptive meatsuit is in fact capable of receiving and processing every last bit of information from reality and can derive absolute truth from that, fantastic!

    Enjoy yourself.

        1. Godel was definitely not ALL about math.  Many are not aware of his other unfinished proof, using modal logic to prove that God exists given the existence of big booty white girls.  (sounds a bit racist I know, but dude grew up in eastern Europe, that’s what he had access to.)

    1. “The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste.”

      -Stephen Hawking

      Distort the perception as much as you want, but it will never mean that our observation of the universe and it’s contents are not true.

      1. Goldfish won’t be able to form theories about what goes on at the 7-11 a mile up the street, not with any certainty. In fact, they won’t be able to form theories about what goes in in the kitchen (provided, of course, that the bowl is in the living room).

        1.  it can if it manages to ignore the goldfish that maintain the theory that all life exists inside the fish bowl and began three weeks ago, build itself a rudimentary vehicle out of a plastic bag and ventures to the world beyond.

          Shame our fishbowl keeps cutting the plastic bag funds.

      1. Ta-da! There you go. Science and flaky crunchiness existing in harmony. We should start a conference. We’ll invite Reggie Watts.

      1. Because I’m it. If there wasn’t I wouldn’t.

        You’re free to go about attempting to convince me of you, but I’m all right over here, thanks.


  16. There are lots of conflicts that science and religion can avoid, but the one that keeps popping up, the one everyone really cares about, the epistemic conflict, can’t be.  Like Feynman said “Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves.”  Religion – again, speaking epistemically here – is all about fooling oneself.

  17. I gave up on the article as soon as I got to

    “It’s hard to imagine atheists in foxholes”

    I know that reading any more past that point will just be a waste of my time.

    1. Yeah, that was dumb. The rest of the article was good, though. I find that if I give up reading things because one sentence is stupid, then I often miss larger points that are worth thinking about. 

      1. So what else should I get from the article, beyond a lower opinion of the intellectual abilities of some astronauts, Atlantic journalists and people in general?

        1. You might get the idea that since there are people who you would otherwise have respected who aren’t atheists, that perhaps your idea that anybody who isn’t an atheist is your intellectual inferior is a flawed notion that bears reexamination.

          1. “Ding!” says this atheist. 

            Look, I fully believe the some people use “but it’s my beliefs” as an attempt to condone severe bullshit that harms other people and makes life on this planet worse.

            But that doesn’t describe all religion or all religious people. And, at a certain point, if your beliefs make you act better towards your fellow man and if they help you get through the messiness that is life and if they don’t force you to infringe on my rights … I DO NOT CARE. I’m not going to give them special authority or say that they’re better people because they believe in stuff that I don’t see any reason why you’d think it exists. 

            But I also don’t feel the need to write them off or scream at them about how stupid they are or discount any value that they provide to society. And I think (in general, for everybody) it’s valuable to know that people you respect don’t think exactly the same way you do. That’s how we learn to get along in this life. 

            Seriously, you guys. You guys, seriously. 

          2. Sorry to disappoint, but read the article, didn’t get that idea. Just some statements from people who were religious before they went into space, indicating that it hadn’t changed their minds.

            Anyway, don’t put words into my mouth –  where exactly did I claim that anyone who is religious is my intellectual inferior? 

            I know that plenty of smart people are religious, I just don’t understand how they can be.

  18. Rendezvous with Rama has references to “The Church of Jesus Christ, Cosmonaut.”
    And, there’s a Jesuit featured in “The Star”.

    But a lot of recent stuff disparages religion– “There’s a nutty cult that wants to interfere with my research program, and I’M MAD AS HELL ABOUT IT”. I’m reading the Galactic Center novels, and the New Sons were annoying. Luckily, they faded into obscurity with the passage of time.

  19. I very strongly disagree. Saying there “really don’t have to be conflicts between religion and science” is naive and unfair to the victims of religion and the champions of science. If that sillily-dressed man’s religious ancestors had had their way (as they did for many centuries), there would be no spacecraft in the background. Instead people broke away from superstition, embraced science and rational thought, and built a spacecraft. 

    Now the sillily-dressed man gets to stand in front of the spacecraft he and his superstitions had nothing to do with creating and proudly say “Goddidit”. Of course it might include “blah blah blah thanks to the hard work of the scientists and mathematicians blah blah” but the overriding reason he’s there is to praise his non-existant deity for the work of humans. That is a slap in the face to the many people throughout history who have paid dearly (often with their lives) for their commitment to science in spite of religion’s strong efforts to silence opposition to dogma. 

    The only way religion can remain conflict-free from science is if every single faithist only adheres to the mushy-mush God of the Gaps – a benign background deity. A faithist that is okay with the shrinking role of faith in understanding the world because of an ever-increasing lack of gaps. A faithist who is fine with the traditional aspects of their religion without 100% belief in or adherence to every single tenant. The type of religion that is tolerant of science undermining its core tenants is not a big part of our world society. 

    Instead science says evolution – and religion says “NO” – and we witness the encroaching fairy tales over fact in the classroom. Science says homosexuality is natural – and religion says “NO” – and we witness horrible violence, oppression and bullying. Science says women are equal to men – and religion says “NO” – and we witness honor killings, forced marriages, limited or no access to education, contraception, abortion…Only in Utopia will you witness religion willingly remain out of the way of science. Until then, let science prevail, let the sillily-dressed men stay at home and keep religion confined to only one’s most intimate personal space.

    1. You aren’t arguing against religion, you’re arguing against extreme fundamentalist religion.  You’re making the same mistake that so many of the antitheists make of thinking that the only real religion out there is the fundamentalist variety.

      There are LOTS of those who regularly attend church and who completely accept the evidence for evolution.  There are LOTS of those who regularly attend church and who are open homosexuals, or heterosexuals who are accepting of same.  There are LOTS Of those who regularly attend church who believe that men and women are equals.  What you’re portraying as religion does exist, but is not what *religion* is.

      1. Yeah but they all still believe that divine revelation is a valid epistemological process, and that demanding veneration can, at least on some occasion, be ethical.

        Not to mention that they only way religion can be reconciled with the modern world is by ignoring religious teachings that are no longer reconcilable. And the older the religion, the greater the number of teachings that must be ignored.

        The human ability to compartmentalise contradictory beliefs does indeed make it possible for very many smart people to be religious. The more difficult claim to justify is that religion, especially over the last 200-or-so years, has delivered anything of worth.

  20. In a conversation I had once with a physicist at JPL, he told me that in his anecdotal observation, people involved with the study of Space were far more likely to believe in G-d. (Interestingly, he found that almost all of the geneticist he’d met were atheists.)

  21. … at the risk of identifying myself as a huge dork, I hope I’m not the only one whose first thoughts on seeing this image were Warhammer 40K!!!

  22. Let’s step back here a second, beyond issues of “compatibility.” All people hold all kinds of incompatible beliefs, all the time. It’s one of the things our brains can and will do. The question of compatibility is an “ought,” not an “is.” In other words, holding incompatible beliefs is a moral/ethical question and not an ontological or epistemological question. Or, as I put when confronted at the bar at closing time, “People believe all kinds of crazy crap.”

    Yes, it’s true that many committed Christians have no problems with modern science. It’s also true that many committed Christians have no problems with ghosts and hauntings. Both ideas are incompatible with traditional Christianity, but that’s not really a problem for the human brain. Likewise (as recent Internet dust-ups have shown), many committed Atheists hold views about human social institutions that have no rational basis, but are simply a reflection of how one was socialized as an adolescent.

    Before you can uniformly condemn people for holding incompatible beliefs, you first have to show that holding incompatible beliefs is somehow a “bad thing.” AFAICT, it’s simply a “thing,” it’s something people do, part of human nature.

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