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Astronauts and religion
July 22, 2012 6:59 PM   Subscribe


 
This is good stuff - thanks for posting.
posted by jquinby at 7:27 PM on July 22, 2012


Interesting article, I hadn't heard of Buzz Aldrin's communion on the moon before.
posted by arcticseal at 7:32 PM on July 22, 2012


As John Glenn said, "To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible."

On the other hand.

It was learning about the sheer inconceivable magnitude of the universe that started the whole process of my becoming an atheist. Leaving aside the a priori assumption of "creation" contained in Glenn's statement (bit of a giveaway, that, eh?) people who express that kind of reaction to awe-inspiring immensity strike me as lacking in breadth and depth of imagination. To put it mildly.
posted by Decani at 7:38 PM on July 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


That God, what a practical joker. Make an inconceivably huge universe, and lovingly create humans so that they can only survive while tied to some chunk of rock around an unremarkable star that will only be around for a few billion years. Praise Him for his jerkitude.
posted by anarch at 8:00 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Praise Him for his jerkitude.

Living well -- while traveling through the stars, humanity spread out on other planets -- would be the best revenge.
posted by bryon at 8:30 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't call it "some chunk of rock" or an "unremarkable star". They are both wonders of the Cosmos in so many ways. Even if they were typical in this Universe, they would still be special; they would still evoke awe. Even if one does not invoke God in this Universe, there's no reason to diminish it. And if a lover Father there dwells as Schiller once said, I would see no greater instrument than great void. If it can inspire atheism, it can also inspire intense spirituality, and I would see neither of them the correct response or that one shows "lack of imagination".
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:53 PM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


More like com-moon-ion, amirite?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:20 PM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


"NASA was proceeding cautiously following a lawsuit over the Apollo 8 Genesis reading"
Does anyone have details about this? Who initiated the lawsuit and why?
posted by seawallrunner at 9:28 PM on July 22, 2012


Nevermind, found the answer
posted by seawallrunner at 9:29 PM on July 22, 2012


I've always wondered what "lack of jurisdiction" meant in that case.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:33 PM on July 22, 2012


It's comical, bringing a few arbitrarily chosen stories from of few of our ancestors' tribes out there. Yeah, whatever, have your stories about gods and forbidden fruits, eating fleshwafers and bloodwine and all that when you're here on the surface, dealing with life in primate societies. But beyond? Just seems kind of ridiculous.
posted by anarch at 9:38 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Genesis recitation was poetry, and rather well chosen, I'd say. It is a salute to awesomeness. Good theatre, even. Anyone with greater sensitivity than a chicken McNugget would understand.
posted by Goofyy at 10:11 PM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: less sensitivity than a Chicken McNugget.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:12 PM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've often wondered how the face-Mecca-while-praying thing would work in space - it seems like the solution was "just do the best you can and don't overthink it".
posted by Ritchie at 12:17 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone who is sitting on thousands of tons of explosives heading out to the unknown is entitled to play a little game "Pascal's Wager" as far as I am concerned.
posted by Renoroc at 4:41 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They are both wonders of the Cosmos in so many ways. Even if they were typical in this Universe, they would still be special
posted by Lord Chancellor at 4:53 AM on July 23


See, this perfectly illustrates my previous point. We're special because, hey, we're us. Aren't we great? Never mind all that other stuff out there. Never mind that we're not even as irrelevant to the unimaginable whole as a single grain of sand in the Sahara. Never mind that there are processes going on out there that we special wonders don't even have the physical tools to perceive or begin to comprehend, we're special, because we look at ourselves and find ourselves so.

Lack of imagination.
posted by Decani at 5:07 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This seems kind of tangentially related: space euphoria/the Overview effect.

I like to mention this whenever I can because...well, it's a completely fascinating phenomenon. I'm not sure anyone has ever responded positively to it, which surprises me; even folks who should be all over Mysticism In Spaaaaaace get cranky. I'd love to figure out why.

But for right now, I need tea and waking up.
posted by byanyothername at 5:19 AM on July 23, 2012


Living well -- while traveling through the stars, humanity spread out on other planets -- would be the best revenge.

*quietly singing* "Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand...."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:50 AM on July 23, 2012


This seems kind of tangentially related: space euphoria/the Overview effect.

Yeah, being able to see that physical size the Earth and universe from a front row seat would be startling and profound for many people.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:20 AM on July 23, 2012


The Genesis recitation was poetry, and rather well chosen...

Chosen within a cultural context heavily imbued with Christianity. While these theistic remarks did coincide with some astronauts beliefs, they also coincided with government narratives of an ostensibly Christian nation triumphant over the ostensibly godless Soviets. I'm reminded of the apocryphal first words of Yuri Gagarin from orbit that "there are no gods up here" invented by some apparatchik.

Sadly the awe-inspiring views of the cosmic shore aren't enough to raise us beyond our own provincialisms. As Aldrin says in the article:
Neil watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time. Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind -- be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.
I suspect that an explicitly godless expression of the enormity of the experience would not have been well-received, even as an honest expression of an astronaut's personal views, either by an organization with the PR constraints of NASA (during the moon-shot era or our own) or by article author Rebecca Rosen, though such expressions are well-received by the general public (e.g. Carl Sagan's Cosmos).

Rosen writes: "And of course, astronauts pray for their own safety. It's hard to imagine atheists in foxholes; it is at least as hard to imagine them in space shuttles." The only reason it is hard for people like Rosen to imagine atheists in foxholes is because of the pernicious effects of culturally dominant religions that diminish the contributions of those who do not share the dominant views. It's unfortunate Rosen didn't speak with atheists as to how they describe the "momentous" and "other-worldly" achievement of space travel.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:48 AM on July 23, 2012


This seems kind of tangentially related: space euphoria/the Overview effect.

This makes me think that all major world leaders ought to be given a trip up to orbit, just to look, right after they're sworn in.
posted by mstokes650 at 7:20 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


While these theistic remarks did coincide with some astronauts beliefs, they also coincided with government narratives of an ostensibly Christian nation triumphant over the ostensibly godless Soviets.

The Genesis reading was chosen because Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, was a living personification of red blooded American soldier. He even shocked NASA's psyche evaluators with simple outlook of "God and country". The guy was smart and be all accounts a great leader, but very much the quintessential good soldier, good American, in a generally positive and non-ironic way.

Note that Neil Armstrong words, "One small step for man...", spoke to no particular religious view. Because that's how Armstrong was. The Apollo Commanders had a stunning latitude in choosing their first words on the moon, something that probably wouldn't occur today. Various administrators tried to get Armstrong write what he would say, before leaving, but he rebuffed all attempts. My favorite is when one of the highest ranking administrators (can't remember who) asked him, a few days before the launch, if he had given any thought to what he would say when stepping on the moon. Clearly this was an opening salvo to begin discussing what would be said and for the administrator to put his say in or give his approval.

Armstrong turned to the guy and said "Yes, I have" and then switched topics to something else. Because that's how Armstrong was. By all accounts, he didn't decide what he was going to say until after they landed. He figured it was pointless to write a speech until they had reached the destination.

Aldrin was in a similar vein of Borman, so it's not surprising he would perform a Christian ceremony. While I personally wouldn't have done so, I see no reason to begrudge him for doing it, especially when you consider his words before performing the ceremony:
"This is the (lunar module) pilot. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."
So yes, a non-specific saying was uttered by one of the first men on the moon and it was received just fine. In fact, it was non-specific because someone had complained about the overtly religious reading on Apollo 8. Sounds like the system was working just fine.

This makes me think that all major world leaders ought to be given a trip up to orbit, just to look, right after they're sworn in.

That's because you're decent and sane and believe others are similar, which is totally understandable. That last thing the planet needs is is some Type A personality looking over the Earth and thinking "Mine" or the leader of asingle country thinking "I and I alone know how to fix the world's problems."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:39 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't begrudge individuals making whatever statement their conscience dictates, but it seems to me that both the Apollo program and Rosen's article operate in a cultural context that sees meaning through the prism of the religious or spiritual while minimizing or ignoring frameworks for meaning that are wholly naturalistic and materialistic.

There's a difference between "non-specific" statements and "explicitly godless." No Apollo astronaut said anything from space like, 'I now know there is no deity and humans are but a contingent accident of the universe, wonderful though that accident may be.'

Again, I'm not trying to ding people who feel moved to express themselves in a framework that is meaningful to them. I'm commenting on the cultural biases at work that, for example, permit Rosen to offer the ugly "no atheists in foxholes" canard as "the most basic explanation for the religious appeals of space explorers."
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:21 AM on July 23, 2012


Well there's a big difference between the Apollo program, the individuals in that program and Rosen's article. As noted, the Apollo 8 commander was strongly religious, while the the Apollo 11 commander was not. The entire program was part of the Space Race against the godless commies in the America of the 1960s, sure, so there's a certain cultural context there. But the interesting aspect to me about Apollo is that the RAH RAH America aspect receded to the background and became more of it "Holy shit, we're going to explore the entire damn universe!"

Then funding was cut, so...yeah.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:00 AM on July 23, 2012


That's because you're decent and sane and believe others are similar, which is totally understandable. That last thing the planet needs is is some Type A personality looking over the Earth and thinking "Mine" or the leader of a single country thinking "I and I alone know how to fix the world's problems."

Or someone thinking "See how small and insignificant and unimportant the stuff that actually goes on down there among my fellow primitive humans is?"

Because there really shouldn't be anything surprising about the fact that when you literally or metaphorically distance yourself from something, it looks smaller than it does when you look at it from a closer up perspective. Our way of looking at the world, however, changes nothing in reality. Just seeing the world from a POV that makes human affairs seem small in comparison doesn't alter the material facts of reality in anyway. If we could zoom down to be the size of bacteria, we might imagine that human affairs are grand matters of celestial importance.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:09 AM on July 23, 2012


...It's like when people say "In the broad sweep of Geologic Time, human life is meaningless..." Well, duh, when you go around intentionally viewing the world from the POV of a rock, you're not too likely to care about how people whose heads aren't filled with rocks see things. But it's kind of misguided to put on your non-human thinking cap when thinking about and discussing the human condition and human problems.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:26 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


See, this perfectly illustrates my previous point. We're special because, hey, we're us. Aren't we great?

See, you see the word special as denoting something that has nothing like it in the Universe—a level of uniqueness that nothing else could follow. I use the term special to show that what we have is wondrous, even if there are earth-like planets out there. When a mother says "you're special" to her child, it's entirely appropriate, because to that mother, that child IS special, and even if there are billions of children out there, that child is still special. No other child might have the special relationship to that mother nor demand a greater need of stewardship.

We look through the Cosmos to find our place in it, and though it is small, it is not insignificant. We still have a place. The subjective is just as valuable to our understanding as the objective, the sentimental just as important as the rational. We DO have a special relationship with this star, this sun as it's ours (hidden Titans and Martians notwithstanding), and because of that, it's perfectly fine to marvel at our place in the Universe and our special responsibility for this tiny fragment of it.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 10:34 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Almighty ruler of the all
whose power extends to great and small
who guides the stars with steadfast law
whose least creation fills with awe
oh grant thy mercy and thy grace
on those who venture into space.


Robert Heinlein's 5th verse to the hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save

(Apparently that hymn has verses for everybody! Navy SEALs, submariners, ship decommissioners...)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:58 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This makes me think that all major world leaders ought to be given a trip up to orbit, just to look, right after they're sworn in.
This is literally the premise of the opening story in 2001 Nights, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
posted by byanyothername at 6:25 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's always so easy to take anyone's words and make them out to be something negative. It's WAY easier though when you can invoke religion in the process. Add some dogmatic atheistic crap to the mix, and w00t! Shan and Fit, everything hit. Atheists make themselves out to be such utter fools when they try to discard the awesome with 'god', and fail to recognize how these two concepts blend in people's minds.

Sometimes, freedom of/from Religion requires us to accept religion in other people, even as part of culture. Excessive dogma in any direction is still a steaming pile.
posted by Goofyy at 10:17 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and btw, there is nothing "Christian" about Genesis. So your objections about it being so are rather silly. And surely you aren't attempting to suggest that, by reading from Genesis, some belief in the words is being expressed? The part of the Bible most readily accepted as poetry, rather than dogma, if not today, than certainly at the time of Apollo? (somehow folks got dumber since then).

And this apart from the fact that words can be taken entirely different. So, out there in orbit around the moon (m-o-o-n spells moon), and you read Genesis. And what are you supposed to think? It isn't unreasonable to think "Gee, this is a big place, we've come a long way, and still, no sign of any gods hanging out in the heavens."
posted by Goofyy at 10:31 PM on July 23, 2012


Goofyy, I said the reading was "theistic," not Christian. I called the American cultural context Christian.

I'm curious what in my comment struck you as dogmatic, because that certainly isn't what I intended to convey. My original criticism wasn't with the Genesis reading or any individual astronaut religious expression in themselves. Rather, I attempted to point out that certain religious positions find favor in our culture, while others are less welcome (or outright unwelcome) and marginalized using stereotypes such as the foxhole claim that atheism crumbles in the face of mortal peril.

Genesis can be taken as poetry, but it is also religious scripture and holds religious meaning. In the 1960s and today, I suspect more Americans who hear a reading from Genesis associate it with religious beliefs rather than non-religious poetry.

Borman ends his reading with a religious blessing for the people of Earth. All at the same time I can appreciate the good will intended in his blessing, disagree with its religious content and hypothesize that atheistic sentiments intended with just as much good will would not have been as well received.

I do accept religion in other people, as I hope my response to Brandon above indicates.
posted by audi alteram partem at 5:03 AM on July 24, 2012


As a "strident" atheist, I'm not terrible bothered by the Apollo 8 genesis reading. The King James bible is a very beautifully written work of fiction, very poetic. A lot of smart guys spent a lot of time making it sound good. Now if only believe recognize this and forget all that inerrant word of god nonsense.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:08 PM on July 24, 2012


And just why should astronauts (and scientist or anybody else) believing in God be so strange? Is it because science has already Discovered Everything and proven that all explanations are purely material? Give me a break, that attitude is so juvenile.
posted by blue shadows at 9:05 PM on July 25, 2012


Is it because science has already Discovered Everything and proven that all explanations are purely material? Give me a break

Lol. "Science" will never discover Everything, its an infinity expanding frontier of discovery you know? But that being said, there are precious few gaps left for your god to fill. Do you actually believe that there are any physical phenomena that are not caused by purely material causes?
posted by Chekhovian at 5:13 AM on July 26, 2012


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