Monotheistic religion has recently become a topic of intense debate, no doubt thanks to the increasing profile of Islam in the Western world since 9/11/2001, as well as press reports about the religious convictions of the current UK prime minister and US president.
The question for us is this: is religious belief compatible with an astronautical -- and therefore science-based and democratic -- society? Or is it symptomatic of the type of social organisation appropriate to pre-industrial societies, and therefore a danger to the astronautical enterprise?
This question is motivated by a paradox.
The world-view of any society capable of spaceflight is based on science. It has to be, otherwise the technical capability for spaceflight cannot exist, outside of dreams. Science offers a detailed description of who we are and where we have come from. No scientific theory requires the concept of God, and neither does the general scientific/democratic worldview. That viewpoint is practical and pragmatic: what works is accepted until such time as it is shown not to work or until something better comes along.
The same applies to the values which inform modern moral judgements and lawmaking: what makes a society better at survival, competition and growth -- fundamental biological functions of any living system -- is accepted as being of more value than that which frustrates those goals. Traditional religious-based values are subject to criticism and modification in the light of practical experience, so for example the fourth commandment (do no work on the sabbath day) has been mostly retired from use, and religiously inspired squeamishness about medical and genetic technologies is fighting a losing battle.
But scientists, astronauts and engineers -- who one would have thought would be at the forefront of any atheistic philosophy -- are frequently found to have a profound religious faith, particularly in America. For example, the official NASA history of Apollo states:
"Generally the astronauts -- twenty-three Protestants and six Catholics -- adhered more closely to formal religion than their contemporaries; a high proportion of them served as elders, stewards, deacons, or vestrymen. Presbyterian Aldrin administered holy communion to himself inside Eagle after it landed on the Moon, and when Frank Borman was orbiting the Moon he apologized to his fellow members of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church because his absence made it impossible for him to serve as a lay reader on Christmas Eve. The prayer he did say reached a somewhat larger audience and caused an atheist to sue NASA, unsuccessfully, on a separation-of-state-and-church issue." (http://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-8-4.html)
If the options were Christianity or atheism, then this might make some sort of sense. But everyone is by now acutely aware of the competing claims of Islam and Judaism, not to mention several other world religions, which answer the same basic questions, some without the need for a personal God-figure. There is therefore no unique divine revelation, unless (in view of the violence often carried out in the name of religion) one believes in a morally despicable God who amuses himself with bloodsports.
I suggest that the paradox can be resolved if we distinguish the two faces of religion (particularly obvious in the monotheistic West): political and private. Or, we might say, religion in crusader mode versus religion in mystical mode.
Political religion makes demands on people's behaviour which are equivalent in force to national laws. Christianity once operated in this fashion, and there is a plaque in a street here in Oxford commemorating the spot where heretics were burnt at the stake for following the wrong version of the faith. Islam generally still considers itself to be political: the faith claims control over people's lives, and its adherents tend to use it as a vehicle for their sense of political identity.
The West has made enormous progress by relegating religion to the private sphere. You may choose to be involved in this religious group or that, in exactly the same sense as you may choose to be active in music, theatre, sport, art, literature, amateur astronomy, charitable work, chess, or whatever it may be. Your religious views may inform your political ones, just as the values you acquire on the sports field or in the orchestra may do so. But you may not privilege your own religious group in law (particularly clear in the USA and France).
Science does not yet provide a satisfactory explanation of the nature of human consciousness, suffering or identity. In this situation, people need some way of making their own exploration of the deepest mysteries of their own existence. Some do so by prayer and fasting, directed by a set of ideas found in one or another ancient tradition. Others approach the same goal by testing their human limitations through the performance of sport, music or drama, or by creative art, literature or poetry. In a fully enlightened society, these should all be recognised as alternative routes to self-realisation, none intrinsically better or worse than the others, and all available for people to try out to see what suits them best.
In this view, religions are perfectly acceptable, and a right in a democratic society, provided that they remain in the private sphere and do not become politicised.
The recent Danish cartoon row, in which cartoons portraying the Muslim prophet were used to arouse widespread anger in the Islamic world, is a case in point. Insofar as Islam is a religion, then it should be respected as such and left alone. But it is also in effect a political party (with an extremist paramilitary wing), and in that guise must undergo the same public scrutiny as any other political movement, including being the subject of political cartoons. Until such time as Muslims manage a separation of political from devotional Islam, then, they will -- and must -- continue to be outraged by critical comment directed at them.
Political religion is essentially an operating system for a pre-industrial society. The 18th-century Enlightenment was our upgrade to a new system, one capable of managing the industrial civilisation being born at about the same time in the steam-driven cotton mills of Lancashire. I suspect that the transition from our current state to an interplanetary civilisation will both require and stimulate another upgrade, which I think of as the coming 21st-century Enlightenment. In this new vision of society, the human situation in astronomical space and evolutionary time will become explicit, and increasingly widely acknowledged.
One of its features will be a permanent removal of traditional religious belief to the private sphere, where its benefits can be fully appreciated without the distractions of religiously inspired violence.
-- S.A., 1 June 2006
You did a good job putting into a few words the odds of other technical civilizations in the Milky Way. I would expand the argument to the entire universe. Intergalactic travel even at 1/10 light speed is possible relative to the time table of the universe -- you just need a big enough space ship.
I wonder if the arguments about being alone in the universe and the absolute certainty that humanity will perish if we do not get off the planet might be enough to make all people cooperate to conquer space?????
What if the arguments were clearly articulated on world wide TV then put to a vote what would happen?
I think religion has been remarkably accurate in articulating how wondrous life and humanities place in the universe is. The middle ages teaching that the Earth is the center of the universe is correct in some respects.
I think world religious leaders could be convinced that conquering space is important and they would endorse it.
Is there a God? -- Not yet :) Maybe that is the fourth level omnibiota.
-- Jim Trounson, 30 April 2006
[Mike Combs wrote: "It's interesting to me that over and over, I see that thinkers who foresee an extraplanetary future for the human race tend also to come to the conclusion that we don't share our galaxy with other technological cultures. I even wrote an article on this topic." -- as follows:]
One of the most challenging mysteries facing mankind is this: Are we alone in this vast galaxy in which we find ourselves, or are there other technological civilizations in other star systems? We concern ourselves with technologically-advanced civilizations, for these are the ones which we could conceivably make contact with, either by radio or starship. Is there anyone else with whom we share the tool-using experience, or is our situation unique?
The study which is called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is plagued by two disturbing puzzles. One is this: If the galaxy is an inhabited place, then why have increasingly-sophisticated attempts to discover the radio transmissions of other races been, thus far, unsuccessful? Why the Great Silence? The other has been called the Fermi Paradox (most simply, "Why aren't they here?").
It is often helpful to look for different perspectives when trying to figure out a mystery. This paper is an attempt to approach this riddle from a seldom-used perspective.
So we have two different views of the future which lead to vastly different-looking universes. On the one hand, if we live in a reality where intelligent life is typically found on planetary surfaces, we might expect one inhabited planet in a few widely-scattered solar systems. Some systems might have two inhabited planets: the planet of origin plus another, nearby world which has been terraformed, and is marginally inhabitable. Probably no single planet could support a population much greater than around 10 billion individuals. So figure maybe 10 or 15 billion per solar system total. If only one out of a hundred systems have a planet which is either inhabitable or amenable to terraforming, then that is not very many beings out there. Perhaps we could look at the night sky, and be unable to distinguish such a universe from a cosmic wilderness.
But on the other hand, if we live in a Gerard O'Neill / Freeman Dyson / Marshall Savage-type universe, the picture is very different indeed. O'Neill calculated that the resources of the asteroid belt alone would be sufficient to build, in the form of orbital space settlements, more than three thousand times the habitable surface area of the Earth. And the asteroid belt only represents the most convenient source of raw materials. We would still have Mercury, our Moon, and the moons of the outer planets for industrial feedstock. In a universe where technological cultures go the orbital habitat route, we can expect solar systems with perhaps hundreds of thousands of times the Earth's living space. Trillions of intelligent beings residing in hundreds of billions of space settlements. Moreover, we can expect every solar system within reach of their starships to be so populated, not just the ones with certain planets with certain conditions orbiting certain-type suns. With orbital habitat technology in hand, even suns vastly different from our sun's spectral type can be colonized. All it takes is the proper color filtration.
Full article at: http://members.aol.com/howiecombs/alone.htm
On 27 May the British Interplanetary Society hosted a meeting to discuss the direction the UK ought to take in space, which was also attended by members of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Space Group.
It was felt that now was the time to reassess the UK government's long-standing policy of keeping out of manned spaceflight. Might it be possible to influence a change in that policy? For that to happen, the space community would need to define ONE clear goal to lobby for.
Ian Crawford represented the point of view of the Royal Astronomical Society, whose "three wise men" last year came out in favour of manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. Dr Crawford argued that the UK should participate in an international return to the Moon, which would require both robotic and manned systems.
Pat Norris, Chairman of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Space Group, reviewed the progress of his society's recent Discussion Paper -- the stimulus for this joint meeting. He revealed that an updated Discussion Paper would be prepared later on in the year. He was not yet committed to any particular recommendation.
Mark Hempsell, organiser of the meeting and a former BIS president, described some of the realities of UK space spending and the institutions which decided how it would be spent. The UK government provided no funding at all for manned spaceflight, he told the meeting, or for space infrastructure, but only for unmanned space applications. His preferred objective would be to make British space spending fair and balanced, as between robotic versus manned spaceflight, and between space applications versus space infrastructure.
Medical researcher Kevin Fong argued the case for the life sciences in space. He focused on the fact that microgravity simulates some of the major problems of ageing, namely the deterioration in one's sense of balance, deconditioning of the heart muscle and weakening of the bones. Since the NHS faces an annual bill of £2bn to treat elderly people who feel faint, fall and break their hip, this is an area of research of relevance to everyone. He also emphasised the importance of crossovers between different sciences, giving the example of an artificial heart pump based on the Shuttle fuel pump. He favoured the incremental approach of maximising benefits and minimising costs, and advocated sending an astronaut or two to the ISS.
(Oddly, Dr Fong did not mention whether research on elderly people was helping to solve the problems of adaptation to weightlessness.)
Nick Spall, an architect by profession, surveyed the ups and downs of British public interest in space, from the early years of the BIS and Dan Dare comics, through Blue Streak, Concorde and Helen Sharman's flight to the Mir station. He argued that the UK should join the space club and have an astronaut on the European team. This would probably lead to the BNSC developing into a British space agency. He argued that the BIS needed a clear policy on manned spaceflight. But if such a policy could be realised, science, industry, education and exploration would all prosper.
(In the effort to avoid using the word "manned", Mr Spall produced a new acronym: HSE, for Human Space Exploration. Hmmm ... surely that must be a human version of a well known bovine disease? Public-relations disaster!) [NB: Nick Spall did not, of course, invent this acronym, as it has been in circulation for many years at NASA and ESA, and more recently in the report prepared by the RAS -- see AE 10, item (3).]
In addition to the speakers, there were a number of written contributions.
David Ashford, director of Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd, urged the case that we do NOT want a major national UK initiative, which would base decisions on politics rather than commercial merit. He recommended that the DTI should have responsibility for encouraging the development of commercially viable spaceplanes in the UK, thus leading to a massive expansion of access to space and lowering of costs.
Simon Evetts, a senior lecturer in human physiology, recalled Britain's history at the forefront of aviation medicine. He argued that, with the coming of space tourism, aerospace medicine would be just as important in order to realise the full potential of this new industry. He concluded that Britain should support the growing private space sector with sound medical science, or otherwise we should drop the "Great" from Great Britain.
Veteran space journalist Reg Turnill called for a resolution that Britain should join every other major European nation by modest funding of a national astronaut. That astronaut would then join in the ESA missions to Columbus, when it was eventually attached to the ISS.
My own written contribution pointed out that, while the UK government was not in the least interested in manned spaceflight, it was deeply interested in solving the problem of meeting Britain's future energy demands, while reducing our dependence on foreign imports of oil and gas and reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. All these goals could be met through developing solar power from space. Such development would have the advantage of setting up infrastructure of great value to future manned flights without needing to persuade the government to change its policy on the subject.
Whatever the merits or demerits of that argument may have been, the day concluded with a resolution, agreed in general by the meeting (but without a formal vote having been taken), as follows:
"This meeting recommends UK involvement in human spaceflight in order to benefit fully from the opportunities that spaceflight offers, managed by an appropriate national body."
Given the preponderance of opinion present in favour of the established infrastructures for getting access to space, this conclusion should be translated into plain English as follows:
"This meeting recommends UK involvement in ESA and NASA human spaceflight programmes in order to discourage low-cost access to space and to minimise the opportunities that spaceflight offers, managed by a UK clone of the bureaucracies which have so efficiently stifled space exploration and utilisation in America and Europe ever since the end of Apollo and Skylab."
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