The new religion of space exploration


There’s an interesting essay in the Atlantic. It’s about how people who no longer believe in the major faiths are creating a new one based in a belief that technology has God-like powers to bestow blessings upon us. Space exploration, the pinnacle of the technological enterprise is the acme of human expression. Belief in space exploration is the primary expression of the new “faith”.

From the opening of the essay you get a sense of where Ross Anderson is heading:

“Think about how you feel when you see the Earth from space or the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon. These images are achievements of science, sure, but they also have a religious feel to them; they tug at something deeper than engineering, something sublime. When viewed as a whole, space exploration has a lot in common with religion. It offers us a salvation narrative, for instance, whereby we put our faith in technology in order to be delivered to new worlds. Its priests, figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson, extoll its virtues in what sound like sermons. In its iconography, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven and extraterrestrials are like gods—benevolent, kind, wise, capable of manipulating space and time.  

This idea of seeing space exploration as a religion has a long history, dating back to the Russians of the early twentieth century, many of whom self-identified as “Cosmists.” From there it migrated to German rocket scientists like Werner von Braun, who took his ideas about space travel to America after the Second World War. Americans were slow to warm to space exploration. They saw it as a fantasy, but that changed as Americans began to regard technology with a new reverence in the postwar period. Today Americans are the most fervent Cosmists on the planet, even if manned space exploration seems to have stalled for the time being. “

More here.

There are two things that leap out at me when I read the whole essay. First is that this is a modern Western expression of the same basic impulse found it the Cargo cult of the South Pacific. Technology has bestowed all sorts of good on us. It’s made us to be able to communicate over vast distance. It’s allowed to travel great distance easily, conveniently and safely. It’s changed our beliefs about the agency of Nature. If technology can do all this, it must be good. Therefore we must worship technology so that we can reap its bounteous blessings.

It’s a God as Santa Claus sort of idea.

The problem is that any theologian will explain very quickly that the common idea that God is effectively Santa Claus, rewarding the good children with lots of toys and gently reproving the ones who are bad, or who asked incorrectly, is a pretty obvious misunderstanding of the God of Abraham. The good suffer. The poor do not find justice. Job cries out against injustice. The evil prosper. God and morality are much more complicated than common thought imagines.

The idea that technology will bring good is pretty obviously wrong. Technology creates both woe and weal. But it creates it because it used by human beings.

Thomas Friedman points out that modern technology effectively endows a single human with near God-like powers. And generally with disastrous results. It allows one or two people to take over a plane and kill thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. It allows a nation to send a single warrior into combat in a similar plane with the potential to kill millions in a single act. It gives a small percentage of human beings the ability to alter the biosphere of the Earth in ways we still don’t fully understand.

The problem with this idea of technology as religion is that it’s basically just ourselves worshipping ourselves. It’s like the worst of the Christian thought that imagines a God who is effectively just a projection of ourselves onto the sky.

Anderson’s essay is worth reading. It’s describing something that is very concerning. And it reminds those of us who are Christian just how startling the Gospel truly is.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. WhiskyRx says

    Harrison, the interviewee, closes his last remark with the following sentence: “If I had one magic wish, it would be to come back every five hundred years just to see how things are going for humanity out in space.” Reading that sentence immediately brought to mind Jesus’ question in Luke 18:8, but with the following modification (in bold) to the Vulgate: dico vobis quia cito faciet vindictam illorum verumtamen Filius hominis veniens putas inveniet humanitatis in terra. And I intend the English translation of humanitiatis in both a physical and affective sense. Particularly given the gruesome results of so many of the progressive political movements of the past century or so.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

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