Last week at the 19th Annual International Mars Society Convention (a conference which brings together leading scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs, etc., to discuss opening the way to human exploration of space), discussions relating to human motivation for space exploration were a central theme. In the 1960’s and 70’s, America was motivated by the cold war and beating the Soviets — but the fire behind that petered out with the demise of the USSR. One professor in attendance, Fordham University’s Paul Levinson, opined (as part of a panel discussion) the following on the subject:
“Religion has received a sometimes justified, sometimes not justified, rap as being opposed to science and knowledge,” he said. “We should take this idea of interrelationship of space travel and religion a little further.”
“Since we got to the moon and we’d already beaten the Soviets that motive was gone. Science continues to be a motivating factor, but it’s a weak motivation. NASA has tried, and it hasn’t ignited any real passion.”
“Everybody wants to make a buck. SpaceX has had some mixed success, and Richard Branson has put some money into it, but I don’t see a fleet of spaceships going out beyond the solar system.”
Could religion be a powerful and authentic motivator for human beings to expend the great amounts of time and treasure required to effectively taken on the exploration of the universe? What unique challenges might certain religious observances or rituals face as a consequence of being away from earth? Space.com reports:
Beyond motivation, religions are not automatically challenged by space travel, Levinson said. He noted that evangelicals are more likely to believe that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico. Also, many of the questions that govern ritual and practice would take a different meaning in space. “Where is Mecca if you’re on Mars?” he said.
Michael Waltemathe, a theologian at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, added that space’s challenges to religious observance have already been hashed out. “There was a fatwa put out by Malay Muslim authorities on how to do rituals on the International Space Station — all this has been thought through,” he said. (The fatwa says that one can use a “home” time zone to time the prayers, and simply face in any direction.)
Rev. James Heiser, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America, noted that Johannes Kepler’s speculation on the nature of life on other planets wasn’t a direct challenge to his faith.
Asked by Willett about the psychological aspects of long space journeys, Waltemathe added that the religious tradition of setting up monastic communities in remote areas could tie into space travel as well. “The theological idea was that these people were on their own to get a greater connection to transcendence,” he said.
Levinson said some forms of religious observance may become less important, because when traveling in space all the celestial markers — moonrise, sunrise, sunset or what phase the moon is in, no longer exist. That could actually have a strengthening effect on religion, he said. “They will see these rituals are not that necessary and religion can then get down to exploring the basis of what religion is — which is what are we doing in this universe.”
What do you think? Is this a legitimate and authentic move of the religious inclination toward wonder? Or could it be a dubious attempt toward using religious people mendaciously for unrelated ends? Let us know on Facebook or in the comments below.