Outer space religion

For a historian of religion, it may be relatively uncomplicated to study a phenomenon such as ‘UFO religion,’ since by now it is commonly accepted as ‘religious.’ Circumstances are different when it comes to for instance space exploration or astrobiology. The study of the religious aspects of these areas suffers from a lack of properly developed methodology and conceptual apparatus.

The need for a concept

This situation should be amended. Firstly, because there are aspects of for example the Apollo programme or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) that cannot be properly understood if their religious aspects are not taken seriously. Secondly, because there are important affinities between ‘scientific’ outer space activities, and outer space activities that are accepted as ‘religious.’

For several years, I have been researching the cultural and religious aspects of such areas as science fiction, SETI and spaceflight. Recently, when I began a study of James Cameron’s movie Avatar, the need arose to crystallize a concept and establish a workable definition of what I had been was studying. Below is a first attempt at such a definition.

Towards a definition

‘Outer space religion’ is a system of thoughts, behaviours, and sentiments that gravitates around the conviction that salvation is to be found in outer space, or in activities and ideas connected to outer space. Activities may encompass both ritual behaviour and the production of scripture: space exploration, steps towards the colonisation of space, or search for and communication with extraterrestrial life and intelligence.

Often there are no divine (supernatural) beings, in which case extraterrestrial beings may fill this function. Salvation may come in many forms, yet it is usually defined by a moment or process of transcendence of an earthly – and Earth-bound – mode of existence. Technology will often play a crucial role in the salvational scheme and sometimes, but not always, it leads to a blurring or eradication of the nature-technology dichotomy.

Transcendence results in gaining privileged knowledge, attaining immortality, spiritualisation, immaterialisation, cosmic consciousness, and so on, and this may happen by e.g. joining a ‘hive-mind,’ becoming light, receiving an ‘Encyclopedia Galactica,’ etc. Outer space religion is closely linked with modern conceptions of cosmology, techno-science, and the ideology of progress. Thus, it is related to such concepts as ‘the religion of technology,’ ‘Apocalyptic AI,’ ‘TechGnosis,’ and ‘technological mysticism.’

Periodisation and choice of term

Since ‘space’ can mean many different things and be used in many different ways, such as in ‘social space,’ the qualifier ‘outer’ is necessary to avoid confusion.

Outer space religion is, in my definition, closely tied to modern cosmology, science and technology, and I therefore suggest that the periodisation of the concept should start about 1850. At this time, the industrial revolution culminated and three major new ideas – the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system, the theory of evolution and spectroscopy – contributed to a new conception of outer space and the possibilities of life in it.

At the same time, however, the term should be broad enough to encompass anything from the novels of Jules Verne and Erich von Däniken’s ideas of ancient astronauts, over Raëlianism, to SETI and spaceflight. For example, ‘rocket religion’ or ‘Space Age religion’ would be too narrow and ‘UFO religion’ is obviously too closely tied to the idea of ‘flying saucers.’

‘Astroreligion’ could also be a very useful term that would fit well into the already existing range of concepts that describe space-related phenomena or disciplines, such as astroarchaeology, astrofuturism, astrosociology, and astroculture.

However, because ‘astroreligion’ lacks the relatively modern connotations of the term ‘outer space,’ it suggests a broader range of phenomena – including those not tied specifically to modern technology, which is not ideal. Rather, as ‘astrofuturism’ is a subcategory of ‘astroculture’, ‘outer space religion’ should be considered a subcategory of ‘astroreligion’.

A neutral methodology

Lumping together such diverse phenomena as SETI and Räelianism may seem controversial. Yet, in order to make proper methodological sense, ‘outer space religion’ needs to be neutral towards the truth values expressed in the regions fields of both science and religion. Otherwise, one might run the risk of enhancing and supporting the various belief-systems, rather than analysing them.

Thus, while e.g. the SETI Institute may be the pinnacle of rational and scientific methodology and distances itself to theories such as the idea of crop circles as messages form extraterrestrial beings, there is no reason to adapt different methodologies when trying to analyse the religious aspects of either SETI or e.g. Raëlianism.

‘Now you see it – now you don’t’

In some cases, outer space religion is quite easy to identify. For example, in the case of what is now termed ‘UFO religion’ (such as Raëlianism, Scientology, or the Aetherius Society) the religious underpinnings of the belief in UFOs have become common knowledge in the history of religions. Yet, it may at the same time indirectly obscure the existence of outer space religion in areas conventionally perceived as non-religious.

For many people, the connection between outer space, science, and technology in such areas as astronomy, astrobiology and space exploration stands as the very anti-thesis to religion. This is reflected in the study of e.g. the history, culture and sociology of outer space, which seldom deals with the religious aspects of for instance space exploration. This also applies to the study of religion, which hardly notices the phenomenon at all, except in relation to UFOs.

A religion like any other

Outer space religion can be found in many different places – in comics, cinema, music, (science) fiction, art, popular scientific literature, public speeches, in the ritual behaviour of humans (such as when gathered to witness rocket launches), scientific articles and books, channelled speech and writing, TV-series, etc.

In some cases, such as that of SETI, it may be reasonable to say that a given phenomenon has outer space religious aspects, rather than declaring it a religion altogether. Though outer space religion has certain characteristics that differentiate it from other religions, no matter where and by whom it is expressed, it can be studied like any other ‘traditional’ religion. This means that the full palette of theories, methodologies and methods of the study of religion are available to the researcher.

As outer space religion will sometimes be an 'implicit' form of religion that is unrecognized and perhaps even denied, it may be fruitful to concretise its contents by comparing it to well-established types of religion. Here, some approaches may be more beneficial than others. Apocalypticism is a particularly useful comparative type, since it encompasses both eschatology and revelation combined with ascension; all of which are ingredients often found in outer space religion.

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For the literature that has informed and inspired the ideas above, follow this link.

Another version of this blog post was published on www.videnskab.dk, 29 March 2012.

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