Interstellar religion? How religion shapes views of space exploration

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ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO via Flickr

Four-image montage comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 26 September. The image shows the spectacular region of activity at the 'neck' of 67P/C-G. This is the product of ices sublimating and gases escaping from inside the comet, carrying streams of dust out into space.

Today, the European Space Agency will attempt to land its Philae probe on a comet. If successful, Philae will provide data that scientists will use to better understand the formation of our solar system. A comet is like a time capsule, giving a snapshot into what it was like in space billions of years ago.

That is, if you believe that our solar system is more than 6,000 years old.

Religion shapes all kinds of political views, from opinion on poverty programs to reproductive rights to foreign policy….but space policy, too? New research suggests that religion may shape how people view space exploration.

University of Dayton professor Josh Ambrosius has researched the connection between religion and views of space exploration. He used the 2010 General Social Survey, which had a rich set of questions on space and detailed items on religion. Ambrosius presented his research at this year’s SSSR meeting.

Even after taking into account lots of other factors, Ambrosius finds that church attendance

  • decreases knowledge about space
  • lowers interest in space
  • makes people more pessimistic about space exploration, and
  • leads people to believe that there is not life elsewhere in the universe.

On the general question of whether or not space exploration does “more harm than good” for society, there were not large differences between those who went to church and those who didn’t. However, belief that evolution is true is correlated with the belief that space exploration is good for society.

This link between views of creation/evolution and space exploration came out in the debate between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham and science education Bill Nye, who is also CEO of the Planetary Society. In July, Ham wrote a blog post for Answers in Genesis that poo-pooed the idea of finding life anywhere but on earth.

I’m shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life. Even Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” in our recent debate, happily gloated about tax dollars being spent toward this effort. And now, secular scientists are at it again.

Of course, secularists are desperate to find life in outer space, as they believe that would provide evidence that life can evolve in different locations and given the supposed right conditions! The search for extraterrestrial life is really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!

Because of some less-than-clear arguments in Ham’s post, some media outlets reported that Ham also said that 1) NASA should be defunded and 2) aliens, if found, would go to Hell. Ham responded to these claims. In a YouTube video, Ham encouraged NASA to continue exploration because he sees their inability to find life as proof that evolution is a false theory.

There were also some differences between religious groups. Evangelicals were less knowledgeable about space than mainline Protestants, Jews, and those with no religious affiliation (this finding holds even when controlling for other factors like education). Evangelicals were more supportive of space exploration if they attended a church in which their pastor spoke positively about science.

Catholics were the strongest believers in life elsewhere in the universe. If life is found through space exploration, then it will be interesting to see how Ham and other creationists respond to the news. As for Catholics, Pope Francis has already hinted that the Church should be open to anyone, including green Martians with long noses and big ears.

And, yes, Ken Ham: we know the Pope and the Catholic Church also believe in evolution.

Does religion impede space exploration? Taking into account all of the evidence, Ambrosius concludes,

No, religion does not stand in the way of serious space exploration—but the space community still has a lot of work ahead to reach skeptical Evangelicals, foster support among religious friends of space, and convince young people that our future is among the stars.

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