It being an apparently slow news week, LiveScience has been goading its readership on with several topics of interest to those concerned with science and religion. One particular article was inspired for the oddness of the question it posed. A cooperative piece with Space.com asked “Should Humanity Take Religion on Interstellar Space Voyage?”
My initial answer was that this is a moot question, because religion will come along simply by virtue of involving people who, statistically, are going to be religious. Not to mention the fact that it's already there. This strange speculation was the fruit of a panel at the 100 Year Starship 2012 Symposium recently held in Houston, Texas, involving scientists, artists and theologians on the possibilities and challenges of interstellar travel. On a multigenerational ship with in excess of 10,000 passengers, the inclusion of religious people would be inevitable.
The theologians and ministers involved in the panel varied in their points of view, with perhaps the most provocative coming from Rev. Alvin Carpenter, minister of First Southern Baptist Church of West Sacramento. "The only way humanity can survive is if they leave behind the Earth-based religions," he said. "When you bring a religion on a starship, you bring the toxicity that we have seen on Earth..."
Carpenter's own website features his full address, which probably more than anything else expresses some of his apparent regrets about being a Southern Baptist minister (an affirmation of his 40 years in ministry inevitably prefaces some despairing comment about its futility). He even categorically states that “The goal of religion is to convert and impose,” which is quite far removed from a more sober and analytical conclusion like that proffered by William James way back in 1902 in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “a man's religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, toward what he felt to be the primal truth.” It automatically invites the rejoinder “Maybe that's the goal of your religion...”
However, Carpenter introduces his piece with an open challenge to demonstrate why religion should be included on an interstellar space voyage. Since I cannot resist such things, I will use the venue of a blog of Scientific Romanticism to respond.
In his argument for why religion should not be introduced to space, as though there was an option, Carpenter misses the forest for the trees. His arguments are practically out of the New Atheist playbook and suffer the same faults. In fact, such cliched strawmen issuing from the mouth of an ordained minister excuses speculation that he was being deliberately disingenuous.
He cites, for example, the historic antagonism between science and religion as though this were actually true. Rice University sociologist Dr. Elaine Ecklund's survey of the religious views held by professional scientists, published in her 2010 book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, found that 36% of scientists were theists, 30% were agnostic and 34% were atheist with 12% still considering themselves “spiritual.” That amounts to 78% of practising scientists either holding to some form of spirituality and/or not believing that spirituality is an inherent contradiction to science. As social phenomena, science and religion apparently are quite compatible and even if we reduced our contingent of astronauts to scientists, we run a statistical chance of still having a third of them being theists.
Carpenter also consistently expresses a subtext of religious violence as though this were a legitimate concern. In their 2004, 3-volume treatise Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Philips and Alan Axelford document the history 1763 violent conflicts and find that only 123 have a significant “religious component.” That is less than 7% of known wars throughout the entirety of recorded history. The greater majority of wars are caused by conflict over political power, territory and resources. If there is to be a bloodbath on our starship, it will more likely be over allocation of resources and chains of political authority than anything instigated by the contingent from the Vatican Observatory.
He also brings up the spectre of birth control, which is a bizarre complaint given the nature of an intergalactic colonial mission. I imagine it would have something to do with the need to carefully regulate population growth on a multigenerational ship during the voyage itself. Here Carpenter misses out on the scope of the project. The problem of population control is not going to come from your average, nominally disobedient Catholic willing to sign an agreement to have only one child. It is going to come from the third and fourth generations who find themselves unwillingly born into a situation of mandatory abortions, forced sterilizations and restricted sexuality. And Big Brother forbid that you're born with the non-breeding dead-weight of homosexuality. Speaking of which...
Carpenter expresses concern over social toleration, using homosexuality as an example, in apparent ignorance that liberal Protestant denominations have traditionally been on the forefront of the gay rights movement. The United Church of Canada had been marrying same-sex couples for decades before it was legalized by the government of Canada. This objection highlights what appears to be his overarching concern, as well as the deepest flaw in his argument. The problem is the kind of cultural intolerance that would make our interstellar society fall apart. His solution is to use the exact same thinking that created the problem of cultural intolerance to begin with.
There is one very simple, unassailable argument in favour of allowing religious people to serve on a multigenerational interstellar mission. It is an argument that he apparently did not consider in the least, nor any of the associated issues surrounding it. Indeed, I would not be surprised if, as an American and a Southern Baptist, it probably never crossed his mind. That argument is the simple rule of employment equity.
To deny a qualified person equal opportunity for a professional placement because of their religious views is discrimination. That Carpenter would extend this discrimination to all theists instead of just limiting it to Jews does not make it any less morally and legally repugnant. It is bigotry, and even worse, it is the kind of bigotry endemic to the society in which Carpenter is a part. His view can only be voiced from a position of cultural narrowness, if not ignorance.
If one is looking to model a system of multicultural toleration and cooperation, one does not look to the United States of America. Without denigrating my American readers, one simply cannot look to the United States as an exemplary ideal of racial, ethnic and religious harmony. Once could certainly do worse... say, any number of war-torn African or Eastern European republics... but a society that has yet to accomplish basic tasks like providing universal healthcare or same-sex marriage is not going to be the society from which we take our queues for how to engender harmony on a starship.
One might attempt to argue that it is the activity of religious people withholding these things from the United States, to which I would reply in the first place that this is dishonest and insulting to the best that America has produced. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. springs to mind automatically. Carpenter does not seem to consider the potential beneficent role to be played by an MLK or Archbishop Desmond Tutu in defusing some would-be Lenin or Robespierre. On the second place, the accusation abrogates America's responsibility for its own cultural ethos. There are other cultures every bit as steeped in religion that do not have these same problems. In Canada, universal healthcare was achieved by the efforts of a Baptist minister and political leader named Tommy Douglas.
We can speculate for some time on why a country that formed by a violent revolution involving the deportation and/or murder of people with the “wrong” political views has consistently denigrated multiculturalism as mere “political correctness.” Suffice it to say that Carpenter's solution that anybody with the “wrong” opinions should be barred from an interstellar space voyage is pretty consistent with this view. Let us look instead at societies where multiculturalism is actually valued.
As one example, I would offer the one I know best. Calgary, Alberta, Canada is widely regarded as the most conservative major city in the country. It is the seat of both Canada's oil industry and its current Conservative Party government, which is a “Manchurian” element of American-style Republicanism and Fundamentalist Christianity. Nevertheless, in spite of this, it is the third most multicultural city in Canada (which as a nation has the highest per capita immigration in the world) and in its last civic election voted a Muslim as its mayor. Mayor Naheed Nenshi not only made international headlines for being Muslim, but also for being Calgary's first mayor to act as grand marshal for a Pride Day parade. The only religious conflict I've been involved with to speak of was when a Buddhist monestary was using political connections with the city to purchase land out from under the Muslim family who owned the coffee shop my Lutheran pastor went to. I was personally involved in a series of city planning sessions concerning the role of religious communities in the downtown core. Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues were invited as de facto pro-social, community-building agents in the inner city. Why? Because there are lots of us here. Christians comprise 65.8% of Calgary's population, followed by Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs. In a society with true multicultural values, providing adequate social infrastructure to diverse groups is a deliberate effort. If this interstellar space mission was being organized by Canadians, not only would it include religious people, but we would make sure that there was accurate representative sampling and special entitlements for minorities to help preserve their culture and practices.
If it was being organized by the Japanese, this wouldn't even be a question. Not exactly renowned for its ethnic diversity, Japan nevertheless provides us with a curious model for religious harmony. In fact, the situation is so interesting that many observers have noted that Western definitions of what constitute religious adherence simply have no meaning in the Japanese context. You have a population where people have Christian weddings and Buddhist burials, and where 83% of the population practices Shinto but do not consider themselves to be “religious believers.” One could pull out any number of examples, and the main thing they would have in common is some manner of collectivism.
Collectivism is the soil for the growth of multiculturalism. The necessity of the whole society working towards the greater good of the society fosters a practical, pragmatic ethos of making sure that everyone can get along despite their differences. This ethos was elegantly articulated by Canada's constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in a citizenship speech in 1973: "Canada asks no citizens to deny their forebears, to forsake their inheritance - only that each should accept and value the cultural freedom of others as he enjoys his own. It is a gentle invitation, this call to citizenship and I urge those who have accepted the invitation to participate fully in the building of the Canadian society and to demonstrate the real meaning of the brotherhood of man." Or even more succinctly, in a 1971 citizenship speech: "Canadian unity is not uniformity."
These are the necessary values to engender in an interstellar, multigenerational space mission. They are not values that can be engendered by discriminatory hiring practices before we've even gotten off the ground. Carpenter, speaking from a highly individualist society, demonizes others with bigoted rhetoric that ultimately demands an unachievable homogeneity. He speaks of religion as a toxic element while wanting to export a putrid ideology of fascism, bigotry and ethnic purity. He sees people who are different as the problem, and much like the New Atheists from which he borrowed his script, sees the solution in silencing them. He has failed in the grossest way to develop the ethos of multiculturalism and collective good that he sees as necessary for the success of such a monumental project.
Contrary to Carpenter's views, this project must necessarily include religious people as the exemplification of multicultural and collective values. Employment equity, religious toleration and fair representation will be best thing we can bring into space with us. Indeed, it will be the only way we can get into space. If we cannot accomplish this, then we are in no position to make the attempt.
Update (23/09/2012): While providing actual numbers for the matter of religion's relationship to war and science, I was remiss in doing so concerning homosexuality.
I mentioned the United Church of Canada as an example of how liberal Protestantism has been supportive of gay rights. The 32nd General Council in 1988 allowed for openly gay people to become ordained ministers, and the 34th General Council in 1992 decided that there was sufficient need for a set of standardized liturgical resources for same-sex marriages (i.e.: wedding ceremony materials). The United Church was one of the bodies testifying to the government of Canada to legalize gay marriage, and part of their testimony was supplying the government with the data on how many same-sex marriages they had performed (gay marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005). [source]
A Barna Group study in 2009 surveyed 9,232 American adults and found that 70% of homosexuals identified as Christian and 58% identify as having made "a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today." 60% identified as having a faith that was "very important" to them but only 27% identified as "born-again Christians." Coupled with data on specific beliefs, it suggests the unsurprising fact that the majority of those gay people having a significant Christian belief system would tend towards more liberal, inclusive churches. [source]
Therefore it should be noted that a prohibition on theists serving on our starship on the grounds of the "inassimilability" of religion and homosexuality will actually bar the majority of gay people from service anyways.