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The separation of church and space

2:03 PM  May 21st, 2018
by Joshua Ambrosius

Picture the expanse of outer space. You are flying through it, with views of asteroids, planets, stars, galaxies and nebulae swirling around you. As you are absorbing these images, I want you to recall the words of St. Paul to the Roman Church, that God’s nature is revealed through this created order, not just here on Earth, but beyond.

The 10 trillion galaxies reveal God to us. The septillion stars display divine energy, and the countless planets tell us of God’s creativity and love. As the psalmists wrote, it is these heavens that declare the glory of God, the skies that proclaim the work of God’s hands.

Ponder the power that was necessary to mold this universe. And then this same God populated the universe with solar systems, that gave rise to planets, some with liquid water, where every 10 drops of that water holds more molecules than the known universe has stars. And in this water on at least one world, but undoubtedly on many others, life arose and slowly adapted to the water and the weather and the environment, and in due course gave rise to us, to you, to me, giving us abilities to learn and think and speak and write and dream and travel to places eventually beyond the Earth.

For me, outer space and religion are intertwined — inseparable in their magnificence and wonder.

But not everyone sees it this way.

I am not an astronomer, nor an astronaut, nor even a theologian. I am a social scientist, a professor of political science. My job is to ask questions and answer them with public opinion data, wherein we learn of the multiplicity of views on topics as seemingly diverse as religion and space. When I asked the question “Does religion influence public support of U.S. space policy?” I was as curious about my own faith tradition as the nation as a whole. My findings demonstrate that we have vast opportunities to improve space education to religious constituencies. But public opinion also shows that our failure to act could imperil not only our nation but also the very existence of our species.

 My own faith tradition often perplexes my students, who are majority Catholic. I was raised as an evangelical Protestant — Pentecostal to be specific. It is a tradition that is at best skeptical of biological science, if not science and higher education overall. I grew up reading books critical of evolutionary theory — and even defended creation science in a class assignment on persuasive public speaking. But I always had this other side, a part of me that saw science and space as exciting opportunities for exploration and adventure. I read books by astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan, who asserted alien civilizations undoubtedly flourished among the cosmos. My favorite TV series was the X-Files, and I loved the dystopian future world of the Alien movies.

Despite warnings from some family members that college would make me give up everything I believed in, I went. Once or twice I had crises of faith. But I came out on the other side, making adjustments within my faith to make it intellectually compatible with what we know about the world around us. I now see no problem with any findings of science, and politically I think and act very differently than when I was young. I now consider myself an ecumenical evangelical.

Joshua Ambrosius in the Caryl D. Philips Space Theater planetarium
at Dayton’s Boonshoft Museum of Discovery

As a social scientist and an evangelical, I am interested in the role religion plays in public life. I began my graduate studies in public policy at Johns Hopkins, where I taught an undergraduate course on faith-based social policy. I even worked on the national Faith-Based and Community Initiative at the U.S. Department of Labor. In my doctoral dissertation for the Urban and Public Affairs program at the University of Louisville, I evaluated how religious participation might affect your support of city-county government consolidation.

Given my side interest in outer space, and the experiences of my religious upbringing, I was curious if my own tradition lags behind others when it comes to support for space policy. I began analyzing public opinion data from four publically available, nationally random surveys that asked U.S. adults questions about space and religion. But I set the project aside to focus on teaching and other research, until I read a 2014 blog post by creationist Ken Ham criticizing NASA efforts to find alien life. Ham’s post rekindled my desire to examine whether his views holding that Earth life is special and preeminent in the created order were widespread and associated with less support for space policy. I saw the film Interstellar later that year, in which Matthew McConaughey portrays an astronaut in search of an off-world home to save our species from extinction by environmental collapse. Inspired to complete the project, I returned from the movie theater and wrote into the morning.

I wanted to know the influence of religion, in its many forms, on public support for U.S. space policy. Would there be a difference based on religious belonging, beliefs, and behaviors when it came to knowledge of and support for space exploration? I would discover the answer was yes, and religious elements seemed to have the greatest influence in my own tradition — a negative influence. 

Religion in general does not stand in the way of support for space exploration, but some traditions holding less knowledge of space give lower support to space exploration. Results indicate that evangelicals, or non-Catholic Christians with a born-again conversion experience, ranked consistently lower than the rest of the population on five of seven space measures: knowledge of space, funding support of space exploration, space benefits both general and national, and optimism about the future of space exploration.

Some of my findings include:

-Hindus, Buddhists, those of other Eastern traditions, and Jews represent strong advocates for space policy.

-Mainline Protestants, Jews, Eastern traditions and those with no religion scored significantly higher on space knowledge.

-Jews, Eastern traditions and religious “nones” all stand out positively on perceptions of general space benefits.

-Eastern traditions and the nones also rate higher on support for space funding.

-Eastern traditions are most interested in space.

-Catholics are higher than other religions on space nationalism, the belief that the U.S. should lead the way in exploration.

Evangelicals express a sort of “space pessimism.” This means that evangelicals hold higher expectations that an asteroid will hit the Earth during the next four decades, but lower expectations of the discovery of life away from Earth over the same period. In perhaps the most interesting finding on expectation, evangelicals are surer that Jesus will return to Earth before mid-century than they are about any of four space events occurring: an asteroid hitting Earth, scientists finding evidence of life elsewhere, ordinary people traveling to space, or astronauts landing on Mars.

In an interesting twist, support of one’s clergy member(s) for science makes a significant difference among this most skeptical religious group. If an evangelical’s pastor speaks negatively about science, the probability of agreeing with the statement “space exploration does more good than harm” is 47 percent. When a pastor speaks positively, the probability is 97 percent. While I do not remember ever hearing a sermon on space from the pulpit of my churches, the findings indicate a clear opportunity for inroads in both the understanding of space science and the support of space exploration.

 As we dream of our cosmic future, we begin to wonder if further exploration of the cosmos is motivated by a practical desire to improve human conditions or an innate desire for discovery. The latter, while a powerful drive for scientific advancement, is a more difficult justification for public or private funding. The reality is that, despite private programs like SpaceX and visionaries like Elon Musk, we need public investment to make progress in space. We also need a sustained national, and likely international, effort. This will require a very long-term vision and funding model that transcends political cycles. Political science can, and should, help chart the way forward.

I taught, for the first time, an interdisciplinary course on the social, political and economic aspects of space exploration during the fall of 2017. We discussed the U.S. political cycle — how the party in power pursues its agenda, often by overturning the work of the previous power holders. Then we have an election, power shifts, and it all starts again. Take recent U.S. policy on returning to the moon. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced an effort to build a moon base as a steppingstone for deeper space exploration to Mars and beyond. President Barack Obama canceled the moon base in 2010, citing underfunding and delays that would make a return to the moon unrealistic until at least 2028. And in December, President Donald Trump ordered NASA to focus on getting back to the moon: “We will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond,” he said.

We also must contend with politicians from both parties who believe the problems down here, from health care to potholes, are more deserving of funding than space exploration. Granted, billions are currently going toward space science. While this sounds like a lot of money, it is less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget.

“Religion in general does not stand in the way of support for space exploration, but some traditions holding less knowledge of space give lower support to space exploration.”

So why should we go to space? Beyond the general benefit arguments that space science creates jobs and leads to innovations that improve our lives on Earth, there is the question of the survival of humankind. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, as well as NASA administrators, have stated that a one-planet species will not last long in the universe. “We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds,” Hawking stated during a 2017 lecture. As time goes on, the likelihood increases that disasters, either natural or manmade, could end life on Earth. From a purely survivalist point of view, funding off-world travel makes a lot of sense.

In political science, we talk about focusing events. These serve as motivating problems that demand attention that could lead to action. For example, when there is a mass shooting, gun policy gets closer to the agenda. Thus far, climate change and its threat to our species has not galvanized our response. So what will be our space exploration focusing event? It could be the near miss of an asteroid, or the discovery of life in outer space, or even a private venture that colonizes Mars.

 We cannot talk about funding space science, or of public action for imminent threats, without bringing back into the conversation my findings about religious groups. Evangelicals are not just isolated space pessimists — they are, by some measures, up to a quarter of the U.S. electorate and an even greater share of the Republican Party’s base. So how can we ensure they are part of the space policy conversation?

One tact is to embrace the opportunities identified in the research. NASA, as well as organizations and businesses involved in space contracts in general, should participate in outreach and education to all religious constituencies, and to evangelicals in particular. In other words, they need to try harder. For too long, some of the most outspoken proponents of space exploration have been dismissive of if not antagonistic toward organized religion. Opportunities to inform clergy are especially important, as their sermons evidently influence the perceived benefit of space exploration. 

Individuals who have resolved conflicts between their faith and their work as scientists can enhance the conversation and increase public knowledge. One such evangelical is Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health. His organization BioLogos, which he left to lead the NIH, promotes harmony between biological science and biblical faith in its evolutionary understanding of God’s creation. It also strives for dialogue with those who hold other views and could be a model of how to have such conversations in other areas of science. 

Evangelicals can also look to the Catholic Church as one example of a healthy marriage between church and space. The Vatican, with its own observatory and meteorite collection, also has a Jesuit brother as its chief astronomer, who not only explores extraterrestrial geology but also expounds on the relation between our Earthly selves and the whole of God’s creation. Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., wrote in his Vatican Observatory blog, “The intimate study of God’s creation, the act we call science, is thus an act of worship. Astronomy is not only an appropriate activity for a church to support, it is also something that’s right for individual humans to spend our whole lives doing, given the chance.”

As you may surmise, I advocate for increasing current spending and not waiting for the disaster of a focusing event to move our nation and our species closer to an off-world future. I believe religious actors and institutions should support humanity’s expansion into outer space because their future survival depends on it, and the space community should engage with religious publics so that they do not present obstacles to humanity’s cosmic future.

My evangelical community does not need to embrace a new theology, but simply bask in the glory of the cosmos. At a minimum, I argue that the church not stand in the way of space science, and that it contributes to a healthy dialogue between religious believers and the space community. It will require us to build on the attentive publics in many of the great world religions and work together as we embark on the greatest project humanity has ever pursued.

   

Continued conversations

Interested in popular culture connecting space and religion? Professor Joshua Ambrosius recommends that you:

-Watch the film Contact (1997), adapted from the novel by Carl Sagan, about a scientist’s struggles with faith as she seeks to represent humanity as an interstellar ambassador.

-Read the novel The Sparrow (1996) by Ohio author Mary Doria Russell about Jesuits leading a mission of first contact with an alien civilization.

-Watch the new Amazon pilot for Oasis (2017), based on Dutch writer Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), about a
pastor asked to serve as chaplain to the colonists of a remote exoplanet.

Out of this world, and in this classroom

In fall 2017, I offered a new interdisciplinary course taught from three perspectives: political science, sociology and economics. Forty-four students enrolled in two sections of SSC 200, Space Exploration: Toward a Space-Faring Society, in which they learned about space policy
and how to research problems in space exploration.

Students enrolled in the course were, for the most part, genuinely interested in space exploration — hardly a surprise. But they also became more supportive of space policy as the course went on. About two-thirds came into the course believing that our government should spend more on space exploration than it currently does. After exposure to the actual space budget, which constitutes less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, more than nine out of 10 students now believe we should increase space funding — a view shared by just one-fifth of U.S. adults, according to the 2016 General Social Survey.

What arguments could help get more of the public on board with space funding? When the students ranked what they believed would best convince space skeptics, they chose economic motivations:

-creation of spin-off companies and products

-new forms of energy

-job creation

These “utilitarian” justifications contrast with exploration for the sake of exploration — including the search for answers to questions about universal origins and the proliferation of life in the universe. They also contrast with some of the students’ top personal motivations, including peace that could develop out of international cooperation. 

I plan to teach the course again in upcoming semesters. It allows me to share my research on religion and space and also help implement one of my research conclusions: that those who believe in space exploration need to reach out to
religious constituencies as potential allies in our quest for the stars. 

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