In case you thought it was only theologians who debated strange questions like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin1 (ouch), today we have a group of sober (hic) scientists arguing over how many cherubim should waltz inside a space capsule. Consensus: none.
Not just scientists, no. Celebrities—I cross myself—too. Yes, and artists and even a few “religious leaders”, all of whom met at the “second annual 100 Year Starship Symposium“, a fÃªte funded by DARPA (hence you) “to ponder the technology, psychology, sociology, and economics of interstellar spaceflight”, and to debate on whether and how to freeze dry seraphim for the long journey.
Given the utterly insane, unimaginable distances between the stars—go ahead, try and imagine them—and the technology to reach them equivalent to a leaky bicycle tube strapped to the ankle of a blind, broken-legged, ninety-year-old swimmer trying to circumnavigate the globe, the question whether to “take religion on an interstellar voyage” is not especially pressing. But as befits queries whose answers matter not the least to anybody, flags were planted, positions were staked, tempers flared.
For example (according to Live Science, from where I lifted the title):
“The only way humanity can survive is if they leave behind the Earth-based religions,” charged Rev. Alvin Carpenter, pastor at First Southern Baptist Church West Sacramento. “If there’s any way to make this fail, bring Earth-bound religions.”
Wait a second. Reverend? Baptist? Must be a typo. Nope. “When you bring religion on a starship, you bring the toxicity that we have seen on Earth…This is something that we do not wish to export to the stars.” Religions, he said, echoing one of the Enlightenment’s most endearing myths, “breed aggression and conflict.” The reverend must enjoy repeating the punchline “A good start!” to that old Twentieth Century state-sponsored joke, “What do you call a body count of 100 million?”
Hang on. This is Reverend Carpenter, isn’t it? Living in that puntastic city Sacramento?
Incidentally, how long before the American Atheists sue to have them, and cities like Saint Anthony (San Antonio), change their name? Never mind.
Taking counterpoint to the good rev. was Jason Batt, group life director at Capital Christian Center, also from the city of the Blessed Sacrament, who said, “I’m not going to lie,” which is good news indeed, “we’ve got a horrible history,” which isn’t so good. Neither was this: “There is a nastiness around religion.” Batt used the strategy of constructive retreat, popular with many Christians, so that his opponent’s guard would be down as he slipped him the knife: “But I would argue that might be part of humanity in general.” TouchÃ©!
The real story is of course this curious, inaptly named Carpenter, who on his website said, “I challenge anyone to make a case that religion should be introduced to a multigenerations interstellar starship.” If he really is a Southern Baptist—which isn’t clear: not much info on his purported church—his stance may hint at what is happening to this once stalwart denomination.
He said, “I have pastored for 40 years and there is nothing I have done that could have not been done by an atheist.” I believe him. And that is true, or near enough, as we have seen, of preachers in many mainline Protestant congregations.
Carpenter’s views are probably outrÃ© to most Southern Baptists, or at least I hope they are (“[religions] all seek to expand by some form of coercion”, “why would God impose any moral code?”, etc. ). We must wonder, however, how DARPA pegged him as an expert of religion in space. Yours Truly never gets invited to serve on these kind of panels, even though he is as opinionated as Carpenter (he also has the advantage of being right, bearing in mind that nobody bats 1.000).
Nevertheless, the good Reverend has issued an official Challenge. Can we answer him? Can anybody provide good arguments that religion be taken into space? Can we discover scenarios where it would be positive rather than a negative? Or should we instead recommend to him some decaffeinated brands “which are just as tasty as the real thing?”
1A debate which never happened but was alleged to by those unable to follow theological arguments beyond minimal complexity.
Update Correction made as per Alvin Carpenter. Thanks!