Should Humanity Take Religion on Interstellar Space Voyages?

Source of photo

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 fête 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.” Touché!

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 outré 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!


  1. Rich

    How, I wonder, would the good Rev. answer the question, “Why would a loving parent stop their children eating sweets till they puked?”

  2. Have you read “Canticle for Leibowitz”? An interesting take on religion and, among other things, space travel.

  3. Luis Dias

    Bah, if you ask me you could pack the entire priesthood into a single ship so they can spread the good word in Alpha Centauri in a second.

    Good riddance.

    Seriously though, it’s one of those questions that I really could be without. There’s this film Contact that tried to tackle this issue as well.

    Of course, if a priest goes in one of those missions, the real “war” wouldn’t be inside the ship, but the whole shenanigans before it. Whose congregation should the priest come from? Should it be a catholic bishop? Or what about a Rabi? Or a muslim? Send Richard Dawkins instead? (ahah) Should it be a Mormon? The whole discussion over this subject would make me buy a lot of popcorn.

  4. Matt

    I recommend 50 lashes with a clue stick. Wait, no I don’t think the clue stick would be enough, how about a clue by 4? Still probably not enough. I know we should drop a cluetron bomb on him.

    He’s a minister, his job is supposed to be promoting the religion he was ordained by. I have known athiests less down on religion that him. I hope this guy doesn’t have an active congregation.

  5. Good morning William, and thanks for the comments. One correct, I did not say “Where humans go, they take religion with them,” that was Jason Batt. My point is not to take them with them, to destructive. Also, which religion? When a Christian argues taking a religion to the stars he (she) means his religions. Ask them that question. Yes, you are right, my denomination does not agree with me but consider why they do not. Like all religions they will begin to make their arguments as to why they should be chosen for the interstellar journey and not the others. Can someone show me a religion that is not homophobic, aggressive, intolerant, male denominate, and controlling?

    Thanks William for letting me think out loud

  6. Chinahand

    Re: Angels dancing on Pinheads

    Sure a pedant can claim no pins are mentioned, but good old Thomas Aquinas did state the following:

    Another kind of the indivisible is outside of the whole genus of the continuous; and in this way incorporeal substances, like God, angel and soul, are called indivisible. Such a kind of indivisible does not belong to the continuous, as a part of it, but as touching it by its power; hence, according as its power can extend itself to one or to many, to a small thing, or to a great one, in this way it is in one or in many places, and in a small or large place.

    To say scholastics didn’t debate these sorts of things in Medieval times is disingenuous. In fact surely we can debate them now – Prof Briggs, do you believe in Angels? Are they corporeal, or do you, as did Thomas, believe that they can extend themselves to one or to many, to a small thing or to a great one, in one place, or many, in a small place or large?

  7. R. Sherman

    So, then, do we ban personal religious faith from interstellar travel? Do we ban the Bible, a key foundational text in the study of Western history, philosophy, art and literature? To we ban Bach, Mozart, Raphael or El Greco because they dealt with religious themes? How about Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon?

    The fact of the matter is, religious faith and practice are indeed a part of our humanity and it cannot be “left behind.” We will always be asking the big questions and seeking transcendent answers, whether the good reverend thinks it advisable or not.

    And if Reverend Carpenter really hasn’t done anything and atheist could not have done during his ministry, I would respectfully suggest that he took the wrong career path.

    Regards from a devoted lurker.

  8. Ken

    ‘Should “religion” go into space?’

    First needing clarification are (incomplete list):

    – What “religion”?
    – Does that include the original source material, including historical contexts and associations & history…or….just the latest doctrine as asserted by…someone….????
    (this cuts to the core of letting a recipient objectively evaluate the presentation versus just being limited to one source’s synopsis–which would accommodate any particular toxic cult, for example)
    – Would this presentation of “religion” include a contextual warning of how wildly divergent interpretations will become (will become, not “can” become) and how wildly different implementations there will be? A historical context & warning about Christianity’s divergent interpretations leading to considerable Christian-on-Christian bloodshed, with fueds lasting generations (e.g. Protestants v. Catholics in N. Ireland) would be a reasonable, due diligence, warning of what comes with “religion.”

    After all, we can’t possible assert how wonderful this “drug” is, “religion,” without conveying the side effects we know happen, and which continue to happen, and which will continue to continue to happen.

    Not to mention, to be a convincing sell, we need to show how this particular “religion” (whatever it turns out to be) is presented in sufficient detail & context to ensure the recipipent can distinguish it from all the false, fabrictated & confabulated versions that are oh so similar.


  9. Luis Dias

    Ahah, this particular problem is so filled with landmines it is quite amazing mr. Briggs willingly stepped into it.

  10. Josh

    How have these people not read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy?

  11. Max Lybbert

    > Can anybody provide good arguments that religion be taken into
    > space? Can we discover scenarios where it would be positive rather
    > than a negative?

    One reason religion has such a long shelf life is that it provides things humans yearn for. For all the talk of freeing themselves from the shackles of organized religion, you’ll notice that atheists and agnostics often find something nonreligious that they can pursue with religious fervor; environmentalism being the prime example.

    One thing religion provides is perspective: life may be dreary today but things will get better in the long run (“the long run” including “after you die”). That perspective seems likely to me to be useful on a multigenerational interstellar voyage. Likewise, I would expect some portion of voyagers on such a journey to believe their life lacks direction, and religion has a proven track record of providing that kind of direction.

  12. Ken…thank you. I understand what it is I am saying. There are 34,000 different expressions of the Christian faith alone…all of which disagree with one another, which one would you like to take on the Colonized Interstellar Vessel? As to the beauty of the Bible, I have heard that argument often, in the hands of a fundamentalist it is a terrible thing. The Bible is not a cultural artifact, it is book that has been used to justify all kinds of terrible acts from the persecution of homosexuals, slavery, etc….that is not how the bible should be used but that is how it is used. Why would we expect anything different on a CIV?
    Great posts by the way…

  13. Tom Bri

    And how, pray tell, would they prevent religious people from joining such a mission? Strict pre-screening? For what, exactly?

    Even worse, given human history, without a doubt a ship full of the unreligious would soon enough create their own, new religions within a generation or two. And God only knows what bizzarre beliefs such religions would have.

  14. Luis Dias

    Reverend, are you in the clergy project? It is somewhat surprising reading a reverend speaking like Dawkins…

  15. Hi Tom. You are right in raising the question of how do you keep people with any destructive world view off the starships. The religious question may be the only barrier we cannot defeat in our quest to leave our solar system. We may have to wait until humanity outgrows its need for religion. We can believe in God without religion. Belief in God never presents a problem, it is the religions we insist upon that causes all the misery. If a space religion does come about it may seem bizarre to us earth dwellers, but it will be specific to them and their world within a ship.

  16. Hello Luis: I did not know what the clergy project was until I looked it up online. No, I am not in that crowd. I believe In God and never say anything on Sunday morning that I do not believe to be true. That is why I am always in hot water with my denomination. Who are we if we do not uphold truth as the greatest pursuit. IMHO, anyone that is in ministry and does not believe in God, yet tells the people he does, is dishonest and should find another livelihood. Truth from an atheist is far more desirable than lies from a believer, and more valuable.

    Liked your Dawkins comment.

  17. Luis Dias

    Well, that’s fine by me, mr Reverend. I have two reactions to your statements. First, they seem to me inconsistent. You are against religion and yet you do have a congregation. Do you think that is *not* religion? Second, I kinda like your version of a non-religious religion. Despite disagreeing with your theistic vision, I wouldn’t mind everyone having the same type of religion that you do. At. All.

  18. Luis, what I am against is bringing our religions with us to the stars. Earth is large and has so far been able to endure the brutishness of religion, but on a starship of a population of 10,000 it could not bear the orthodoxy of any single religion much less two, or three. Those of us here on earth are stuck with our religions. Many agree we have less than a thousand years on this planet and these starships will be the remnants of humanity. We have to get it right and give them the best possibility of success. There is a technological ceiling where the instruments of total destruction will become accesible to many. There are religions today that would love nothing better than destroy the earth thinking they are carrying out the plan of God. My denomination is not fit to be exported to the stars. People always ask why I am Southern Baptist. I find the people of the SBC wonderful folks, it is the leadership of the SBC that has caused us to grow more intolerant every year.

  19. Doug M

    Would personal expression of ones religous beliefs be outlawed? Wouldn’t this be a violation of civil rights?

    If we forbade the open practice of any of the traditional religions, and refused to bring any of the scripture, these colonists create a relgion of thier on in flight.

    Even without God, it seems that people divide themselves into sects based on politics, geography and athletic teams.

  20. Doug, On a starship everything must be different, everything depends on everyone cooperating for the common good and the common mission. No exceptions. I had a discussion with an attorney who is working is in the area of law in an interstellar ship and we discussed capitol punishment. I am against it here on earth but it would be a necessity on a star ship because to incarcerate someone for life would take away important resources. Interesting you bring up the topic of scripture because If you allow the Bible then you have to allow the Koran, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Dianetics, and all the rest. All of these scriptures carry very dangerous propositions when in the hands of a fundamentalist, as we all know.
    You say that even without religion people will still find ways to divide themselves. Perhaps with such a small population living in such a dangerous environment (death outside) and absolutely dependent upon one another they will find a way that has so far eluded us earth dwellers. We can only hope. But, one thing we do know for certain and the is religion is very divisive.

  21. Josh

    I take it back: A Canticle for Leibowitz (thanks John) seems to be more relevant to what this fellow has in mind.

  22. I read A Canticle for Leibowitz a long time ago and found it disturbing. The vision of the future and the role religion was playing depressed me in that I saw something ugly (I do not like that word but I think it carries a meaning I seek) about religion. I did not reject my faith but I began to examine it more closely. Good book.

  23. Doug M

    Father Alvin,

    “Everything depends on everyone cooperating for the common good and the common mission. No exceptions.”

    That is Fundamentalism.

    “Interesting you bring up the topic of scripture because If you allow the Bible then you have to allow the Koran, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Dianetics, and all the rest.”

    Absolutely, I come at this from the point of view of civil rights. So, whatever book, a colonist would like to bring, it would be in his rights to do so.

    “All of these scriptures carry very dangerous propositions when in the hands of a fundamentalist, as we all know.”

    Demagogues are dangerous. I doesn’t matter whether or not they have a holy book to wave. The worst in human history have all been atheists.

    Does the Navy have a problem with sectarianism aboard ship? Agreed, the years (or centuries) involved in interstellar travel are not quite the same as the months aboard ship, but it does give us some data to work from.

  24. Doug: You raise some good points.
    When in the military I served as a chaplain so was able to see how religion works in a highly structured authority based system (fundamentalism). Religion was regulated as to what was allowed and not allowed and if you violated these rules you were dismissed. Evangelism was highly frowned upon, you had to be ecumenical. I think on a starship this is the only way religion could be allowed, tightly controlled.
    I disagree with your statement “The worst in human history have all been atheists.” It does not matter if they are atheists or believers I think their terrible acts speak for itself. Evil has never been the exclusive domain of unbelievers and as a whole I find atheists to be very agreeable, forthright and a pleasure to engage in conversation. I have never found Christians to be any more moral than the atheists. One would think so but just not true. I think all of us value ethics and morals because the dividend is higher. A good honest life is produces a good life. Take this conversation, I do not have a clue if anyone here is a believer, atheist, agnostic, goat herder, or what…and I enjoy all of you! I can tell by your comments all of you great.

  25. Ye Olde Statistician

    e.g. Protestants v. Catholics in N. Ireland

    You mean Unionists vs. Republicans? There was an old joke in Ireland that ran: “If the king of England woke up Hindu, the Irish would be facing Mecca by nightfall.” No one has ever charged from the trenches crying “Transubstantiation!” You will always find a political armature on which the putty of religion has been applied. The Princes of the Empire did not secede because they wished to become Protestant. They became Protestant because they wished to secede.

  26. DAV

    Personally, I prefer canned cherubim to freeze-dried and nothing beats fresh.

  27. DAV

    In all seriousness though, religion fulfills some deep need in a lot of people. Questioning taking it into space is like asking whether sex or breathing should be taken into space. It will be dragged along regardless of the outcome of the debate when people go there.

  28. Luis Dias

    Sure, it would have to be tightly controled. I find the idea of capital punishment in the starship to be inhuman, which has the slight irony of being proposed by someone who considers religion to be “brutish” and so on.

    The reason given for the capital punishment is obviously flawed: every resource allocated for the criminal is already accounted for in the launch, so it’s not as if the ship is going to run down faster in resources. Build a brig, which in a thousand people crew will be utterly mandatory to have. Even the optimistic polyanna universe of Star Trek has no starship without them.

    Also, freedom of thought should be allowed, and thus freedom of religion (and from religion, obviously).

    The hierarchy inside the ship has necessarily to be military -inspired and secular. Clear chains of command. Culturally, an inspiration from something akin to the american constitution is advised. Thus, even acknowledging the current military organization, one should never forget values that run counter to it such as freedom.

  29. JohnGalt


    I think the only real problem would be taking more than one religion.

  30. rank sophist

    Why should religion be taken into space? Well, let’s see.

    First, even if it isn’t, then there is literally no question that our space people will invent new ones. This is what mankind does: they ask the Big Questions and follow out the answers to their conclusions. The result is a lot of different religions that almost all, when you look at their goals, aim at the same thing: supra-rational truth experienced through mysticism. You see it in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and countless others. (Historically, it’s the religions that don’t offer this–Greek, Roman, Norse, etc.–that end up dying out.) So, again: whether or not we have the appropriate revelation to guide us, we will, inevitably, grasp for supra-rational truth in space.

    Second, to prevent religion from going into space is to impose state atheism. But history tells us that state atheism is even more oppressive than theocracy–I’ll take the Inquisition over the gulags any day. Plus, state atheism has a nasty habit of bringing out nihilism, which is more destructive than any religion. Those concerned about “Islamofascism” should take a look at the orgy that was the Cult of Reason, or, perhaps, the reign of Pol Pot. I’ll take my hijabs, thanks.

    Third, I’d be curious to know why religion shouldn’t be allowed. If it’s a concern about destructive ideology, then I think we can all agree that atheists do a great job of that on their own. If it’s a concern about freedoms, then I’d like to remind everyone that totalitarianism is generally non-religious. If it’s a concern about a propagation of superstition, then it should be noted that our current crop of atheists take seriously the “findings” of evolutionary psychology, and in fact live by them.

    In conclusion, I can see no reason not to include religion, and decent reasons to include it.

  31. Andy

    Who put the Rev. In charge?

    It would seem to me no one, so we can ignore him. And merely point out that religion has already gone into space with the American moon landings.

  32. Francisco

    According to most evangelical atheists with an appropriately mechanistic view of genes, religion is in the human genetic code and will arise spontaneously in a large subset of humans no matter what. These are the people who write books like “The God Gene” and so on. Their idea is that they themselves belong to a set that has managed to shut off these “genes”, or somehow escape their dictates.

    I do subscribe to the view that theistic proclivities are an eminently human trait that must naturally have arisen as a consequence of humans developing a very enhanced thinking organ that allowed them to think up tough questions, in comparison with our other brothers in the animal family who content themselves with lazier thoughts. The evangelical atheists propose that the development of these theistic “genes” arose as a survival mechanism in our ancestors, who sought to calm their anxiety and fear (of predators, of cataclysms) by imagining themselves under the protection of one or more invisible fatherly figures. Those not equipped with this soothing mechanism were gradually selected out due to their higher levels of stress. They just couldn’t cope with the horror of a Godless universe. However, they were not completely eliminated, and present atheists are the heroic heirs of this special subset. I’ve actually read explanations like these on various forum discussions that I visit for entertainment purposes. It seems to me that if these things were true, many herbivores who seem to live in a permanent state of apprehension should have developed some kind of theistic and praying tendencies long ago. There is no evidence that they have, though you never know what a deer or a rabbit is thinking.

    But the basic premise that theistic tendencies arise spontaneously in humans as a result of their capacity for metaphysical reflection, seems rather sound to me.

    So an interstellar voyage would have no choice but to carry religion on board. Even if the passengers were carefully selected and confirmed to be hard core atheists, there is no guarantee that some of these dormant “genes” could not be triggered into action at a later point, perhaps even during the voyage itself as a result of the terrifying vastness of space or some other cause. And even if they didn’t, it’s a certainty that some of their offspring would be born with these “genes” in good working order.

    Therefore, religion cannot be prevented from traveling in an interstellar voyage. QED.

  33. Josh

    I wonder what the “reverend” would think if, upon contact with an alien race among the stars, he discovered the same sort of religious ideas that are on Earth without all the postmodern gunk of trying to forget their own nature and history. Would the consistent thing to do for him be the annihilation of the culture? If not, why not? After all, the premise is that religion is bad, which implies that destroying it is good.

  34. Josh

    @Josh (uh-oh):

    That’s exactly what happens in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. And your question about annihilation is explored in the latter book.

  35. MH

    If I remember correctly, in Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Songs of Distant Earth’ religion is banned from the deep space cruisers leaving the doomed earth.

    It is sometimes suggested that religion is a fantasy for those unable to accept the reality of death. Perhaps some atheists need to indulge in power fantasies because they are unable to accept the continuing vigour of religion.

  36. JWDougherty

    I believe Robert Heinlein dealt with this question in detail in Orphans of the Sky. Rev. Carpenter is apparently in concurrence. Religion on slow-ships could be a real problem. Being a Sacramentan I am astonished that not one but two rev’s from the Big Tomato were invited.

  37. RobR

    I think this would be best approached as Pascal’s Wager. A ship of all atheists would be the worst bet. A ship of all the “right” theists would be the best. Since the “right” theist is unknown, a mix of the greatest number of different types of theists should be the safest bet.

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