Faith In Outer Space (2015May03)


Sunday, May 03, 2015                                                       11:40 AM

Freedom of religion is a wonderful thing. It makes it possible for me to abstain from religion without being burnt at the stake or beheaded. That’s a good thing. It makes things better all around, for women, for gays, for children—the judgmental authoritarianism that allows the religious to marginalize women, condemn gays, and abuse children is prevented from becoming part of our legal system. And where such dogma is already infused into society, we have legal recourse to remedy the situation, as with the present argument in the Supreme Court over same-sex marriage.

Those with the notion that religious freedom should allow them to treat others differently, such as denying service to gays, do not understand the difference between religion and law. Belief is a mental phenomenon, not a physical one—where belief informs action, however, things get stickier. You can choose to live your own life as a believer, but imposing those beliefs on others is not ‘freedom’, it is its opposite—ingenuous piety notwithstanding.

Having gone from a civilization wherein religion was a given, to a civilization where religion is optional, we have achieved personal freedom. Those of us entirely without religion are tempted to view this as progress, with the inherent suggestion that religion is obsolete and will, one day, fade away. But believers see religious freedom as an accommodation to the variety of religions rather than as a step away from religion in general.

There’s a difference. We can be proud that human beings are the ‘only race’, the reason that God created the universe—or we can have the pride of a young race that is joining the galactic community by reaching the stars. If the former, we are encouraged to stay in our cradle, this fragile planet with limited resources and time. If the later, we know that we must leave this planet, colonize the solar system and perhaps beyond—or just wait to die out when the planet does. We can condescend to the stay-at-homes by justifying space exploration through its useful by-products, the science and the tech—but the real reason is just that we have to leave.

I can imagine some protest at that statement but be assured that I’m speaking in general terms. We don’t all have to leave—you, personally, don’t have to leave—I’m not expecting to get the opportunity to leave Earth within my lifetime. But eventually some of us have gotta go. Enough people have to populate the solar system to ensure the survival of the race beyond the Earth’s expiration date, whenever that may be.

The end of the Earth may not be coming soon, but it’s coming. We know that now—we know that Earth was once uninhabitable, that it will be again—we know that Earth floats amongst a sea of extinction-level-sized asteroids and meteors, any one of which could ‘hit the jackpot’ at any time. And beyond all the cosmological constraints, we also have to face the fact that our use of planetary resources may reach a tipping point long before any of these lesser probabilities manifest themselves.

We need to start getting our raw materials from further away, someplace where we’re not trying to breathe and drink water and grow food. And the human race could also use a little elbow room—one planet for seven billion people requires a lot of natural resources and a lot of real estate. Our solar system is begging to be colonized and developed. And our planet is begging for a break.

Does religion get in the way of this? Well, religion is authoritarian—it wants to be in charge. And those in charge are uncomfortable with change. Space exploration certainly qualifies as change. You do the math.

However, some changes might benefit us. Earth’s population may not benefit directly—even with the ability to emigrate to space, population growth on the surface wouldn’t change significantly. Overpopulation will eventually bleed this planet dry. But at the same time, a colonized solar system would see population growth as a good thing—and restless young people on Earth would have a frontier to turn to. If we’re going to overpopulate ourselves to death, it seems a small thing to allow some of that excess population to take a stab at perpetuating the species outside of our gravity-well. Think of it as back-up.

20150503XD-Rijk_ExplosionOdSpanishFlagship_BattleOGibraltar_vanWieringen1621

“The Explosion of the Spanish Flagship during the Battle of Gibraltar”  by Cornelis Claesz. van Wieringen, c. 1621    (Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum website)

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