Is Space or Nature the Great Modern Religion?

For many of today’s greenies, protecting nature is a religion in itself. The high priests are the climate scientists. Reducing your carbon footprint has replaced fasting. The three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – is the commandment everyone must obey. But there are a lot of people who think of space exploration in a similar way. In The Saints Go Blasting Off, Ross Andersen describes the religious aspects of the space movement in The Atlantic Monthly:

Think about how you feel when you see the Earth from space or the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon. These images are achievements of science, sure, but they also have a religious feel to them; they tug at something deeper than engineering, something sublime. When viewed as a whole, space exploration has a lot in common with religion. It offers us a salvation narrative, for instance, whereby we put our faith in technology in order to be delivered to new worlds. Its priests, figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson, extoll its virtues in what sound like sermons. In its iconography, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven and extraterrestrials are like gods—benevolent, kind, wise, capable of manipulating space and time.

What’s interesting is that some of the ferver that both groups feel today dates back to the first images taken from space of planet earth.  Environmentalists were inspired to save the small planet sitting alone in a sea of darkness, while Cosmists were inspired to understand more about the universe and the mysteries it holds.

Although the inspiration of the two groups might have some similarities, Andersen quotes Albert Harrison, a professor of Psychology at UC Davis, on the characteristics of Cosmism as a religion

 There are a couple different ways that you see the religious aspects of Cosmism. One place you see it is in the tremendous faith that both Russians and Americans have in technology; specifically, the idea that technology can solve the problems of humanity, and that we need to leave Earth to create a better society, to find, in some sense, perfection in space. You see this idea over and over when space exploration is discussed, the idea that we can leave behind the problems that plague society here on Earth and we create these wonderful new societies in space. There’s a general resemblance in this thinking to religious views of heaven, and in particular notions of salvation.

As Harrison describes it, the two groups could not be more different. Environmentalists think salvation is to be found by saving earth and its rich diversity. And particularly in its early days, environmentalism was very anti technology. Technology was seen as everything that was wrong with society. This contrasts sharply with images that NASA has been producing, with show an antiseptic, perfect world just waiting to be built on another planet.

The truth is, NASA and the Cosmists have done a much better job of inspiring us to think of our utopian future in space. From our first steps on the moon, the space program has been steeped in the American concepts of manifest destiny and our expansion westward. Space exploration was made very American and promised to help fulfill our country’s place in history.

Environmentalism has for the most part been about negative images. The burden has been that environmentalists have been fighting against an ugly present, while NASA has been offering a vision of a future that will probably never exist.

The environmental movement can learn a lot from the space program. Not that it should drastically underestimate the cost of a global warming program like NASA underestimated the costs of the space shuttle program, but certainly there are lessons to be found in the imagery.

One of the most powerful and lasting images from our space program is the shot of an astronaut planting a flag on the moon. A few years ago, I tried to reclaim that image for the environment. Planting a tree isn’t as exciting as building a colony on Mars, but at least we won’t have to wait until we are all dead to see the benefits.



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