Science, religion, and space exploration



Today I’m going to blog about a blog post that I find very interesting. It’s about one of my favorite subjects: science and religion.

Mark M. Gray is editor of a research blog for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).* On December 2, he wrote about the results of a public opinion survey conducted for CARA by the polling firm GfK Custom Research.

Respondents (about 2,000 adults in the U.S.) were asked:

1) “Do you believe the Earth’s demise is ultimately something we can understand and predict scientifically, or something in God’s hands and therefore unpredictable?”

2) “Do you believe that the destiny of human life is somewhere other than Earth or here on Earth?”

3) “How important, if at all, do you believe human exploration of space will be in the future?”

As to question #1, I wonder whether people would have responded differently if they were asked, “Do you believe the Earth’s demise is ultimately something we can understand and predict scientifically, or something that is unpredictable?”

In any case, Gray reports that more than six in ten respondents said they believe Earth’s future “is in God’s hands.” He also noted “a big divide in opinion between Christians and those of other religious affiliations or no affiliation.” Six percent of evangelical Christians, 34 percent of Catholics, and 82 percent of those with no religious affiliation said they believe Earth’s end is something science can understand and predict.

As to question #2, it came with some background: ““Scientists believe that in 4.5 billion years the Sun’s lifecycle will come to an end. Much earlier, in about 1 billion years, the sun will have become hotter and increased Earth’s temperature beyond a level where life, as we know it, is possible. Therefore, the long-term survival of humans may depend on space exploration and colonization. Do you believe that the destiny of human life is somewhere other than Earth or here on Earth?”

Also in regard to question #2, I will note my concern about the use of the term “destiny,” which is itself a religious concept. (See my March 2015 post on the subject.)

That said, Gray reports that 28 percent of respondents said they believe human destiny is on Earth, 27 percent said it’s in space, and 45 percent said they don’t know.

Given that, IMHO, survey results are, at best, indicators (not measures) of public opinion, the results of this survey, for those who place weight on such things, don’t provide any evidence that the U.S. citizenry is in favor of the human colonization of space.

On question #3, Gray reports that 70 percent of respondents said they believe human exploration of space will be “very” or “somewhat” important. As to how and why those respondents believe it’s important, that’s beyond the bounds of the survey.

(I’m somehow reminded of a stunning novel I read a year or so ago, The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber, in which a terrestrial corporation interested in developing an extrasolar planet recruits an English clergyman to develop relations with that planet’s indigenous people, who have mysteriously embraced the Christian Bible as a ”book of strange new things.” I recommend it….)

I’ve also recently come across a reference to research conducted by University of Dayton political scientist Joshua Ambrosius into “religious influences on public support for U.S. space exploration policy.” Ambrosius found that evangelical Protestants in the United States “are the least supportive of space policy.” According to a university press release about this project, Ambrosius found that “Evangelicals, who account for one-quarter of the U.S. population, are the least knowledgeable, interested and supportive of space exploration, while Jews and members of Eastern traditions were most attentive and supportive…. Among Catholics, there is more openness to space exploration.” (His findings about Catholics and evangelicals pretty much agree with the CARA survey results.)

Meanwhile, the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) is midway through its second and final year of inquiry into the possible societal impacts of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. For more information on this project, see CTI’s web site and this blog post.

Happy New Year to all, and keep thinking!

*For those of you who are, like me, not Catholic, according to the dictionary the Roman Catholic Church defines “apostolate” as “the dignity and office of the pope as head of the Apostolic See; the mission of bishops in their dioceses; an organization of the laity devoted to the mission of the Church.”