Religions for a Galactic Civilization

by William Sims Bainbridge

Paper given at the Nineteenth Goddard Memorial Symposium of the American Astronautical Society, Pentagon City, Virginia, March 26-27, 1981.
Subsequently published in: Science Fiction and Space Futures, edited by Eugene M. Emme. San Diego: American Astronautical Society, 1982, pages 187-201.


The End of Progress
The Spaceflight Revolution
The Church of God Galactic

Religions for a Galactic Civilization

Religion shapes science and technology, and is shaped by them in return. It has become fashionable to assume that religion and science simply are opposed, and that science has been winning the battle over the past century. But much historical evidence indicates that religion of a certain kind was instrumental in the rise of science and modern technology.[1] Today, Mormonism, which began in the previous century as a tiny cult, is not only the fastest-growing large denomination but also a great patron of scholarship and promoter of science.[2] Religion will continue to influence the course of progress, and creation of a galactic civilization may depend upon the emergence of a galactic religion capable of motivating society for the centuries required to accomplish that great project. This essay will explain the necessity for such a Church of God Galactic ("CGG") and will suggest that its most likely origins are in science fiction.

Despite competition from science in the West and totalitarian oppression in the East, religion has a future. All human societies have possessed religion, because it serves universal human needs.[3] People want to feel that life is meaningful and that there is hope for future rewards even as the end of life draws near. The most recent theories argue that religion will arise in all intelligent species possessing society -- a structure of social relations among individuals -- and which are gripped by strong desires which the current level of technology cannot satisfy.[4]

Modern industrial society has been marked by secularization, an historical trend in which traditional religious organizations lose influence. This is caused by three main factors. First, the development of science has discredited some traditional beliefs to the general discredit of traditional systems of faith. Second, the development of political radicalism has offered deprived members of society the hope of triumph and glory here on earth, rather than in the supernatural Heaven where they previously sought it. Third, the geographical mobility which many persons experience in modern society tears them away from the congregation in which they were raised, without automatically affiliating them with a particular congregation near their new home.

These factors undercut traditional religion but open the way for novel cults, some of which will be the established denominations of the future. Contrary to what one might think, persons without current religious affiliation are not typically atheistic, secular rationalists. In fact, compared to other groups they are more open to deviant supernatural beliefs, and thus are potential recruits for novel cults.[5] Secularization does not mean a decline in the need for religion, but only a loss of power by traditional denominations. Studies of the geography of religion show that where the churches become weak, cults and occultism will explode to fill the spiritual vacuum.[6]

Very recently, throughout the industrialized nations, we have seen a loss of faith in the promises of radical politics, although there is no abating of revolutionary pressures in developing nations. The progressive collapse of utopian politics will remove a major competitor and permit religious revival. While old religions may be at odds with modern science, some of the most recent cults are cloaked in the garb of science. And the most successful new religions have learned to use geographic mobility to their advantage, recruiting aggressively among those individuals who are temporarily adrift in society without an anchor in the community.[7]

Most novel religions are likely to retard rather than promote space exploration, because they focus on "inner space" and mystical experiences rather than on "outer space" and practical action. An extreme example is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Hare Krishna cult, which expressed itself on the subject of spaceflight in a book, Easy Journey to Other Planets. The cover illustration shows drab Apollo vehicles approaching the moon through a bleak and inhuman space environment, contrasted with a Hare Krishna dancer blissfully floating upward through bright celestial bubbles, reaching out his arms to his Lord. In the introduction, cult founder A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami argues for spiritual rather than technical ascendancy:

The latest desire man has developed is the desire to travel to other planets. This is also quite natural, because he has the constitutional right to go to any part of the material or spiritual skies. Such travel is very tempting and exciting because these skies are full of unlimited globes of varying qualities, and they are occupied by all types of living entities. The desire to travel there can be fulfilled by the process of yoga, which serves as a means by which one can transfer himself to whatever planet he likes -- possibly to planets where life is not only eternal and blissful, but where there are multiple varieties of enjoyable energies. Anyone who can attain the freedom of the spiritual planets need never return to this miserable land of birth, old age, disease and death.[8]

Thus, we are urged to reach the stars by chanting "Hare Krishna," rather than by building crass, material spaceships. Since we are going to have religion, whether we want it or not, we'd best have religions which promote scientific discovery and space progress rather than retrograde faiths which oppose them and might even lead to a new Dark Age. Indeed, I suggest that societies will not develop interplanetary civilizations without the transcendent motivations and perspectives which religion can best provide. Quite aware that I enter the arena of wild speculation, I shall sketch briefly the outlines of an argument stating that science and technology naturally contain the seeds of their own destruction, unless controlled by a firm, transcendent rudder like religion.

The End of Progress

Some proponents of spaceflight comfort themselves with the thought that ours is an aggressive, exploratory species, driven by our instincts to conquer the universe. Of course, such a theory rests on very crude notions of "human instincts" and on questionable assumptions of how our species will express its innate drives in future ages. Behavioral scientists are not at all convinced that aggressive and exploratory instincts really explain human history. An alternate view is that socioeconomic factors produce aggression and exploration, building on only the most general natural urges which might find expression through many different patterns of behavior, dependent upon environmental conditions.

Animate life is motivated to solve basic problems of food, security and reproduction. Intelligence emerges in biological evolution only when it improves organisms' capacity to solve these problems. A young intelligent species, like our own, retains many socially and biologically conditioned behavioral tendencies (call them customs and instincts, if you like) which helped our species solve these basic problems under the conditions in which our species came into being. Now, technological development has transformed the conditions of our life and presents us with many alternate means of satisfying our basic needs. Customs and instincts are fast becoming dysfunctional atavisms, to be discarded in the service of our need for security.

We have the capacity to provide food and shelter to all members of our species. The erotic urges which sustained human reproduction when high death rates demanded high birth rates have become disturbing influences rather than essential to our survival. But now they can be satisfied in many ways, and a world-wide consciousness has developed that unrestrained reproduction is no longer acceptable. Not only birth control techniques and deviant sexual practices, but also the arts and many other forms of sublimation can satisfy these erotic urges. Some in the past suggested that interplanetary colonization could enable human population to expand indefinitely. But even the most rudimentary consideration of the mathematics of population growth proves that colonization could handle only an infinitesimal portion of the population increment which unfettered reproduction would produce. Thus, an "instinct" which might serve spaceflight must instead be satisfied through transforming it rather than by letting it drive us into the universe.

I think it is very likely that ancient intelligent species will have evolved static societies which have achieved containment of instinct -- which have transformed themselves culturally and biologically to satisfy natural desires in the most efficient and safest ways. The social conditions which magnify aggressive and exploratory drives are highly dangerous. They generate pressures toward war before they generate pressures toward interstellar colonization. Perhaps such "outward urges" could fuel an ambitious space program. But for individuals and small groups, quicker rewards of power and property can be obtained through competition against other individuals and groups. Thus, all societies which continue to be aggressive and expansionist will be politically unstable. When they reach our level of technological development, they enter a period of extreme danger, and the risk of nuclear annihilation is only the most obvious of the ways they could bring doom upon themselves.

At the same level of technological development intelligent species acquire effective techniques for modifying themselves, socially and biologically. Electronic communication and rapid transportation make possible a stifling world government. Techniques such as genetic engineering, psychoactive drugs and electronic control of the brain make possible a transformation of the species into docile, fully-obedient, "safe" organisms. Not interstellar flight but stasis becomes the order of the day -- the policy of the millennium and of the aeon. Some species may fail to transform themselves, and they will survive only briefly before destroying themselves in nuclear war or in some other suicidal catastrophe which we may not yet even imagine.

If interstellar colonization, therefore, is ever to be possible, it must be begun very rapidly, within a few short decades of the development of nuclear physics and biological engineering. Ordinary socioeconomic forces will be insufficient to launch galactic exploration this rapidly, and only transcendent social movements could possibly channel enough of a society's resources into the project to succeed before either stasis or annihilation. Such a social movement, entirely secular in nature, was able to exploit political and military tensions to achieve the first great steps in space, but entirely new social forces will be required to impel our species much further.

The Spaceflight Revolution

The fact that our planet is not overrun by extraterrestrial visitors is probably the most perplexing and daunting observation which bears on the future of spaceflight. We have agreed that planets are common throughout the universe, that life will emerge on many of them, and that a significant proportion of these worlds eventually will develop technological civilizations. Design sketches for interstellar probes suggest that colonization across the stars is feasible if very expensive. Suppose the typical colonizing fleet travels only at one thousandth of the speed of light, that the typical distance between parent and offspring worlds is twenty-five light years, and that a colony is ready to spawn a new generation of colonies after a thousand years of economic development. Even under these very conservative assumptions, a spacefaring society would be able to colonize the entire galaxy in something like one hundred million years. While a long period of time in human terms, this is but a small fraction of the time life has existed on earth and a smaller fraction of the age of the galaxy. Furthermore, the simultaneous emergence of several space-faring societies would get the job done much quicker. And, there are no grounds for arguing that ours was the planet first ready to support life. Why, then, has not the entire galaxy already been colonized?

Many tentative explanations have been proposed. In his story, "Asylum," A. E. van Vogt suggested that the galaxy in fact has been colonized, but that our world has been set aside as an asylum or wildlife preserve where our species can live and develop undisturbed.[9] Or, perhaps ours is the first space-faring society to develop in this part of the universe. After all, some society must be first. But for all the cheering alternate explanations, it is hard to escape the conjecture that some unidentified factors prevent societies from colonizing across interstellar distances. There may be many civilizations in the galaxy, all of them indigenous to their worlds, but none which spread across immensity to the stars.

As a social scientist, I naturally wonder whether there might not be limiting social factors -- meaning the term "social" very broadly to include the forms of interaction between components of even very alien cultures. These factors might be identified by turning the question around, asking what factors might cause a society to achieve interstellar colonization and then examining whether each of them is really capable of accomplishing this difficult job.

Consider how near-Earth spaceflight was achieved. A small, dedicated social movement of space enthusiasts learned how to exploit the political and military tensions in Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States to develop launch vehicles in the guise of long-range weapons. A more risky and unlikely course could hardly be charted! Certainly, no one denies that the ICBM is a potent delivery system for atomic warheads. But the most efficient American missiles are incapable of placing anything but the lightest research satellites in orbit. Had not the Russians and Americans competed to produce ICBMs so early in the development of atomic explosives -- when they were large and heavy -- the big military boosters which got the space program started would never have developed.

Had Wernher von Braun's V-2 project been a little slower, or had the German army been a little less easy to exploit by his wing of the spaceflight movement, then the ICBM would have been delayed considerably in its development. The strategic delivery role would have gone to cruise missiles in the 1950s, as it nearly did, and atomic warheads would have been refined to the point at which no rocket much larger than the Minuteman would ever have been built. Thus, as I have argued in my book, The Spaceflight Revolution, modern space rocketry was an improbable outcome of very unpredictable historical events.[10] To use an astronautical metaphor: the historical launch window for the space program was very narrow and the slightest delay in the spaceflight social movement would have missed it entirely.

Arthur C. Clarke has interpreted my analysis of the social history of spaceflight a little more optimistically, saying my book concluded that "space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century."[11] Perhaps he is right. Perhaps all highly developed industrial societies will naturally exploit the space environment. But I think that such a delay of a century might be fatal. The static advanced societies (which I imagine all successful intelligent species will develop) may have some use for the space immediately surrounding their planets, but no use for space beyond synchronous orbit. Will they dredge iron and uranium from the reefs of space? No, they will shift to renewable resources and low-risk energy systems.

Few advanced technological societies will be able to afford transcendent goals -- because such goals are never consensual but always involve radical social movements. Any species which continues to permit radical social movements will produce nuclear Nazis and blow itself up. Of course, the quicker a society goes into space, the better its chance of surviving until the task is completed, then evolving into a more peaceful state. Thus, the conquest of the galaxy demands mutation, as Clarke uses the term. It demands a great leap taken in a short period of history, rather than a slow, gradual development. The launch window which opened on the galaxy will soon close.

At the moment it seems we have stopped leaping. True, the following decades will probably see greatly expanded use of the near-Earth space environment for commercial and military purposes. But it is hard to see what form of ordinary, practical exploitation will take us beyond synchronous orbit. To become fully interplanetary, let alone interstellar, our society would need another leap -- and it needs that leap very soon before world culture ossifies into secure uniformity. We need a new spaceflight social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society. It also should be capable of holding the society in an expansionist phase for the longest possible time, without permitting divergence from its great plan. In short, we need a galactic religion, a Church of God Galactic.

The Church of God Galactic

To be effective in promoting space development, a future CGG would have to incorporate pro-space ideas in its central dogma. Potentially effective interplanetary beliefs have appeared with some frequency in cultic doctrines for at least two centuries, and their frequency may be on the increase at present. In 1758, cult founder Emanuel Swedenborg published a book titled, The Earths in our Solar System, which are Called Planets and the Earths in the Starry Heavens their Inhabitants and Spirits and Angels thence from Things Heard and Seen.[12] The first Swedenborgian church in the United States was established in Baltimore in 1792. The two significant Swedenborgian denominations were the General Convention of the New Jerusalem, founded in 1817, and the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which split away in 1840. Since the end of the nineteenth century, these cults have been in decline, suffering a 23 percent drop in membership from 1890 to 1926, when there were about 6500 members, and a further drop of 60 percent from 1926 to 1970.[13]

Swedenborg claimed he had communicated with extraterrestrial beings, using astral projection, and reported on their environments, cultures and theological views. Similar notions appeared later in Theosophy, a disorganized but influential cult which emerged in the late nineteenth century. But these groups failed to make technological interplanetary flight and communication central to their doctrines. More committed to promoting spaceflight are the various flying saucer cults which have appeared since the late 1940s.

J. Gordon Melton's monumental Encyclopedia of American Religions reports the histories and doctrines of thirteen flying saucer cults: Mark-Age, Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, Star Light Fellowship, Universariun Foundation, Ministry of Universal Wisdom, White Star, Understanding Incorporated, The Aetherius Society, Solar Light Center, Unarius, Cosmic Star Temple, Cosmic Circle of Friendship, and Last Day Messengers.[14] These groups mix together various supernatural notions from many other traditions, but a common thread is the idea that the Earth is but a small part of a vast inhabited galaxy. Some, like The Aetherius Society, contend that our planet is the pawn in an unseen interstellar war, and if such a cult became influential our society might invest in cosmic defenses which incidentally would develop the planets as bastions. Others feel we must perfect ourselves in order to quality for membership in the Galactic Federation of enlightened species, and if such a cult became influential our society might invest much in the attempt to contact the galactic government.

These flying saucer cults are all quite insignificant, but one like them could well rise to prominence in a future decade. We need several really aggressive, attractive space religions, meeting the emotional needs of different segments of our population, driving traditional religions and retrograde cults from the field. New cults tend not to be very creative, but draw their practices and doctrines from other groups and traditions.[15] If they are to get galactic visions, the best source is probably science fiction. Not only does science fiction offer grand images of galactic civilizations and specific notions of how to achieve them, but it is drenched in occult and pseudoscientific ideas which might well serve people's religious needs if packaged in new churches.

Religion is a common topic in science fiction, and SF writers have considered it from several perspectives. In The Gods of Mars and in The Master Mind of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs sharply criticized religion for enslaving believers -- for murdering the scientific spirit as well as murdering human sacrifices. Sometimes religion has been seen more sympathetically, even though in conflict with science, as a humane corrective for the excesses of technology gone mad. Examples include A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller and "The Quest for Saint Aquin" by Anthony Boucher. Still other stories have been essays in theology and theodicy for a scientific society, for example "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke and "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish.[16]

More relevant for those who might want to engineer a Church of God Galactic are stories which sketch newly invented religions, cults which might-actually come into existence and if successful shape public policy toward science and technology. Fritz Leiber's novel, Gather Darkness!, tells of a future age after interplanetary war threatened destruction of the human species. Scientists developed a new religion to hold humanity in a kind of medieval stasis to avoid uncontrolled progress, using technological tricks like emotion-generating rays and angel-shaped airplanes to simulate miracles. In Sixth Column, by Robert A. Heinlein, America has been defeated and occupied by Asian armies. Secretly, six Americans have developed new military technologies which could liberate their nation if only there were some way of organizing resistance right under the noses of the conquerors. They succeed by cloaking their revolutionary science as harmless religion.[17]

Raymond F. Jones' novel, The Alien, was set in a future century when government and other institutions of society were crumbling. The common people hungered for a messiah, but traditional religions had failed them. Deep in the asteroid belt, archaeologists studying a long-dead extraterrestrial civilization discovered a time capsule containing the body of Demarzule, a great leader who had brought his species across the galaxy. He was not dead but held in suspended animation, ready for revival. Over the months necessary to bring Demarzule back to life, a new religion seized the popular mind, and at the moment of his awakening Demarzule was made dictator of the Earth.[18]

This story may be prophetic. If mankind cannot solve its problems, a semi-religious movement might indeed arise to seek guidance from more advanced beings out in the galaxy. Great resources might be spent listening for radio signals. Perhaps the project would succeed in picking up messages from other technological civilizations, and this in a multitude of ways would stimulate practical development of spaceflight. Thus, we may hear the voices of other "men" through instruments designed to receive the voice of God.

Interstellar communication by radio or other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum is technically less difficult than physical travel to other inhabited systems. But still there are two factors which make it expensive. First, someone has to bear the expense of high-powered broadcasting. Second, someone must pay for a vast program to search the sky for signals. Two-way communication (across centuries of time as well as across light centuries of distance) requires that both civilizations sustain both projects for very long periods. But such projects are probably within the budgets of large religious organizations, not even requiring the Church of God Galactic to extort funds from the secular government. Perhaps the first signals we receive will be sermons from space, a kind of Galactic Gospel Hour. Or, perhaps the first messages from the stars will be prayers, directed not at us but at a far higher audience. How an extraterrestrial CGG would react to a hello from us over a channel reserved for God, I cannot say.

Today there exists one highly effective religion actually derived from science fiction, one which fits all the known sociological requirements for a successful Church of God Galactic. I refer, of course, to Scientology. I must explain at once that I myself am not a Scientologist and do not mean to promote this novel religion. Indeed, two of my published scientific articles might be taken as quite critical of Scientology's claims and origins.[19] Yet I shall conclude this essay with a discussion of Scientology, because it may indeed be the first of the science fiction religions to become a large, influential denomination and because it does indeed promote galactic civilization.


The founder of Scientology was L. Ron Hubbard, a former science fiction writer. Not the most subtle of authors, Hubbard was nonetheless one of the most popular in the 1940s, friend of the leading editor, John W. Campbell, and friend of two top writers, Robert A. Heinlein and A.

E. van Vogt. Although his fiction tended to be rough, macho adventure or magical fantasy, rather than incorporating much true science, Hubbard wrote of galactic civilization as a highly desirable next step in human history. For example, the motto of his novel, To the Stars, was: "Man shall triumph at last amongst the stars."[20]

One piece of evidence that Scientology may promote galactic consciousness is a remarkable little book proudly titled, This Quarter of the Universe is Ours! It is a handbook, filled with computer printout, giving full instructions for making three-dimensional maps of the stellar neighborhood. The introduction thanks science fiction for the original inspiration, and the author's mottoes at the beginning are clearly taken from Scientology dogma. Privately produced, this book reminds us that a dynamic religion can influence positive action even outside its own organizational structure.[21]

Scientology first emerged not as a religion but as a form of do-it-yourself psychotherapy called Dianetics. Announced in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1950, Dianetics promised to cure all psychosomatic ills and improve a person's mental and social effectiveness.[22] This initial emphasis on self-improvement has been an essential ingredient in Scientology's success, and future growth of the movement depends on convincing millions of recruits to hope the cult will give them great personal benefits. A second strength of Scientology is the fact that it employs numerous interpersonal communication exercises, some similar to psychoanalysis and others to T-group activities, which have the effect of building powerful emotional bonds linking the members. No new religion can grow without these two strategies, and the third requisite for success is the integration of hope and rituals into a system of supernatural belief which compensates members for the movement's inability to achieve full success in the mundane world inhabited by mortals. This Scientology has achieved gradually over the past three decades.

In 1950, Hubbard said he could help the first Dianetics clients achieve a high state of functioning called clear. When a calculator is incorrectly programmed by false information which causes false results, it is only necessary to press the clear button and reprogram. Hubbard asserted his mental techniques could activate the clear command in human minds and restore them to the condition of perfection which was their natural state. Among the alleged talents of a clear person -- of a clear as he was called -- were perfect memory and vastly increased intelligence. Unfortunately, tests of the first clears revealed no such mental superiority.[23]

When Hubbard's movement was transformed from the psychotherapy of Dianetics into the religion of Scientology, members were taught that some of the ultimate benefits could be attained only outside the normal confines of material existence. High states of being, several levels of "Operating Thetan," were postulated above clear, and Scientologists today labor to perfect themselves through a sequence of spiritual techniques of great complexity. Several of the doctrines place humans in a galactic context. For one thing, Scientologists believe that the souls ("Thetans") of deceased humans spend time in special interplanetary stations, being stripped of memories and deprived of power, before being inserted into a new body perhaps on an alien planet. Thus, people already are citizens of the galaxy, in the cult's dogma.

As in psychoanalysis, one of the main techniques of Scientology has people enter the world of memory, recalling early traumatic incidents which supposedly left subconscious memory traces called engrams. These engrams reduce the person's level of effectiveness in the present, and must be removed. Scientology therapists locate and discharge their patients' engrams with the help of a simple lie-detector called the E-meter, which measures the emotional response of the patient to recollections and probing questions. When this process failed to produce clears, Hubbard simply postulated that engrams from the earliest moments of life had to be found and dissolved.

Soon, Hubbard's patients were reporting memories from the womb and from previous incarnations. Of course, we might assume Scientologists merely imagine these prenatal events, but they say they experience them as true memories. It seems to me that Scientology's techniques must be very powerful means of indoctrination if they can actually alter participants' memories, techniques capable of committing millions of people to creating a galactic civilization if that were the goal set for them. The intense achievement orientation of the cult is another great asset for a CGG.

The science fiction origins of Scientology shape the new identities people acquire in the cult's processing. Many develop past histories on other planets, and from this may come the desire to visit these planets again. And members may be prepared to work on the project of colonizing the galaxy knowing they are preparing planets for them to live on in future incarnations. How else could people believe they, personally, will benefit from a task which will take centuries to complete!

One book of Scientology case histories, Have You Lived Before This Life?, reports on 42 previous incarnations, 17 of which took place on other planets or in outer space. The planets have suspiciously Greco-Roman names, like those from low-grade science fiction of the 1940s, such as: Setus, Nostra, Alloa, Ledera III, and Alcyon. The stories are dream-like, evidence that they express really deep longings and fears, rather than just evidence of their impossibility. One report, for example, tells of a science fiction adventure recalled by one "PC" or "preclear," by one person in processing to become clear:

... various other pictures and sensations uncovered which eventually added up to a section of the incident concerning a giant Manta Ray type of aquatic creature which the preclear had seen while underwater. Had been killed by the Manta Ray and had then assumed the identity of the Manta Ray. What had happened before and after this was hidden for a good while. In searching the area previous to the sea incident, a picture of a flying-saucer type of space-ship brought a marked drop on the E-meter. Investigated this further to find the engram started on the space-ship. The ship had needed an outside repair. On going outside, the preclear had been hit by a meteorite particle which had not punctured the suit. At this point an acute pain under the arm where the meteor had struck, occurred. The PC clambers back into the space-ship. Later the atomic engines of the ship break down and the PC has to repair these and apparently receives radio-active burns. He finds that he has to leave the ship and so falls from a ladder into the sea where he encounters the Manta Ray.[24]

Scientology is a large, rich, international movement. Already it has suffered religious schisms which spawned other cults, like the Satanic cult I described in a recent ethnography.[25] None of the offspring is as good a promoter of spaceflight as is Scientology itself. Its future is uncertain, and there are many challenges ahead. Some time in the next few years, its seventy-year-old founder will die, but Hubbard has left day-to-day operation of the movement to a highly trained staff for the past fifteen years. There is every reason to believe Scientology will survive Hubbard and continue to grow. According to the ideology, Hubbard should be reincarnated on another planet. Therefore, if the cult grows into a large denomination then falls upon hard times, it may well launch a radio-telescope project to detect extraterrestrial signals in the hope that Hubbard himself will guide them from across the galaxy!


My speculations may have seemed outlandish and absurd. But, in the literal meaning of the term, the universe itself is outlandish. The human condition is one of extreme absurdity unless fixed in a cosmic context to provide meaning. Human societies need faith, and if they lose traditional faiths they will struggle to discover new faiths, lest they collapse. Many intelligent species probably end progress in a stew of mysticism, drugs, and decadent social institutions which finally petrifies into a form of living extinction. Most of the rest destroy themselves more violently. A precious few, and we may be the first of this rare breed in our neighborhood, progress so rapidly, stimulated and guided by transcendent social movements, that they achieve interstellar communication and colonization before entering a static cultural phase.

Once colonization is under way, a relatively static culture is quite consistent with further expansion, as James Blish noted in his classic tetralogy of novels, Cities in Flight.[26] Indeed, isolated colonies may re-ignite rapid progress as they cope with the challenges of alien environments. A species which does conquer the stars will have developed a culture including a cosmic religious faith well-adapted to continue expansion indefinitely. Spread across thousands of worlds, it greatly increases the chance that still greater cultural mutations will emerge which lead to higher levels of development currently beyond our capacity to imagine.

Thus it is wrong to feel that irrational religion must always be a hindrance to progress. I have suggested that only a transcendent, impractical, radical religion can take us to the stars. The alternative is one or another form of ugly death. A successful outcome depends on a kind of lucky insanity, and it is quite unlikely. But for our species, at least it is still possible.


1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner's, 1958); Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973); Joseph Ben-David, The Scientist's Role in Society (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

2. Kenneth R. Hardy, "Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars," Science 185 (August 9, 1974): 497-506.

3. Talcott Parsons, "Evolutionary Universals in Society," American Sociological Review 29:3 (June 1964): 339-357.

4. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, "Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18:2 (June 1979): 117-133; "Towards a Theory of Religion; Religious Commitment," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19:2 (June 1980): 114-128.

5. William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark, "Superstitions: Old and New," The Skeptical Inquirer 4:4 (Summer 1980): 18-31; "The 'Consciousness Reformation' Reconsidered," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 20:1 (1981): 1-16; "Friendship, Religion, and the Occult: A Network Study," Review of Religious Research 22:4 (1981): 313-327.

6. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, "Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation," Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion, 4 (1980): 85-119; "Secularization and Cult Formation in the Jazz Age," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 20:4 (1981): 360-373.

7. John Lofland and Rodney Stark, "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective," American Sociological Review, (1965) 30: 862-875; Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects," American Journal of Sociology 85:6 (1980): 1376-1395.

8. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Easy Journey to Other Planets (Boston: ISKON Press, 1970), preface.

9. A. E. van Vogt, "Asylum," Astounding Science Fiction 29:3 (May 1942): 8-33.

10. William Sims Bainbridge, The Spaceflight Revolution (New York. Wiley-Interscience, 1976).

11. Arthur C. Clarke, "The Best Is Yet to Come," Time (July 16, 1979): 27.

12. Emanuel Swedenborg, The Earths in our Solar System, etc. (Boston: Massachusetts New Church Union, 1950).

13. Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge and Lori Kent "Cult Membership in the Roaring Twenties," Sociological Analysis 42:2 (1981): 137-162.

14. J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions (Wilmington, North Carolina: McGrath, 1978), Vol. II, pp. 198-213.

15. William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark, "Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models," Sociological Analysis 40:4 (Winter 1979): 283-295.

16. Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Gods of Mars (New York: Ballantine 1963); The Master Mind of Mars (New York: Ballantine, 1963); Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (Philadelphia; Lippincott, 1960): Anthony Boucher, "The Quest for Saint Aquin," in Robert Silverberg (ed.), The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (New York: Avon, 1970), Volume I, pp. 458-476; Arthur C. Clarke, "The Star," Infinity 1:1 (November 1955): 120-127; James Blish, "A Case of Conscience," If -- Worlds of Science Fiction 2:4 (September 1953): 4-51, 116-117.

17. Fritz Leiber, Jr., "Gather Darkness!," Astounding Science-Fiction 31:3 (May 1943): 9-59; 31-4 (June 1943): 109-159; 31:5 (July 1943): 118-162; Robert A. Heinlein, "Sixth Column," Astounding Science-Fiction 26:5 (January 1941): 9-41; 26:6 (February 1941): 117-155; 27:1 (March 1941): 127-155.

18. Raymond F. Jones, The Alien (New York: Belmont, 1966).

19. William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark, "Scientology: To Be Perfectly Clear," Sociological Analysis 41:2 (Summer 1980): 128-136; "Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models," Sociological Analysis 40:4 (Winter 1979): 283-295.

20. L. Ron Hubbard, "To The Stars," Astounding Science Fiction 45:1 (March 1950): 120.

21. J. Richard Filisky, This Quarter of the Universe is Ours! (Richardson, Texas: Theta Enterprises, 1976).

22. L. Ron Hubbard, "Dianetics -- The Evolution of a Science," Astounding science Fiction 45:3 (May 1950): 43-87; Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health (New York: Paperback Library, 1968).

23. Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New Dover 1957); George Malko, Scientology: The Now Religion (New York: Delacorte, 1970); Paulette Cooper, The Scandal of Scientology (New York: Tower, 1971); Roy Wallis, The Road to Total Freedom - A Sociological Analysis of Scientology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

24. L. Ron Hubbard (ed.), Have You Lived Before This Life? (East Grinstead, England: Department of Publications World Wide, 1968), pp. 55-56.

25. William Sims Bainbridge, Satan's Power - Ethnography of a Deviant Psychotherapy Cult (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

26. James Blish, Cities in Flight (New York: Avon, 1970).