One of my first impressions after reading “Religions for a Galactic Civilization” today for the first time is that it is dated (well, it was written 26 years ago). If Bill were to write the same article today, he would probably mention NBIC technologies (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences) besides space travel and colonization. I hope he would give less space to Scientology, and I am sure he would discuss the works of transhumanist thinkers in great detail. I think the first sentence quoted below could be written, today, as “We need a new transhumanist social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society”.
Actually I am very curious to know how Bill would write this paper today. I will ask him and I hope he will comment.
Some quotes from “Religions for a Galactic Civilization”:
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 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. 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.