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Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0

Progress in spaceflight technology has halted at a level that is insufficient for colonization of the solar system, let alone for voyages to the stars. That grim fact was not obvious to me when I wrote the original version of this essay thirty years ago (Bainbridge 1982), but it is apparent now.

The plans to return to the moon will employ the same general principles as the first expeditions over forty years ago, and no new technology is currently under serious development. I recently re-examined the classic motivations for spaceflight, and found that most of them had lost persuasiveness (Bainbridge 2009). Indeed, despite the optimistic tone in much science journalism, it may be the case that stasis has set in across many fields of science and technology, and the motivations needed to break out of this prison seem to be lacking (Horgan 1996). Thus we need a new definition of spaceflight that will energize investment and innovation. I suggest a return to the traditional view: The heavens are a sacred realm, that we should enter in order to transcend death.

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 (Weber 1958; Ben-David 1971; Merton 1970; Westfall 1973). 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 religion would be a very demanding social movement, and will require extreme discipline from its members, so for purposes of this essay I will call it The Cosmic Order.

Despite competition from science, religion has a future. All human societies have possessed religion, because it serves universal human needs (Parsons 1964). 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 in social science 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 (Stark and Bainbridge 1987). Cognitive science theories suggest that religion is wired into our brains as the result of the early course of human evolution, and could not be abandoned without major transformation of human nature (Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004; Bloom 2004).

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 become 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. 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 (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).

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.

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 (1970: preface) 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.

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.

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 might be feasible if very expensive, very slow, and very hazardous. 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 (1942) 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. 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.

One plausible very pessimistic explanation has emerged in recent years, connected to the so-called anthropic cosmological principle (Barrow and Tipler 1986). It begins with the question: What is the universe? This line of argument proposes that the universe is, in the words of William James, a "blooming, buzzing confusion." That is, the universe is an infinite expanse containing random chaotic phenomenon, with no rhyme, reason or God to give it meaning (Tryon 1973; Davies 1982; Gott 1982). Indeed, to say that the universe exists would be an exaggeration. Pragmatist philosopher that he was, James (1948) argued that truth is merely the degree of usefulness of ideas, and modern relativistic physics might add that existence is relative. A thing exists only in relation to another, not objectively, and the only available test of truth or reality is what matters to us.

"All mind, doesn’t matter; all matter, never mind." This sarcastic quip refers to the debate between materialists who claim that dumb matter is all that really exists, versus idealists who say that consciousness is the primary fact. Reality may be the worst of both worlds. Yes, nothing exists objectively, but only in relation to us, as the idealists say. But we lack the power to change the basic nature of reality, as the materialists say. The anthropic principle suggests why this might be the case.

If the universe is random chaos, purely by chance, somewhere and somewhen, intelligence will evolve. Intelligent beings will look at their world, note that it is conducive to life and ask why. One answer is that God made the world so that it was good for life. The anthropic answer is that this is purely a selection effect. Only in a world conducive for life, will life evolve. This is actually very pessimistic about the future of the intelligent creature who asked the question, because it says they have no guarantee they have a future (Bainbridge 1997). Change will occasionally produce conditions propitious for the emergence of intelligence, but in the overwhelming majority of cases chance will do no more than that. For example, the intelligent beings will imagine flying to the stars, but their physical universe will not in fact provide a workable way to accomplish that dream.

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 (Bainbridge 1976, cf. Bainbridge 1985). 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 (1979) 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." 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. We may be returning to the moon, and there could be some value in establishing a permanent base there. However the value of the International Space Station has been approximately nil, so we cannot count on great discoveries at the lunar south pole. The moon is being billed as a stepping stone to Mars, but any Martian expedition using technology currently under development would be far too modest to become the seed of a colony. 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, or decays into absolute chaos. 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 Cosmic Order.

The Cosmic Order

To be effective in promoting space development, a future Cosmic Order would need 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 (1950) 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. 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 (Stark et al. 1981).

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.

The first edition of J. Gordon Melton’s (1978: II: 198-213) monumental Encyclopedia of American Religions already reported 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. 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. Some more prominent religions have arisen that are specifically oriented toward a science fiction view of the cosmos, most notable among them Scientology and the Raelians, but their emphasis to date has remained somewhat Earth-bound. 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 (Bainbridge 1985b). 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 writers have considered it from several perspectives. In The Gods of Mars and in The Master Mind of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918, 1928) 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 (1960) and "The Quest for Saint Aquin" by Anthony Boucher (1970). Still other stories have been essays in theology and theodicy for a scientific society, for example "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) and "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish (1953).

More relevant for those who might want to engineer a Cosmic Order 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 (1943) 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 (1941), 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.

Raymond F. Jones’ (1966) 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.

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 them 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 Cosmic Order would react to a hello from us over a channel reserved for God, I cannot say.

However, all this merely prepares the culture for the Cosmic Order, which I conceptualize as the spearhead of a new civilization with a radically different form of transcendence that is based in science. The Cosmic Order must provide the motivation for humanity to make the immense investment required to move out across the galaxy, and nothing short of transcendence of death could accomplish that. In the past, only religions have promised this—falsely I believe—but the real promise of eternal life will need to be packaged in the same kind of communal, aesthetic, loving manner that the best traditional religions have employed. Using information technology and biotechnology, the Cosmic Order will save your soul.

Prospectus for Immortality

Actual everlasting life will be possible in the near future, using a combination of advanced technologies that have been developed for other purposes (Moravec 1988; Kurzweil 1999; Bainbridge 2003, 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c, 2006d, 2007a, 2007c). The process will be complex, but in outline form it consists of four stages. First, you will be recorded: all your memories, personality, skills, physical characteristics and genetic inheritance. Second, this information will be entered into a vast computerized data base, so that future generations can draw upon your experiences and you can continue to be part of this world after your death. Third, your data will be transported by robot spacecraft or radio transmission to the solar system of a distant star, where a new colony is to be established. Fourth, you will be reconstituted from the recording and begin a new life in a fresh, young body as a colonist of the new world.

Each of these four stages has extremely valuable secondary benefits. The process of recording a human being increases that person’s self-knowledge and self-mastery, permitting more effective and joyous experience of the current life. The data base enriches culture and preserves the wisdom of previous generations. Individual immortality provides the motive that will energize exploration and settlement of the cosmos, thus raising all humanity to a higher level of material and spiritual existence. In a diversity of new environments individuals and societies will change, providing scope for both personal and species evolution.

Clearly, present technology cannot accomplish these tasks, but our knowledge and technical capability have advanced to the point where we can imagine what techniques could be used for most steps. Importantly, we already possess most of the tools required for the first stage, and we could achieve great advances in this if we explicitly devoted resources to developing means for recording human beings. At present, we can make acceptable low-fidelity recordings. Readily foreseeable progress will achieve high fidelity. It would be impossible to record information about every single atom in a person’s body (Krauss 1995), but this is unnecessary. From day to day, the physical details of a person’s body change, yet individual identity persists—call it the soul. A person is a dynamic pattern of relationships and forces that can be charted with sufficient detail through a system far simpler than the atomic structure of the human body.

A sample of the person’s DNA is an important component of a recording. As demonstrated in the Human Genome project of the National Institutes of Health, and in the research connected to the Human Genome Diversity Initiative of the National Science Foundation, it is already simple and inexpensive to preserve DNA samples. Some parts of the cloning process have been worked out, and the others can be visualized. At great expense, it is possible to determine the genetic code of an individual, and the resultant sequence of three billion base pairs can be stored on a conventional computer disk at current data densities. When a spacecraft is used to deliver the information to its destination, it would probably be most efficient to use physical samples of frozen DNA to be cloned at the new colony. However, after exploratory probes have reached very great interstellar distances, perhaps in a series of colonizations, then it might be more efficient to transmit the information via radio, and current technology is capable of sending such messages at the speed of light across much of the galaxy.

Because an adult’s body is partly the result of nutrition, medical history, accidents, and other non-genetic factors, it will also be important to measure the person, not merely in physical dimensions but also in terms of immunological and other chemical features of the biological system.

Existing personality tests will be of value, but they were not created for the task, and thus a number of new questionnaire-like tests must be developed. Such instruments can readily be computerized with present technology, as can many tests of skill, projective personality tests, memory tests, and reaction measurements. Because an important aspect of a person’s nature is his or her set of relations with other people, sociometric measurements will also be essential. To measure emotions and the person’s capacities to act in various real-life situations, the person will experience a number of carefully-designed intense challenges, while his or her responses are monitored.

Each person will produce an autobiography, with the assistance of trained professional interviewers, documenting not only the facts of the person’s life but also their meaning, uncovered through some form of depth-psychology. In addition, a record of the person’s hopes for the future would be needed, perhaps written in the form of a novel describing a life the person could imagine living on the new world.

When the recording is made, the person will also state ways he or she would like to improve, because it will be possible to reconstitute the person without some of his or her flaws, and with new capabilities. Of course, if the editing is too drastic, it will no longer be the same person. Some changes may also be required to adapt the person to the new environment. For example, many planets will not have the identical atmosphere as the earth, yet still be capable of harboring life. Occasionally, individuals may be able to experience existence as something very different from a human being, for example life as a sea creature or a spaceship.

An entirely different approach, currently under development, is recording a person as they act and react inside online virtual worlds, then give the person’s avatar the intelligence to continue behavior of the same kind when the person is no longer online (Moriarty and Gonzalez 2009). This seems plausible to me because I have already invested 2,400 hours inside World of Warcraft, and a total of about 1,500 hours in these other virtual worlds: Second Life, Tabula Rasa, Matrix Online, Anarchy Online, Age of Conan, EVE Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars Galaxies, There, and Tale in the Desert. Many researchers are looking at avatar-user relations in such virtual worlds, so there is hope that progress will be relatively rapid (Bainbridge in press b, in press c). It is even possible that humans will travel to the stars as avatars in virtual worlds, and operate on other planets through teleoperation of robots (Bainbridge in press a).

As described to this point, the biological resurrection system will give people a second life, but that merely doubles their lifetimes, and we are seeking true immortality. While living a life on the new planet, the person can undergo recording again, adding all the developments that occurred in the second life, and then sending on this expanded personality to live a third time on a third world. This process can be continued indefinitely, with progressive slight improvement of the individual until a godlike state will be achieved, millions of years in the future.

Thus, immortality will have perfection as its by-product. Indeed, the process of recording will have several benefits for the person, including those claimed by psychoanalysis, which is only a primitive shadow of the self-improvement methods we can develop incidentally to our achievement of immortality. Life should not merely be lived indefinitely; it should be lived well. To achieve that, we must become better people, and the combination of transcendent goals and well-designed techniques can help us become more than we currently are.

New lives must be lived on new worlds. Overpopulation would soon fill any one planet, and humanity would lose its finest treasure if there were no more children. Calculation of the geometric realities facing colonization of the universe suggests that there might not be enough room for endless copies of absolutely everybody (von Hoerner 1975). The population of an expanding sphere of inhabited planets increases according to the cube of its radius, while the surface area from which colonization ships can directly reach new planets increases only as the square of the radius. To some extent this problem can be dealt with by gradually increasing the time between lives. But unless a means of instantaneous travel is devised, the expansion of the human population is limited.

The answer is a simple one. A person must earn a new life by contributing in some way, direct or indirect, to the development and maintenance of the Cosmic Order that explores and colonizes space. Thus, each generation has a moral compact with the ones that follow. Every person who contributes to human development has a right to expect at least one more life. Future generations must honor that debt, if they are to have any hope that the generations after them will grant them a second life as well.

Today, many human populations are failing to reproduce even at the replacement level and are destined to vanish gradually from the earth through an insidious form of genetic suicide (Keyfitz 1987). In particular, highly educated nations and groups whose religion or philosophy does not encourage childbirth are failing, whereas uneducated and fundamentalist groups are growing. Well educated people can ensure the demographic growth of their population through interstellar immortality. By "arrival of the fittest," those with the most advanced minds and cultures will spread across the galaxy (Bester 1956-1957). Even a very low birthrate per lifetime can cause population growth when an individual has many lifetimes in which to reproduce. Additionally, some individuals who make extraordinary contributions to human progress may thereby earn the right to live out several lives simultaneously in different solar systems, reproducing themselves as well as giving birth to children who are distinct personalities.

Today, you can earn immortality. First of all, you must record yourself. This will require some effort taking tests, writing an autobiography, and placing your physical and mental self on permanent record. But this effort will be repaid in this life, because you will learn to know yourself better, because you will express yourself more fully to the people you love, and because the self knowledge and social bonds you gain will allow you to live a happier and more effective life.

Second, you must contribute in some way to building an interstellar civilization. Working in astronautics and promoting the space program are obvious ways to do this, but there are others equally important. To support space colonization, our old Earth must be a healthy, prosperous society, at peace with itself yet throbbing with the social energy to leap outward into the galaxy. Your own imagination must suggest ways you can contribute.

Third, you should join in the creation of a social movement with the explicit purpose of realizing these plans. In the short term, this means development of a system for recording and preserving humans. In the longer term, it will mean the organization of a massive program to colonize the solar system as the springboard for interstellar travel. Then, when there are worlds to house the immortals, it will be time to complete the technology to resurrect them. Surely the pioneers of this movement will be assured that they will live again and again, ever better and ever brighter.

There will be danger along your course to eternity, and only by joining a transcendental social movement will you be strong enough to survive the evil your enemies will seek to do. Already, governments are banning research on human reproductive cloning, and in future centuries mobs of outraged opponents will seek to destroy the archives that contain your soul’s data. Perhaps civilization will descend into another Dark Age, before we can voyage together to the stars.


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 cosmic 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 (1970) 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 (Bainbridge 1991). 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.

The night is falling, and we do not have much time. We are all dying, and the cancer patient who has been told he has six months to live may be run over by a truck tomorrow. We give birth astride a grave, and a person’s whole life is only a brief fall from nonexistence into oblivion. As the philosopher Nietzsche noted, we are balanced precariously on a tightrope across an abyss (Bainbridge 2007b). We cannot go back, into the numbing faith of ancient superstitions, for science has destroyed the world in which they were plausible. We cannot stand here, because the winds of change are blowing and the resonating tightrope will sling our civilization into the chasm if it does not advance. So we must press forward, knowing that every perilous step might be our last.

But look! I see an eternal land beyond the far rim, where love thrives and death’s sorrow never touches. Let us go there, you and I!


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William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.


Yes it appears that religion, or at least God, is wired into our brains. It also appears that there is a reason for everything. Surely the universe couldn’t be so stupid as to make significant evolutionary changes in the wrong direction.
D J Wray

Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0 is one of those seminal articles which some readers love, other readers hate, but all readers find interesting and mind changing. I loved the strong statement at the beginning of the article, “we need a new definition of spaceflight that will energize investment and innovation. I suggest a return to the traditional view: The heavens are a sacred realm, that we should enter in order to transcend death.”.

It may seem that the wildly transhumanist, cosmic approach of Bainbridge’s Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0 is very different from the technoprogressive, down-to-earth approach of Treder’s Meanwhile, People Are Dying, published on the IEET site a few days ago. But I think the two approaches are compatible, complementary and mutually reinforcing. Achieving Mike’s vision will require working pragmatically in today’s world in order to make it better day-by-day, while the prospect of Bill’s Galactic Civilization can provide us, here and now, with the required energy,motivation and drive.

More thoughts (WIP):

Fascinating info! Thanks. You can update your info on Swedenborg. The General Church of the New Jerusalem continues to gain membership (although not at a pace to keep up with the world’s population - yet!). Also, Swedenborg never started any kind of organization, although certainly cults were formed from his ideas. The General Church does not fit the definition of a cult by any measure. See
FWIW.  Rev. Clark Echols

Sure, what we need is new cults - more scientologists, more raelians, yay! (rolls eyes)
In addition, this essay is riddled with old, mostly obsolete sci-fi and science (overpopulation, anyone?). Its one redeeming quality is the reflection upon the possibility of a static future society (a possibility also listed by Nick Bostrom, although he basically rejects it as improbable).
Better read anything by Bostrom (or many other transhumanists).

ABSOLUTELY putting the cart before the horse and encouraging magic and superstition as if those concepts held the same weight as scientific ideas.

This entire article is UTTER NONSENSE.

Imagine perpetuating the failure that is religion into space! Outrageous! Disgusting! Intolerable and UNACCEPTABLE.

The answer does NOT exist in the Bronze Age. It is the LETTING GO of this nonsense that carries man forward.


State of mind reading this:

Whoa. (stunned, speechless)
Say what?!  (incredulous, this has to be a joke)
gaaaAAH…! (exasperated)

My mind is apparently incompatible with and useless for the future since it’s unable to process this kind of information in any more detail. Fortunately the future of civilization depends on some confused meme-soup we label religion as much as it depends on the sort of thinking evident in this essay.

This is one of the most perceptive articles I have come across deling with our future in space.

The step forwardn into permanent colonisation of space involves an evolutionary step greater than that taken by our distant amphibian ancestors from sea to land. Those who undertake this transition will willingly choose to renounce their own unique, human identities in order to transcend the collective limits of that identity.

Whether they will weep or exult in this transcendence will be their own affair.

The trouble with what I read in these postings is that there seems to be very little understanding of either the nature of ‘science’ and the nature of ‘religion’.

The paradox is - it’s today’s conception of ‘Science’ that’s ‘doing the civilisation in’, not religion.

If we are to create the powerful social movement Bainbridge proposes, the people comprising that movement will need to combine (to borrow metaphors from Frank Herbert’s Dune) the computational skills of the Mentats, the engineering skills of the Bene Tleilax, the capacity for foresight of the Spacing Guild AND the understanding of the power of myth and prophecy exemplified by the Bene Gesserit…

Myth and prophect MUST sit down at the same round table as logic, statistics & engineering. Actually, they get on very well.

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