As the spaceship slowly approaches Mars its captain is overcome by religious remorse. Though he is the mastermind behind the space station orbiting Earth, and hasn't had any interest in the Bible before, he is now growing more and more convinced that mankind wasn’t meant to venture forth to other planets. The heavens is God's abode and it is sacrilege to breach His realm. The captain's son, also on the ship, thinks otherwise. It cannot be a coincidence that just as Earth's population is reaching critical mass and resources are becoming scarce, mankind has developed the means to escape the bonds of Earth. Mankind's thrust into the solar system was meant to be.

Tension builds and as the spaceship enters Mars' atmosphere and slows down for a landing, the captain suddenly accelerates the ship again, threatening to burn up everyone aboard. His son manages to force him away from the controls and the ship crash lands. On the surface of Mars the captain sabotages the ship’s water tanks and wounds his son, who tries to stop him, with a gunshot. They fight and during the struggle the gun goes off and kills the captain. The crew barely survives a Martian winter and only just make it back to Earth.

This is the storyline of the 1955 movie Conquest of Space. Almost 60 years old, its depiction of faith gone awry in outer space may seem outdated. But the notion that faith in space may pose a danger to mankind's cosmic ambitions lives on – at least in the minds of some of those who wish for the success of the Mars One project.

Reality trip

Mars One is a Dutch non-for-profit foundation, established in 2011, which promises to send four astronauts to Mars by 2023 in order to set up a colony. It aims at becoming a global media spectacle funded by private donations and the selling of reality tv rights and merchandise. Until recently, anyone could put in an application to become an astronaut and – according to Mars One – some 200.000 people from all over the world have sone so. Despite the fact that the trip to Mars will be a one way trip in order to reduce costs.

As someone who studies astrocultural phenomena, with a special focus on religious aspects of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the exploration of outer space, I was immediately intrigued by Mars One. First, the very fact that the core commercial scheme is to make a reality tv show out of the astronaut selection process, the trip to Mars, and the colonizing effort is fascinating — for it means that the project’s cultural impact is the very thing it must live off.

Religion and the colonization of Mars

As I began browsing through the FAQs of Mars One, I stumbled across the question “What’s Mars One’s view regarding religion on Mars?” The answer is that whereas the colonization of the New World was often motivated by religious zeal, Mars One “is not based upon the idea that any particular religion should be represented in the Martian settlement.“ Mars One encourages religious freedom, but any beliefs and activities of a religious nature will be entirely up to the individual.

This is followed by the sub-question: “Is Mars colonization a religion?” Here it is explained why the Mars One project, even though it may seem to share similarities with religion, is not a religion. Whereas religion is based on belief in a divinity or spiritual being, Mars colonization is based on scientific knowledge and careful planning. Whereas religion is about faith, Mars One is about vision and ingenuity and based on science and technology. And whereas religion is usually about holding something sacred, Mars One is about establishing a new society on Mars – and whether anyone will hold that project sacred is entirely up to them.

The lure of religion

Onwards I googled and found the Mars One Fans Forum. The forum seems to be independent from the Mars One project and here fans of Mars One discuss a number of things, most having to do with scientific and technical aspects of the mission. However, I also found a short thread (six replies, 664 views, 5 participants) titled “Mars Colonization as a religion”.

It begins with a fan suggesting that it might be a good idea to consider the colonization of Mars a religion in order to win more people for the cause. This idea, however, is soon quenched by other fans who fear that it will have the opposite effect. First of all, the reasoning goes, Mars One has nothing to do with “belief” and secondly, if Mars One is cast as a religion, people will think of it followers as static, closed-minded people.

A new beginning without believing

A much longer thread, “Religion on Mars?” (267 replies, 15,662 views, some 40 participants), deals with the question whether religion should be brought to Mars at all, and if it is brought to Mars, what form it should take. As one might imagine, the discussion dives headlong into a debate on the relationship between science and religion.

The thread is opened by “illuminati1776,” who suggests that it would be best to avoid sending religious astronauts to Mars, and throughout the thread he, or she, insists that a religious worldview is incompatible with the colonization of Mars. The basic idea is that Mars One is a scientific project and astronauts on Mars need to see reality as it is in order to survive. Religious people can’t do this since their worldview is deluded — therefore they are disqualified. On Mars, humanity has the chance to begin anew and should do so without religion and all its evils.

Soon “Crews” join the debate and, being a theologian who has apparently had some sort of mystical experience, he (or she) argues that science and religion can easily co-exist and therefore sending religious astronauts to Mars shouldn’t pose a problem. Thus, the flame wars begin. This particular discussion soon become tiresome but its basic positions are interesting: Whereas “Crews” insists on freedom of religion on Mars, “illuminati1776” hopes that Mars offers mankind freedom from religion. Though the co-existence of these viewpoints in a community supporting space exploration may seem quaint, it has in fact a long history.

Between the heavens and the earth

In To Touch the Face of God (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), Kendrick Oliver examines the relationship between secularism and religion in the American space programs from 1957 to 1975. Oliver goes against accounts of the American space program which posits that it was suffused with traditional religion, or even some sort of religion in itself. Rather, he holds out that whereas it did have some characteristics and aspects that were religious, it was just as much – and even more so – a techno-scientific secular project, which in fact was seen as a threat to traditional religious beliefs. This was why it caused such an outrage among Christian Americans when famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair tried to prevent American astronauts from expressing their religion in space through legal action. Thus, the gist of Oliver’s book is that space exploration may equally serve as a platform for secularism and atheism as it may serve as a platform for religion.

It is the same tension that runs through the above-mentioned thread. Most of its discussants agree that religious astronauts on Mars would be okay, as long as they keep their religion to themselves, don’t go about proselytizing and forcing their religious views on others. Some, however, fear that religious people might at some point veer into insanity and, for example, start killing off other astronauts or sabotaging the colony because “God told them so.”

Atheist edens and utopian plains

Clearly, religious fundamentalism and terrorism is on the Mars One fans’ minds and, perhaps as a consequence, quite a few argue that whereas openly practiced religion would be a bad idea on Mars, non-orthodox, spiritual beliefs would not pose the same kind of threat – as long as people are open to other views and truths.

Others express the idea that the astronaut screening process itself will weed out the overly religious, since they will hardly be able to meet the extreme demands in areas of technological and scientific expertise. Finally, some conclude that, whether you like religion or not, it would be very bad press for Mars One to deny astronauts the right to freedom of religion on Mars and thus, this stance should be avoided.

If Mars cannot be an atheist Eden, then, what kind of religion might in fact be transplanted to Mars? Here, watching the documentary One Way Astronaut is informative. Though it is said to be made by an “independent” tv company, it is promoted by Mars One, which receives part of the movie’s revenue, and in it there is not one critical remark on Mars One. Thus, it is tempting to think that the four astronaut applicants interviewed in the movie has been chosen to represent Mars One in the best possible way.

Spiritual space

One of the applicants, the German Stephan Günther, is asked if he believes in God or a divine being. He answers that he believes that some kind of force is driving the universe and has created all things with meaning – that’s why everything fits so perfectly together (until humans showed up, he adds). He does not believe in God in the way the church wants you to, but he does believe that there is much more to the universe than we can see and understand.

When asked if he thinks he will find God on Mars he answers that this is a question of how God is defined. What he thinks he will experience is an expansion of consciousness. Things of his past and his subconscious will be brought to his awareness and it will be a strong spiritual experience. Günther explains that the Apollo astronauts all grew spiritually through their experiences in space and through viewing Earth from space. They learned to appreciate Earth more and felt an urge to protect it.

What Günther iterates here is in fact a variety of outer space religion which is perhaps most clearly expressed in Frank White’s pro-space classic, The Overview Effect (1987). The basic tenets of this belief is that it is humanity’s destiny to colonize space and the planets, driven as we are by some sort of universal intelligent force, which has awakened in homo sapiens, spurs our evolution, and beckons us to enter into a cosmic brotherhood with other intelligent species out among the stars. According to White, a crucial step in this evolution is the effect the view of Earth seen from space has initiated (that is, the “overview effect”), which will create a global consciousness and unite people of Earth and, in the very long run, the entire universe — if we choose to follow the will of the cosmos.

The promise of unity

Mars One also promises unification. At the very core of its branding strategy is the powerful concept of unity, the idea of becoming one. Of course, the “one” in "Mars One" is also about being the first to reach Mars, about being unique, the best, number one. But it also subtly reverberates with both a political notion of unity, as in America’s “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one,” which was later replaced by “In God We Trust”) and concepts of unity rooted in myth and mysticism, as for example in the notion of “unio mystica,” the unification between a person and a godhead. With Stephan Günther arguably serving as a role model of acceptable religion for Mars One, it would seem that whereas institutionalized and fundamentalist religion is not given a prominent place in the program, outer space religious “spirituality” is.

The views on religion, both for and against, in relation to Mars One is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it presents a picture of how “religion” is negotiated and demarcated in face of a project seen by many as the pinnacle of religion’s exact opposite: science, and by implication, technology. Thus, it serves as a kind of snapshot of how religion – along with spirituality – is being reconfigured in face of scientific and technological developments of the 21st Century. Secondly, it might offer a glimpse of how religion might fare as humanity slowly migrates towards the ever widening horizons of interstellar space. Something which currently may seem of minuscule importance but might, eventually, come to form a significant part of the history of the human species.


Further reading:

Marina Benjamin’s Rocket Dreams and David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology are two accessible accounts of the American space program that portrays it as a religious endeavor. Readers interested in more variated viewpoints on spaceflight and religion should consult the special issue of Astropolitics dealing with this subject.