Ambrosius, who presented a paper at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study for Religion in Indianapolis in November, which Religioscope attended, analyzed data from the 2010 General Social Survey and three other surveys on religious belief and attitudes toward space . He found that religious traditions do influence attitudes toward questions on space knowledge, policy support, and the benefits of space exploration. Evangelicals ranked lower than the rest of the population on these measures. Yet evangelicals also more strongly supported the idea that the U.S. should continue to lead the world in space exploration (a measure which Ambrosius classified as “space nationalism.”).
Ambrosius cited the example of Ken Ham, a prominent evangelical creationist, as illustrating the resistance of evangelicals to space exploration. Ham was reported as saying that the Bible rules against finding life anywhere but on earth. He was widely reported as saying that space exploration should be defunded. But in a later statement Ham encouraged NASA to continue exploration because he views their inability to find life as proof that evolution is a false theory; he was referring to scientists using space probes to understand the big bang and the development of the solar system over billions of years.
Mainline Protestants, Jews, Eastern traditions, and those with no religion all scored significantly higher on space knowledge than evangelicals. Eastern religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and Jews, seem to be the core of what Ambrosius calls a “religious attentive public” for space exploration, as they rank higher than the public as a whole on their knowledge, interest, and support for space.
While Catholics were not differentiated from the American public as a whole regarding space exploration (except for higher rates of support for space nationalism), their greater acceptance of the possibility of life on other planets suggests that various Catholic theologians and authors have been successful at “integrating extraterrestrials into the Catholic worldview,” according to Ambrosius. He pointed to such theologians and writers as Thomas F. O’Meara and Mary Doria Russell, as well as the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, as influencing Catholics. Evangelicals need to take a page from Catholics in making greater room for the possibility of life outside earth, with the surveys showing that clergy can play a role in influencing laity to gain a greater appreciation for science, he added.
Those without any religious affiliation (known as the “nones”) were different from the general population in their greater knowledge of space and support for increased space funding. But the nones did not stand out as pro-space in the other categories. Their lack of interest may confirm that the non-affiliated are a diverse group, made up of atheists, agnostics, and those considered “spiritual but not religouis,” with no particular secular, “pro-science” perspective, according to Ambrosius. The younger generations, including Generation X and the Millennials (which also have the highest percentage of nones), were shown to have less interest in space exploration than the previous baby boom generation, although there are signs that Millennials are more interested than Generation X.
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Website: www.religionwatch.com.