astrotheology: religion meets space (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on march 25, 2021

Last week, I posted this year’s research paper on the Fermi Paradox. This week, I’m posting last year’s paper on how religion and space collide.

Religion has been around for millennia, providing moral support and spiritual relief for billions of individuals and overcoming every challenge presented to it without drawing back. It has stood the test of time and is firmly established, with minor internal squabbles providing its main obstacle. Space exploration, on the other hand, is relatively new, but it has already become a significant determinant of the future of human society. As such, space has the potential to become a significant hindrance to the well-being of religion. While beneficial, space brings up questions in most religions that are often more controversial than any others, even questioning, in some cases, what is essential to the religion in question. Before space exploration is advanced any further, society needs to take a moment to ponder these questions to ensure that man’s move toward the stars does not threaten religion.

The most obvious case in which space exploration conflicts with religion is in performing religious rites from space. For example, Islam requires Muslims to pray five times per day while facing Mecca. In a ship such as the International Space Station, where the location of Mecca can change relative to the pray-er by up to 180° per prayer session, how can a Muslim follow this rule? Also, how can one observe the sequence of body positions required? Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia or JAKIM) is the expert. When the Malaysian Space Agency (Agensi Angkasa Negara, or ANGKASA) sent an astronaut to the International Space Station in 2007, JAKIM published a 5-page document outlining guidelines for performing Islamic rites while in the International Space Station. It generally outlines what is the priority when observing these rites. For example, at the beginning of a prayer, the pray-er should be facing Qibla, determined in the following order: the Ka’aba, the projection of the Ka’aba, the Earth, wherever (“A Guideline of Performing Ibadah”).

Judaism also has rites that are difficult to perform from space, although Jews have trouble even when traveling on Earth. For example, what happens if someone crosses the International Date Line and suddenly has no sabbath or five days instead of six between sabbaths? In space, it gets more complicated. How does one keep track of the day? If one counts by the sunrise and sunset, one may have 16 days per Earth day on the International Space Station. When Ilan Ramon went to the International Space Station, Rabbi Zvi Konikov, together with other prominent Rabbis, decided that for this short trip, the Sabbath should be kept according to the location of his launch, Cape Canaveral (Konikov). Sadly, Ramon’s mission was to come to a tragic end when the Columbia burned up in reentry, killing all on board, including Ramon (Bush).

In both of these cases, the religious decision was delayed until necessity called for it, wasting valuable time. If questions like these were settled before the need for the answer arose, more time could be devoted to the practicalities of the mission. The missions to space could not advance until the religious questions were answered, for the people involved would not go to Space unless they knew the correct way to participate.

Some will say that religion is a waste of time when it comes to space exploration. Having to observe these religious rites while in space wastes valuable time that could be dedicated to research. If a Muslim astronaut has to devote time to prayer five times per day, or a Jewish astronaut takes a day off every seven days, time is “wasted” that could be used to further humanity’s knowledge of space. Should astronauts be paid when they take so many breaks? Shouldn’t space agencies hire astronauts who work more consistently instead?

This, however, is merely asking whether religion is more important than Science. Can any person who believes in a god prioritize Science above their eternal salvation? Of course not. If society cannot expect religious people to put aside their duties for the sake of Science, should religious people be removed from consideration to allow space agencies to hire atheistic astronauts who will be more time-efficient and give more value for the money spent?

If space agencies were to begin to hire only astronauts who had no religious duties to perform, their acts would be considered as discrimination based upon religion, a practice banned in many countries. The US Constitution, for example, says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (US Const. art. VI). What about private companies? Could a private space agency, for example, discriminate against people because of religious beliefs?

Putting aside the legality of such an action, is it morally right? Practically, it makes sense to hire workers who will work more. Morally, it seems unfair to only hire atheist astronauts. Shouldn’t Jews and Muslims be given their fair chance at reaching space?

Lest this paper move into a futile debate with little significance to the topic at hand, it will leave the answer to this question to the reader and move on to more relevant discussions.

Space exploration is a common theme in science fiction, and it is not surprising that space religions have been developed in multiple stories. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Jedi religion, from George Lucas’s Star Wars films. The Jedi religion, so widely known, has leapt from the film to areas of real life.

The Jedi religion pictured in the movies hardly makes sense in the context of the universe inhabited by the human race. It is too far-fetched and unrealistic to be discussed in a paper such as this. Instead, it will discuss a real religion inspired by the Star Wars movies, the Temple of the Jedi Order. The Temple of the Jedi Order, a non-profit organization legally recognized in Texas, was established in 2005 and has gained a considerable following (“IRS Determination Letter”). The Temple disclaims connection with the Jedi Knights portrayed in the Star Wars franchise except by way of inspiration.

Another example of the Jedi religion in real life is the 2001 Jedi Census Phenomenon, an event where over 500,000 individuals identified themselves as of the religion “Jedi” on the 2001 Census (Davidsen). This placed “Jedi” as the fourth most common religion in England and Wales. While most people considered the “Phenomenon” a joke, it does raise a question relating to the topic of this paper. Should one take religions inspired by fiction seriously? The Temple of the Jedi Order certainly seems to view themselves as a serious religion and is recognized as such by the state of Texas, but most people would never take it seriously or give those who identify as Jedi the rights they give members of other religions. Should religions based upon fiction be given the same rights other religions receive? Questions like these need to be answered. Events like the Jedi Census Phenomenon serve as a useful stimulus for their consideration, but really, initiative should be taken so that when issues arise answers are prepared.

Religion has been the focal point of society for thousands of years, and one cannot expect it to fade into the shadows as mankind moves toward the stars. Although religion may seem inefficient, pointless, or even unnecessary, one cannot ignore it without fear of reparations from a society deprived of spiritual consolation and guidance it has grown accustomed to. While the human race can wait until necessity prompts the answering of these questions (for they will be answered), it is much more effective if such research can be performed before the need arises, as this is both saves valuable time and results in more comprehensive and valuable results. Problems like these could be discussed in the UN or, more appropriately, at the next World Space Congress meeting. Religion is the most time-tested and valuable institution known to man, and cannot be overthrown by an upstart trend of the human race toward space.

Works Cited

Bush, George W. “Lift Your Eyes to the Heavens.” NASA History. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, February 1, 2003, %20Branch/President%20Bush/president1.html.

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “Fiction-based Religion: Conceptualising a New Category against History-based Religion and Fandom.” Leiden University Repository. Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Fiction-basedReligion_Postprint.pdf?sequence=1.

“A Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station.” The Islamic Workplace. Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, April 2006,

“IRS Determination Letter.” Temple of the Jedi Order. Internal Revenue Service, 29 October 2015,

Konikov, Zvi. “Shabbat in Space - The Legacy of Ilan Ramon.” 31 January 2018,

United States Constitution. Art.VI.

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