Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


22.1  Alien Religion

Will ETs be religious? Will they believe in supernatural forces or gods that control or guide their individual and collective destinies? To answer these questions xenologists must decide exactly what they mean by "religion" in the context of an alien culture.

Theologians and philosophers generally espouse fairly broad definitions of the phenomenon.797 James L. Christian calls religion "the search for ultimate meaning in life."1620 J. Milton Yinger claims that "religion is a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life."812 Robert N. Bellah at Harvard defines religion as "a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence."805 Anthony Wallace sees religiosity in somewhat more functional terms, and presents an inventory of specific religious behaviors:

1. Addressing the supernatural (prayer, exorcism)

2. Music (dancing, singing, chanting, playing instruments)

3. Physiological exercise (physical manipulation of psychological states through drugs, deprivation, and mortification)

4. Exhortation (addressing others as representative of divinity)

5. Reciting the code (use of the sacred written and oral literature, which contains statements regarding the pantheon, cosmology, myths, and moral injunctions)

6. Simulation (imitating things for purposes of control)

7. Mana (touching things possessed of sacred power, laying on of hands)

8. Taboo (avoiding things to prevent the activation of unwanted power or undesired events)

9. Feasts (sacred meals)

10. Sacrifices (immolation, offerings, fees)

11. Congregation (processions, meetings, convocations)

12. Inspiration (pursuit of revelation, conversion, possession, mystical ecstasy)

13. Symbolism (manufacture and use of symbolic objects).3200

Unfortunately, most of these expansive definitions sweep too wide to be useful in xenology. Many social and cultural aspects traditionally ascribed to and subsumed within "religion" clearly are not unique to it. This is an obvious but oft-neglected aspect of the phenomenon -- a neglect which has led to much confusion in the literature.

Music, ritual, ethics and morality, and feasts can and do appear human societies outside of the religious context.853 That is, a "religion" may adopt a particular system of ethics, a prescribed set of rituals, or particular musical forms. But ethics, ritual, and music may exist independently and in the absence of religion. Consequently, xenologists cannot properly use these general qualities and broad activities in a definition of religion that aspires to universality.

Xenologists consider that the most significant and unique element of the phenomenon of religion is the belief in spiritual beings and supernatural forces. As the late Sir J.G. Frazer once wrote: "Religion is a proprtiation or conciliation of powers -- conscious or personal agents -- superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life."804 In this relatively strict conception, religion must be viewed as virtually synonymous with theism or the belief in gods and spiritual forces.

It has been estimated that mankind has produced on the order of 100,000 distinct religions since the time of the Neanderthals some 60 millennia ago.3200 Whether or not extraterrestrials will similarly invent religion -- a belief in the supernatural -- is a difficult question. Xenologists know that magical and religious explanations of reality are extremely common, though by no means universal, among simple human cultures.

But why believe in gods at all? Objectivity on this question in the literature is hard to find. Countless theories have been proposed, with everyone from philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists to sociologists, psychologists, biologists and even physicists trying their hand at explanation. Max Weber, for instance, concluded that primitive societies seek the supernatural to ensure long life, favorable hunts, good land, avoidance of physical catastrophe, conquest of enemies, and similar mundane reasons. Some talk of distinctions between the "sacred" and the "profane" in cultures, or postulate a mysterious "religious emotion" or an innate "need for god"; others hail the fear of death as the primary motivation. Paul Radin suggests that man was led to postulate the existence of the supernatural at the dawn of civilization, when he was helpless and agape before the powerful and seemingly capricious forces of the natural environment:

His mentality was still overwhelmingly dominated by definitely animal characteristics although the life-values themselves -- the desire for success, for happiness, and for long life -- were naturally already present. No economic security could have existed, and we cannot go far wrong in assuming that, where economic security does not exist, emotional insecurity and its correlates, the sense of powerlessness and the feeling of in significance, are bound to develop. ... It is but natural for the psyche, under such circumstances, to take refuge in compensation fantasies. ... The main goal and objective of all his strivings was the canalization of his fears and feelings and the validation of his compensation dreams.3235

In this view, religion is an emotional response to a threatening and in comprehensible situation.

Another psychological theory on the origin of religion recently has been proposed by Dr. Julian Jaynes of Princeton University, in his fascinating but controversial book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.2599 According to this radical new theory, ancient man was an unconscious automaton acting on orders from voices heard within his head. Much like modern schizophrenics, people heard the voices of personal "gods" and did what they were told.

The occurrence of these bicameral god-voices supposedly was related to human split-brain architecture. Says Jaynes: "The speech of the gods was organized in the right hemisphere, in what corresponds to Wernicke’s area on the left hemisphere, and was ‘spoken’ or ‘heard’ over the anterior commissures to, or by, the auditory areas of the left temporal lobe."3008 Then, just a few years ago, escalating levels of novelty, change, and a series of fortuitous catastrophes caused the bicameral mind to break down. Consciousness was learned as the god-voices fell silent. Jaynes’ theory thus proposes a direct biological reason for theism. In his own words, the result:

In the second millennium B.C., we stopped hearing the voices of gods. In the first millennium B.C., those of us who still heard the voices, our oracles and prophets, they too died away. In the first millennium A.D., it is their sayings and hearings preserved in sacred texts through which we obeyed our lost divinities. And in the second millennium A.D., these writings lose their authority. What we have been through in these last four millennia is the slow inexorable profaning of our species. And in the last part of the second millennium A.D., that process is apparently becoming complete. It is the Great Human Irony of our noblest and greatest endeavor on this planet that in our reading of the language of God in Nature we should read there so clearly that we have been so mistaken.2599

Equally controversial, but perhaps most faithful to reality, is the sociobiological argument advanced by E.O. Wilson that religiosity may actually be selectively advantageous in the Darwinian sense. Those human societies best survive which are able to produce members willing to sacrifice their own interests in the name of the group or something symbolic of the group. To this end, the human species may have evolved a constellation of gene sets which predisposes humans to social conformity, followerism, and acceptance of authoritarian belief structures -- a kind of genetically preprogrammed "religious emotion." Says Wilson:

The mental processes of religious belief -- consecration of personal and group identity, attention to charismatic leaders, mythopoeism, and others -- represent programmed predispositions whose self-sufficient components were incorporated into the neural apparatus of the brain by thousands of generations of genetic evolution.3198

Of all the theories proposed to date, this one probably strikes nearer the mark than any other. ETs races evolving in similar circumstances may be expected to generate a similar genetic-based religious affectation.

Many human societies have a belief in spiritual beings, but belief in high gods is not universal. In fact, only 35% of all hunter-gatherer societies surveyed by J.W.M. Whiting in the 1960’s included high gods in their sacred traditions.3020 And the concept of an active and moral god who created the universe is even less widespread, amounting to less than 10% of all cultures surveyed which derive less than one-quarter of their sustenance from herding.3021 So while sacred traditions and origin-myths of some kind occur almost universally as a basic human cultural trait, traditional Western theism is far less common.

For this reason xenologists find it difficult to say exactly what belief structures alien societies may adopt. It is not certain that ETs will accept spirits and gods, despite the rather durable human propensity to do so. Indeed religion, human style, may be comparatively rare in the Galaxy.


Last updated on 6 December 2008