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


22.2.2  Extraterrestrial Cults

A cult is a system of the outward forms of religious worship, ceremony, custom and ritual, but lacking the dominant theme of traditional theism. Cults do not require the total absence of spirituality, but evolve on the basis of a predominantly nonreligious theme or motive. Cultism -- the single-minded fixation by a group of individuals upon a single goal, purpose, or cultural aspect -- may be grounded in ideological, behavioral, emotional, technological, physiological, or environmental basics of existence on any world.

What sorts of cults might we discover on alien planets? Consider first the elements of the environment.2619 Objects of worship are often determined simply by geography. In India, where the coming of the rains is uncertain but a matter of life or death, the water that falls from the skies is an object of veneration. ETs inhabiting "monsoon worlds" (stormy pelagic planets dotted with scores of tiny island land masses) might develop a cult of water worship.862 Extremely parched environments may also spawn extreme alien cults of water- or cloud-worship, a theme which has been dealt with occasionally in the science fiction literature.2643,2919 It is interesting that the Qumran Jews and early Christians, sects born in arid desert regions, incorporated religious initiation rites involving total submergence in water.

Alien cults may derive from other features of the environment.2622 Since more massive planets are expected to display more tectonic activity, xenologists would expect to find more instances of volcano, mountain, and earthquake worship on larger worlds than on small. River worship, such as the adoration of the Nile among the ancient Egyptians, and sun worship, as in the lofty plateaus of the Central Andes where the shade is always cold, may take on more extreme forms in peculiar alien environments.2620 Recurrent local weathers, such as the waterspout of Lake Lanao (now Lake Sultan Alonto) on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines,* could be revered and adopted as integral parts of local ritual and ceremony.

Astronomical events may play an important role too.804 The relation ship between the constellations, the seasons, the sun and moon, and the harvest time was discovered and put to use by the Chinese, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and many other civilizations in a bewildering variety of star cults, lunar-synchronized regal tenures, planetary astrologies and sky worships. Many specialized cult buildings were erected -- temple observatories, sun and moon temples, altars of heaven, and so forth -- in service of these beliefs. The astrologies devised by sentient extraterrestrial races, each based on its own unique set of planetary bodies and configurations of constellations and stellar movements, should prove diverse and highly entertaining.

Many of our present-day ritual celebrations are closely linked with celestial events. Perhaps the best-known of these is Christmas. This holiday was originally a pagan celebration commemorating the Winter Solstice in late December, the time at which the sun reaches its lowest point in the southern sky (the shortest day and longest night of the year). Christmas was later adopted by the Christians as a religious occasion marking what is believed to have been the repeat conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn during May, September, and December of 7 B.C. (the Star of Bethlehem). Other familiar examples include Thanksgiving, which may be regarded as a harvest celebration during Fall (the autumnal equinox), and Easter, which in the West is customarily celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full Moon following the vernal equinox (when the sun passes the celestial equator and Spring season begins).

The existence of one or more highly visible Saturn-like rings around an alien planet may furnish yet another cause for cult worship. Such a grand display would surely dominate the celestial panorama, and would appear distinctly different from place to place on the ground: In latitudes near the equator they would sweep vertically up from the horizon and, illuminated by light reflected from the planet, would cross the sky in the form of a magnificent celestial archway. In those places well-removed from the equatorial zones, our ring system would give an impression of much greater breadth and would be well removed from its former zenith position. It could be expected to sweep across a large portion of the horizon, and we would find superimposed upon it a rounded, black, conical mass due to the shadow cast by the parent planet.61 Apparent ring crossings by constellations or planetary bodies could be used to mark the seasons and to fix the times of ritual ceremonies; wars might be fought to decide the single "correct" aspect of the rings. (Larry Niven has suggested that a similar celestial archway cult might arise among degenerate civilizations trapped on a giant Ringworld edifice.753)

Astronomical factors need not apply solely to "primitive" cultures. Alien scientists inhabiting a planet which orbits a class F star may have developed their science of astrophysics sufficiently far to be able to predict with some certainty that their sun would soon be leaving the Main Sequence and entering the Red Giant stage. Perhaps these ETs might develop a "religion of change" or a cult favoring space travel (which helps them maintain their commitment to interstellar emigration before the final disaster). Other alien cultures, faced with this same difficulty, might instead relapse into pathological cults of dispair and nihilism. As one early science fiction writer described it:

Their knowledge grew, faced with the fact that their world was dying, their home surely turning to a ball of ice, within which there can be no life. It would be discussed gravely at meetings of scientific societies, first, as a novel and interesting theory, and then as evidence accumulated, would seep down and down through all the levels of intelligence until the certainty of destruction was ever before all men. Philosopher, scientist and economist would know that death was the only end of their long ages of evolution from the slime, and religion would be asked to explain the fact that man had been created only for the purpose of being extinguished in cold and fear.1935

Extraterrestrial cults may also be founded on emotions or behaviors common to all members of a specialized or well-defined group. Hedonistic drug cults are common enough on Earth, and science fiction writers have long speculated on the possibility of pharmaceutical3054 and "wirehead"2020 cults in which biofeedback or surgical electronic implants are used to achieve a permanent state of stimulation in the pleasure centers of the brain. Alien cults may rally around nudity or promiscuous sex3412; murder and violence are yet another possibility.812 Alien belief systems may center on hunger or pain,2917 love or friendship, anger or hate, pride or envy, altruism or egotistical selfishness,1946 or group psychotherapy.3210 Cults might even be based on dreams:

In the mountainous jungles of Malaysia, an aboriginal tribe called the Senoi built a social order around its dreams. Tribal members are encouraged to discuss their dreams at break fast and control them at night.3055

The idea of dream cults has already appeared in science fiction.2578 Alien cults may find their expression through a particular ideology.

Many writers have described Soviet Marxism as a form of "secular religion."2600,812,857 Others would include scientific rationalism, Darwinian evolutionism, immortalism, etc. in the same category. (See Burhoe,864 Dobzhansky,868 Morison,866 and Yinger.812) Each has its high priests, rites of passage, central dogma, and so forth. Political ideology has frequently been imposed upon local religious pantheons, as especially in ancient China, Greece, and Babylonia, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that ETs may construct cults enshrining cherished beliefs in the economic, social, military, political, or cultural ideals of their society.889,807 The contemporary money-worshipping Unification Church of Reverend Moon suggests the lengths to which ideological cultism may be carried. Finally, there may exist cults relating to extraterrestrial life and space. On the simplest level, these may focus on the achievement of technical capabilities sufficient for living in space, or they may pertain to "visitations" or contact events by surrogate "space gods" in flying saucers. (Examples in recent memory include the cult of The Two,1921 the Aetherius Society,1870 and Gabriel Green’s Amalgamated Flying Saucer Clubs of America.333) Cults of "supertheism" may arise, espousing the notion that all superior extraterrestrial societies should be worshipped by all those in an inferior technological or cultural position.

More sophisticated versions of space cults have been investigated in science fiction. One notable example appears in "Lifeboat" by Gordon R. Dickson and Harry Harrison. In this story humankind encounters the belief system of the spacefaring Albenareth, an emergent galactic civilization which holds to the sanctity of space:

The Albenareth think of space as if it were Heaven. To them, the planets and all inhabited solid bodies are the abode of the Imperfect. An Albenareth gains Perfection by going into space -- the more trips and the more time spent away from the planetfall, the more perfection gained. You noticed the Captain identified himself as "Rayumung" and the Engineer as "Munghanf." Those aren’t names. They’re ranks, like stairsteps on the climb to a status of Perfection. The ranks stand for the number of trips they’ve made into space, and the time spent in space. The rougher the duty they pull, the greater the count of the time involved toward a higher rank. For example, this lifeboat duty is going to gain a lot of points for this Captain and Engineer -- not because they’re saving our lives, but because to save us they had to pass up the chance to die in the spaceliner when it burned. You see, the last and greatest goal of a spacegoing Albenareth is to die, finally, in space.3012


* Daily during early Spring of each year, around midday, a waterspout forms near the Lake's eastern shore travels westward over the water for some distance, and then breaks up.3053


Last updated on 6 December 2008