Fight for the Heavens: The Role of Religion in Shaping Attitudes toward Space Policy

In recent years, NASA has increasingly focused its programs on space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. This is a shift from the Cold War era, when space policy was primarily driven by military and technological imperatives. In a 2015 paper published in the journal Space Policy, Joshua D. Ambrosius investigates whether this change in intent affects support for space policy, which ultimately impacts funding for future space exploration. Specifically, he examines the role of religion and other socio-demographics on space exploration policy in the United States.

Ambrosius approaches his research with a general question: “How does religion, variously defined, affect attitudes toward space and space policy in the general public, if at all?” To understand the various facets of this question, Ambrosius makes use of data from the General Social Survey, conducted by independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, and the Pew Research Center’s Political Survey, Political and Future Survey, and General Public Science Survey. All of these surveys contain questions related to both space and religion, and are administered to nationally representative random samples of adults. Religious questions measure factors including affiliation and worship attendance, and space questions cover several aspects of space policy. While the scope of this study covers a range of religious affiliations, the author hypothesizes that Evangelicals deviate most from the general public in space knowledge, interest, policy support, and expectations for the future of the space program. This hypothesis is based on research from other science policy scholars, who find that Evangelicals are most opposed to the scientific basis of issues, such as climate change and stem cell research, and widely hold a belief that Creationism and extraterrestrial life are incompatible.

The study evaluates responses in seven areas: space knowledge, space interest, space policy support, space benefits (general and national), space nationalism, and space optimism. Space knowledge is measured by three questions about the Big Bang and the relationship between the sun and Earth. Space policy support is based on opinions about spending. Space nationalism is the belief that the US should be the world leader in space exploration. Space optimism is the belief that the space program will find extraterrestrial life or land a man on Mars.

With the exception of space nationalism, Evangelicals score significantly lower in space knowledge, policy support, benefits, and optimism compared to the general public and other religious groups. Protestants, Jews, Eastern traditions, and those not religiously affiliated rank significantly higher on knowledge, with Jews and religious non-affiliates giving the most policy support. The primary difference in space knowledge between Evangelicals and others was agreement that the universe began with the Big Bang. Surprisingly, non-affiliates were not noticeably pro-space in other topics. The author believes that this is due to the inherent heterogeneity within the group, as those who self identify as non-religious come from diverse backgrounds.

Although Evangelicals display the least space support, they are also the only group to respond positively to clergy’s support for science. Within this group, greater clergy support is correlated with an increased likelihood of believing that space exploration is good for society. This is in contrast to the general trend, where worship attendance among other affiliations had a negative impact on most factors of support. The author believes this departure means that efforts to reach Evangelicals require the active endorsement of space research by church leadership.

Additionally, the study finds that interest in space exploration is generational. As a whole, Gen Xers (born in the early 1960s to early 1980s) and Millennials (born in the early 1980s to early 2000s) are less interested than the previous generation of Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964). However, Millennials have a greater interest than Gen Xers, although Evangelical Millennials still show the lowest interest within this generation. Ambrosius points to this as further reason to “intensify efforts to reach Evangelical young people” if space exploration is to flourish in the future.

This study underscores the importance of religion in shaping space policy. The lack of support from large and influential religious populations, such as Evangelicals, could lead to a decline in funding for space exploration and research. In fact, after the Apollo missions ended in 1973, NASA’s budget has fallen from 1.35 percent to less than 0.6 percent of federal spending. Cuts to NASA and other space research agencies could make the US more reliant on other countries for space endeavors. For example, since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, the US has paid Russia to carry American astronauts to space. Because Evangelicals comprise more than a quarter of the population, and are a key voting bloc of the Republican Party, future space policies must consider including educational and outreach components targeted at changing their underlying valuation of space exploration.

Article Source: Ambrosius, Joshua D. “Separation of Church and Space: Religious Influences on Public Support for U.S. Space Exploration Policy,” Space Policy, 32 (2015): 17-31.

Featured Photo: cc/(ClaudioVentrella, photo ID: 79270851, from iStock by Getty Images)

ninigu@uchicago.edu'
Nini Gu
Nini ('17) is a staff writer for Science & Technology. She is interested in daydreaming about string theory and poetry.

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