Maybe a month ago, while I was working out at the gym (that’s an expression I’ve been able to drop only as of this summer), the thought occurred to me that if someone hasn’t already written it, a book on religion and space exploration would make a fascinating addition to the study of religion and American culture.
I wasn’t thinking about the intersection of religion and people’s ideas about space exploration–that work’s already out there. I taught a course last fall in that vein, on religion and science fiction. No, I found myself curious, as a historian, about the ways that religious practice has intersected with actual American space exploration. Chaplains praying with crews before they go into flight. Astronauts performing religious practices in space. Perhaps the role of religious symbols and rhetoric in hyping space flight for the American public. American religious bodies’ responses to the reality of space flight: I know, for example, that Episcopalians added a line to the Book of Common Prayer interceding for the safety of those who travel by space. What did American denominations or theologians have to say in response to the moon landing? Have American religious bodies intervened in the politics of space exploration? For instance, have theologians ever questioned the ethics of directing so much money to space exploration that could be used to feed hungry people? And what about the cultural politics of American religion–i.e., which religions first got access to the final frontier?
Speak of the devil. Just before sitting down to write this post, I popped online to see if someone’s already this book–and discovered that an article on this general subject appeared in the Atlantic a few days ago. The article is a child of the secularization thesis: What do ancient religions have to do with a modern phenomenon like space flight? I’m professionally obligated, and entitled, to strike a snootily blasé pose in response to the author’s wide-eyed professions of incongruity. Muslim astronauts praying in space, or Russian Orthodox priests blessing space shuttles–well, yes, of course, who finds that surprising?