Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Religion in Alien Civilizations

The word religion is used to cover several different things, so let us go along with the trend and use it, successively, to mean some different things. The point to be made overall is that religion, like other aspects of an alien civilization, is dictated by the technology level reached in the society, and as technology improves, religion, in all meanings, also changes. Since religion might play a role in an alien civilization’s decision to explore other solar systems or to colonize them, it is well worth the effort to try and get a glimpse of what an alien civilization religion might be or has to be.

An alien species might become the object of study for an alien civilization when it begins to use tools and then develops more intelligence, meaning a way of recognizing problems and finding solutions to them, other than instinctual behavior. Dexterity, omnivorousness and communications are things which improve the chances that a given alien species will achieve this. Hunting improvements follow, as does more mobility, and technology glacially advances. Seeding deliberately would be a logical next step, and then husbandry and agriculture. These technology steps correspond to a major change in the life of the alien species, from mobile to stationary, as agriculture improves enough to provide sufficient sustenance.

In the hunting stage of civilizational progress, there is learning about the behavioral characteristics of other aliens in the same clan, and once this is accomplished, analogies are made to animals, probably rather than the other way around. Animals are seen as human-like, which assists in outsmarting them in the hunting process, but also means they are thought of as having recognizable identities and characteristics, just as humans do. Then the generalization can take place to impute some form of cognitive self to many other things. In the sense of a religion as an explanation of things otherwise unknown, one exists at this point. Creatures have personalities which explain their behavior, and gradually other things might as well, such as the local star, any satellites or visible planets, some phenomena of the atmosphere or the ocean, even trees or mountains or other geographic landmarks. The idea that early versions of aliens learn first about the members of their hunting clan and then make analogies explains how a spirit world might come into existence on any planet with an intelligent alien species.

Once these personalities are assumed to be present in a wide variety of objects, the next step of the analogy might happen. Just as interpersonal relations in a hunting clan might involve one member appeasing another, the question would arise as to how to appease some of these spirits, and then who might do it. This becomes a matter of status within the clan, and therefore would be appropriated by individuals, rather than left to random interaction with random members of the clan. Looking back through the experience of the tribe becomes more valuable now, so those who learned by communicating with other older members, such as parents, have a step up in this process of development of religion. Invention of rituals, and behaviors to follow and to avoid will become part of the common knowledge of the clan. Thus, not only is there a religion, meaning an explanation of natural phenomena, there is a set of rules to follow, which is another aspect or meaning of religion.

A big change comes with the agricultural grand transition, when clans start to live in a single place and subsist on husbandry and agriculture, done locally, along with hunting and gathering, but done locally. Then the largest part of an individual member’s interactions would be with other members, and so there is a need for some further rules on behavior. When the early religion of spirits in natural phenomena starts to be modified to provide rules for interpersonal behavior, a new phase of religion begins. Formerly, interpersonal behavior was simply an extension of animal pack behavior, where alien members understood the dangers and possibilities of opposing the will of another member. But to start to modify these behavioral choices because of the possibility that some spirit somewhere would become aware and would be able to have an effect on the individual or the clan requires a whole new level of concept of spirits. The concept of privacy is diminished, but more importantly, the idea of supernatural spirits is created.

Along with this, the process of alien member death might be drawn into the circle of the religion. Once the idea is formed that there are disassociated spirits, it is only natural to think that aliens would assume, sooner or later, that they have one as well, or at least important members of the clan did. How this might be incorporated into the religion can vary, but it provides some relief for the natural, animal-origin, grief connected with death of alien members of a clan.

At this point, social evolution might take place. Those clans which develop spirit belief systems which encourage the survival of the clan and its success, whether in seeking sustenance or in providing shelter against natural phenomena or in protecting itself from predation from other clans, will grow and perhaps bud off and form other ones. Thus, self-sacrificing beliefs, although they are apparently somewhat detrimental to the individual and to the clan, might be overall something which provides some overall growth. Praise of strength, resistance to pain, persistence against formidable odds, altruism and other features might grow. So also might obedience to authority for those with no possibility of being in authority. Thus, the features of a religion which persists during the clan phase or into the beginning of the agricultural phase should be found by considering the social evolution of clans.

Time scales need to be considered. The hunting phase and the agricultural phase are certainly long enough to allow social evolution to run its course. But the next phase of any alien civilization, the industrial phase, does not last long enough. Thus, those memes which might affect space travel are those which originate in the agricultural phase and which can persist through the industrial phase into the genetics phase. By figuring out which beliefs would likely come through this process, it might be possible to shine a light on the decision-making a civilization beyond the asymptotic technology transition would make. Recall that memes do not originate in the late phases of a civilization, they simply propagate from earlier phases.


  1. Replies
    1. What do you think should be the focus and scope of such a book? I have another blog about how to make an improved version of Buddhism, suitable for the modern world, but I doubt that is what you had in mind.

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