Nov 3, 2013

Faith for astronauts

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, recently back from a mission commanding the International Space Station, says the experience strengthened his religious faith.

Religion is a big topic of discussion on the space station, he told Terry Gross in an interview last week. It's something the astronauts think about and talk about as they orbit earth.

Picture yourself separated from the other six and a half, seven billion people where you can see them all from a distance. You know, every 90 minutes you go around and the world turns underneath you like a big jewel. And you have left all of them and you're looking at -- it's almost like a god-like view of the world, right? At least our limited human understanding of what that god-like view might be, looking down almost paternally on everybody. 
And so it really makes you think. 
And the world, you look at it, it just can't be random, looking at it. I mean, it's so different than the vast emptiness that is everything else
... the big pervasive feeling onboard looking at the Earth is one of tremendous, exquisite privilege that it exists. And so we talk about religion onboard all the time, and we have all different faiths, you know, because the astronauts come from all around the world -- cosmonauts. I mean we respect each other's faiths. And I hate to talk publicly about my own just because people really get a lot of strength out of their own set of beliefs, and if you start talking in depth about your own, you are excluding other people who have different faiths that give them strength. And there's no point in that. I have huge respect for how people get strength and the faith that gives that to them.

And I think what everyone would find, if they could be in that position, if they could see the whole world every 90 minutes and look down on the places where we do things right and look down where we're doing stupid, brutal things to each other and the inevitable patience of the world that houses us, I think everybody would be reinforced in their faith.  
And maybe readdress the real true tenets of what's good and what gives them strength ... whatever gave you the sense of tenacity and purpose to get that far in life is absolutely reaffirmed and deepened by the experience itself.
In other interviews, Hadfield has declined to identify his own religious affiliations, if he has any, though he does say he has faith. In one interview with a Canadian magazine, he said, "How can you not look at that and wonder how did that get there? Was it random chance or part of some design? Every religion helps you answer those questions ... I'm extremely inclusionary in my philosophies."

On Reddit, during an Ask Me Anything, Hadfield said that the question of whether or not the experience of space changes an astronaut's religious beliefs is a standard question. It's one he answers regularly, along with questions about whether people have sex in space, what happens to excerment in zero gravity, and whether or not any astronauts have seen aliens.

There is an interesting history of religious practice among astronauts in space, including Presbyterian communion on the moon, modifications of Muslim rules for when and how to pray, and scripture readings on space ships. The most common personal items taken into space are religious, according to the Johnson Space Center, including Bibles, crosses, prayer cards and icons.