You are here

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Astrotopia. The Dangerous Religion of the Corpo-rate Space Race, 2022

Rubenstein received her doctorate in philosophy of religion from Columbia University in 2006. She is a professor at Wesleyan University. It is worth noting that this book, in terms of its interest in the topic of space exploration, is rather an exception to her body of work. 

The book consists of seven chapters, and is written in a rather light-hearted style, sometimes too personal, which may not appeal to everyone. On the other hand, despite this, it is generally pleasant to read. 

In chapter one, Mary-Jane Rubenstein criticizes the millionaires of the space industry, especially Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. She also points out the difference in their philosophy of space exploitation. The author takes a strongly critical stance towards the concept of space exploitation in general, and in its American, capitalist version in particular. 

In chapter two, the author points to the religious, precisely biblical, Old Testament roots of the attitude toward exploiting the Earth. Here she refers to the famous article by Lynn White Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” published in Science in 1967. Rubenstein emphasizes that religion today, with exceptions, is pro-environmental in nature. But this present-day attitude does not erase or cancel out the negative impact that, in the author’s opinion, religion has caused over the past hundreds of years. The author points to the broader problem of using the divine mandate to conquer, exploit, wars, which is particularly evident in American history. 

In the third chapter, the author analyzes the complex and in some ways ab-surd philosophy behind the European and American understanding of property rights. She cites the case of Dennis Hope, who declared himself the owner of the Moon and other planets in 1980, and then began selling plots of land on the Moon and other planets, to millions of people to this day. In the cultural texts of colonial times, the Americas corresponded to the Land of the Canaanites, and Americans were depicted as the New Israel. 

In the fourth chapter, Rubenstein analyzes the astrofrontierism that characterizes American space culture. Astrofrontierism has its roots in frontierism mainly of the 19th century, which in turn is rooted in the Bible. A prominent example of the reference to biblical inspiration, for example, is the reading by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968 during their flight to the Moon of the Genesis passage about God’s creation of the Earth and the coming of light. Rubenstein points out that the reference to a religious text rather than an eco-nomic or political one, for example, indicates a continuation of the belief in the divine mission of the US, which also serves to anoint the cosmos as US property entrusted to them by God. 

In chapter five, the author exposes the fictitious nature of the concept of the cosmos as an asset and heritage of all humanity. As she notes, analyzing the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty, they offer illusory equality, because they do not limit the actual freedom held by just a few space powers. The author also criticizes the recognition of human lunar and Mars missions as a goal, as well as investing in the development of human missions. In her view, this reveals only nationalist and capitalist thinking about space in terms of conquest and domination. 

In the sixth chapter, the author describes the problem of disrespect for the natural environment of space, which for many people, especially space exploitation advocates, is just rocks. Rubenstein gives an example of the different attitude of tourists to what is considered sacred to Aboriginal people in Australia and Western nations of Christian origin. In the former case, the Uluṟu rock formation is often treated as a site of climbing and devastation despite its status as a sacred site for indigenous people. On the other hand, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York is treated with respect by visitors. What is the reason for such different attitudes toward these sites considered sacred? According to the author, it stems both from imperialism and racism, which dictates respect towards the West and ignorance towards con-quered and colonized places, and from Western disrespect for natural, i.e. not processed by humans, nature. The author again recalls White’s thought, which she discussed in chapter two. She points out that the Christian demythologization and naturalization of nature and the world of animals and plants has led them to lose the magical and supernatural component attributed to them by non-Christian beliefs. This was to lead to the removal of the barrier preventing their exploitation. 

In the final seventh chapter, the author points out that proponents of space exploitation understood as a final frontier emphasize that, unlike the historic colonization of Earth, the objects planned for exploitation in the near future in space are uninhabited. But Rubenstein is more interested in whether the current colonial approach to space exploitation is beneficial to humans. The author has no doubt – as she also consistently and conclusively shows in the preceding chapters – that humanity does not benefit from the exploitation of space. Only businessmen, so-called astropreneurs, benefit. This paradigm of an exploitative and colonial approach to space is based on the philosophy of longtermism. Longtermism is based on the fact that it values the welfare of the species, abstractly understood as humanity, more highly than concrete, currently living people. 

The author ends her book with the following conclusion. What is important in our religious thinking about the world, or, more broadly, whatever mythology we adopt, is the resulting attitude to the world. Pantheism is a much friendlier proposition towards the environment than the idea of human domination over the world rooted in Christianity. 

The book seems to be of more interest to those interested in reflecting on our future in space and the current dynamics of space policy than to the person interested in the study of religion. This is mainly because the accusation of religion, in this case Judeo-Christianity, as a negative environmental influence goes back at least as far as the aforementioned White article. Much more interesting is the author’s perspective on the specifics of space policy, which she exposes in terms of the capitalist race for profits. By contrast, this is not an entirely novel topic. Criticism of the language used in reference to space exploitation and exploration as referring to Judeo-Christian roots, but also to colonial and imperial culture has also been around for at least a dozen years. 

The author basically repeats over and over again her thesis of profit-driven exploitation, following the capitalist philosophy of capital accumulation as an end in itself. I think she could be a bit more nuanced in her radical criticism, especially since, in principle, space exploration and exploitation has not yet begun, not counting sending satellites into Earth’s orbit. So perhaps we are dealing with a criticism of something that does not yet exist. It is also difficult to see the approach to space exploitation as having religious roots. Undoubtedly, politicians, astronauts, and businessmen use language referring to religion as well as imperialism, but does this mean they are inspired by religion? 

In conclusion, the author can inspire sympathy with her concern for the environment and her warning against the pursuit of profits by space capitalists. However, her attempt to portray the current space discourse as a new religion fails. The author should first present the last decades of polemics between supporters and opponents of White’s thesis on the harmful effects of religion on the environment, in order to describe in a more nuanced way the mechanisms and dynamics underlying the exploitation of the environment and how, possibly, this exploitative paradigm functions in relation to space.


Konrad Szocik 
Rzeszów University


Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 3(1) March 2024, pp. 35-37