Orbiting Dicta

The View from Here: Voyager’s [O]mission

This year, in August and September, the 40th anniversary of the launches of the two Voyager spacecraft are being rightly celebrated.

Each of the probes carried on board a remarkable document — a record of civilized life on Earth devised as a greeting card to any life forms in the universe intelligent enough to intercept and decipher these messages.  A product of the creative collaboration of astronomer Carl Sagan, his wife Linda, and their associates, each of the Voyager messages included sounds and music representative of human cultures on the planet as well as pictures inscribed on a long‑playing phonograph record. But the Sagan team strove to make sure that all mention of God, the sacred or the religious dimension of human experience on Earth was deleted from the gold-plated record.

Secular music by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven was included, along with jazz and folk songs from around the globe.  But there were no liturgical chorales, masses or oratorios; no Gregorian chant, no Negro spirituals; no hymns or native religious canticles.  There was no religious art – Leonardo’s Last Supper, for instance, or Michelangelo’s paintings from the Sistine Chapel, or the windows of Chartres, arabesques from the walls of the Alhambra, or sculptures from Angkor Wat.  No Buddhist or Hindu temple appears, no cathedral, synagogue, or lamasery‑‑ only the Taj Mahal – technically a mosque, but “a monument not to religion,” it was noted, “but to love, and thus an appealing choice.” (A few gothic chapels slipped by‑‑ in a photograph of Oxford University — probably because they are unrecognizable as places of worship to anyone unfamiliar with the “City of Spires.”)

There were lengthy statements by politicians and other “world leaders”‑‑ the President of the United States, a two‑page list of US senators and congressmen “associated” with NASA, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and statements and even poems from fifteen UN delegates.  There were none however from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, a rabbi, an imam, a Buddhist nun, or a yogi.

One other oblique reference did manage to slip by the screening process devised by the scientists, however.  It was a statement by an African from South Uganda, Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya of Kampala, who said, “Greetings to all peoples of the universe.  God give you peace.”

In the end, what Sagan nearly accomplished was a gross misinterpretation of the real human situation on this planet, whose inhabitants are overwhelmingly members of a variety of religious traditions, some of which (preeminently Christianity and Islam) demonstrably gave rise to the very science Sagan and his colleagues espoused.

But despite claims, or should I say boasts, to the contrary, science is not uniformly value-free nor devoid of significant prejudice.  Sometimes disastrously so.  So I hope that any advanced civilization capable of playing phonograph records has some appreciation of irony. I wonder what our hopefully friendly extraterrestrials in some remote aeon in some imaginably distant realm of the universe will make of  Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya’s blessing once they get the phonograph going.