Update (March 2018): In more recent work on the issue of studying extraterrestrial difference I write:
Incorporating the recent inclusion of non-humans in anthropology, the study of ETI cultures in SETI could be considered scientific speculative ethnography, a practice we could call xenoanthropology (the study of extraterrestrial cultures). Xeno- (alien) communicates not just outside (exo-), but of a different origin.
The recent discovery of a possibly Earth-like planet, Gliese 581g, had me thinking about exo-/xeno-/astro-anthropology again and about the possibility of studying cultures on other planets. Since the early 90s when I started my undergraduate education in biology and philosophy, I’ve been interested in the relatively easy acceptance of the “hard sciences” approach to studying theoretical life on other planets. The astrobiology field has some internal debates about their own nomenclature, some arguing that xenobiology should refer to the study of life unlike that on Earth, and astrobiology be reserved for the study of carbon based life on Earth-like planets, including Earth. Either way, it’s considered a legitimate field in biology and astrophysics, NASA even has an astrobiology institute. So why not anthropology and religious studies?
I would propose, for now, that exoanthropology refer to the study of culture on other worlds (or other non-terran environments), including the interactions of terran and non-terran cultures – whereas astroanthropology refer to the study of terran culture as it moves into space. I realize this delineation calls on some problematic othering, but I think it’s useful for now as the exo field is theoretical and speculative, while the astro field has some more concrete examples to work from, such as the existing space station projects and the study of UFO religions. One might ask if it’s premature to talk about how we would approach a study of culture (and especially the religions) in extra-solar civilizations. And without a “subject” to look at, we might wonder: what’s the point in even naming the field yet? But these questions haven’t stopped astrobiologists from spending a great deal of time and energy looking at how life might form on other planets, especially in the theoretical consideration of what shape it might take given variation in environment. Why not apply this approach to religion and culture as well? In many ways this is exactly what speculative fiction has done for a century, authors writing about alien civilizations often include detailed accounts of religions. Some especially well crafted examples include Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series. And of course, Philip K. Dick has his own special way of bringing the the exo into religion.
These authors’ approaches aren’t far off from what exoanthropologists might do, especially exoethnographers – using what we know about Earth cultures and our own species to imagine how changes might result in differentiation and variation. So, for example, how different would Earth cultures be if our day was 225 hours long, as it is on Pluto. What if one half of our planet was always dark, facing away from the sun? What if gravity was lower, atmospheric pressure higher, the sun closer? What if our civilization was entirely underwater, how different would our concept be of the “sky?”
I’m not proposing we use the methods or epistemology of the astrobiological sciences. Lévi-Strauss’s periodical chart of cultural elements, or anything similar, need not apply here. But if, as Geertz suggested, part of the process of our exploration of culture is trying to understand as many “imaginative universes” as possible, isn’t a speculative, theoretical, exoanthropology a valuable tool in that endeavor? There is also an argument to be made for the role that this kind of imaginative “play” has in formulating new theory about culture and religion here on Earth.
I suggest that we start imagining sooner rather than later. There is a long history here on planet Earth of failed first-encounters, which we would certainly do over and do better if given the chance. Anthropology, and the precursors to religious studies have a long history of being put to work for the project of colonialism, starting with linguistics and continuing as anthropologists, theologians and missionaries provided imperialist powers with the information they needed to manipulate, control and commit genocide against indigenous people. The sooner we start considering how to prevent this from happening “next time,” the better. It seems inevitable that one day, maybe not for a while but eventually, scholars of religion and culture will be called on to interpret the elaborate religious significance of a welcoming ceremony staged by visitors from the Gliese system. Perhaps it will be up to us to mediate the beginnings of a respectful relationship and prevent interstellar conflict. And if we aren’t preparing for that day, who will be there in our place? Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the vatican, might be. “Any entity” he says,”no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.”