Starting with this question, in which I wondered what a society might look like that could survive the 3 generation rule...

Assume you have a crew and colonists on-board a generation ship headed to the stars. Assume religion has become part of the ritual required to maintain the vessel.

What would the religion look like that would be used to keep the populace maintaining the ship?

Do you think it more likely that the generation ship engineers - put in place the religion or do you think it's more likely that the religion & its rituals developed from the daily routines required to maintain the ship.

Does a select core of the high priesthood know the truth?

Does anyone on-board remember the truth?


7 Answers 7


The people on this ship have a very important philosophical question answered for them:

What is the meaning of life?

The common, western, secular answer is;

Whatever you make of it. Life has no inherent meaning, so the question is dumb.

For the religiously inclined, the answer is provided in their respective scriptures. Your inhabitants need to answer the question with maintain the ship and make sure we get to wherever we're going.

I disagree (only in part) to the 3GR. I don't believe I'll put off fixing that problem to tomorrow is what will doom a generational ship. Instead, I think it's individualism. Why should I fix the problem?

Taking it a step further; Why should I live my life confined in this ship when I didn't sign up for it?

The WHY:

Following parallels the three generations of wealth building linked in the linked question.

Naturally, we can expect the people who board the ship will all have signed up for the trip. This is the 1st generation. One full of volunteers. There won't be any rebellion against the ship's mission - a vetting process will filter-out anyone likely to cause problems.

The 2nd generation - the first generation that will spend the entirety of their life in the ship - probably won't cause trouble either. Under the supervision and parental guidance of the 1st generation, I don't expect problems here. Children will ask questions, but they'll be kept in line by their parents and the prevailing society.

The 3rd generation, however, won't have anywhere near as much exposure to the 1st generation as the 2nd did. They'll be able to flex their cultural muscle a lot more because their grandparents are old, dead, or senile.

This is why you need a religion. I expect the original designers of the ship to have thought of (and accounted for) this. Which means the 1st generation is going to have to play-along (in principle that's easy because they did sign up to spend the rest of their lives on a spaceship).

The HOW:

A giant, multi-generational spaceship is going to be a complicated piece of machinery. Even if it's state-of-the-art, there's going to be no room for dead weight. Your colonists will need to be crew, and your crew will need to be colonists.

Because of this, everyone needs to be educated and technically proficient at something useful to the completion of the mission. There will be blueprints, plans, and instructions for every part of the ship. Basically, the crew need to know every facet of the ship in order to keep it working. They also need access to every facet of the ship to do that - which means the ability to do course-changes is a very real possibility.

So the how is purely social engineering. Indoctrination and social control to make sure everyone is a team player. Ritual maintenance isn't going to work, as pointed out by @om.

You are going to need to promote teamwork. For example, consider JFK's famous inauguration quote;

...ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

It's incredibly apt. Selflessness for the greater good - this is the kind of virtue that needs to be pushed by the ship's religion (tangent: this is the kind of virtue that needs to be pushed by western religions).

The beauty of this is that believers can become high-level members of the clergy and not need to know the truth in order to function in their role. In fact, it's best that they don't know the truth. Knowing the truth means that the religion can be subverted for an individual's benefit - which puts the mission at risk.

Actually, it's best that no one knows the truth... not until they finally get to where they were heading.


I don't think you can use mindless ritual to replace engineering in any realistic setting. Rituals tend to be rigid, do X in situation Y. What if the filter is so gummed up that you don't have to clean it, you have to replace it ahead of schedule? The holy manual says you replace it every 10 years, and only eight have passed. Heresy.

You could teach engineering to priests, but that's not the same. Engineering doesn't answer much about mental health and the meaning of life, and if religious faith concentrates on these areas they're perfectly compatible.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You're thinking of a "Ten Commandment" situation whereas I think this would warrant more of a "Golden Rule" situation, "Love your ship as you would have it love you" or something. I'm sure there could be a parable about how a filter maintenance technician had faith and the Great One divinely inspired him to change the filter ahead of time... $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Jul 20, 2015 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Very much agree... engineering done under false premises is too likely to fail. The crew's critical thinking skills are hampered by not understanding the truth of what they're doing. $\endgroup$ Aug 23, 2016 at 6:32

user6511 has some very interesting points, but I think there are still some points to be made.

As was stated in that answer, when designing the ship, you need to make sure that they aren't going to change their minds throughout the trip on the "Nobody decides for me, I'm a free man!"-lines. The generation that boards the ship won't have issues with that as you would expect them to be volunteers. But second generation might be questioning the goals, and the third one is pretty sure to be asking what is the meaning of their life. From that perspective, to engineer some form of Faith is a very good way to obtain a certain control over large population.

The resulting religion should be adapted to the life on-board, but also reflect the civilization where the colonists come from. And it should provide an answer to the most fundamental philosophical question: what is the meaning of life?

Adapted to life on-board the ship

I don't know how is it in your case, but I would assume the first colonization ships would have a rather harsh life, contrary to the cruise-like ships that are often depicted in Sci-Fi books and movies. You can compare it to the ships that sailed the first European colonists to the Americas with the cruises that said some Europeans take to travel around the Caraibbean Islands. The technology does not support to take along too many extras at first, but only after mastering such travels can one add fanciful features. On the first ships you need to stick to the bare minimum. In a way your ship can be viewed as a large monastery, in term of organisation. Everyone needs to do his job, everyone else depends on it. So you probably want to include some common time to wake up, some to go to bed, the priest share the same food with most people, and are probably themselves engineers, staff, technicians, scientists, etc. Food is restricted, and of course no alcohol, etc. You could also compare it to the "simple" life of Mormons. You can't afford too many extras (ressources), so not too many leisure time. Those are even probably organised: like you have a free one-hour period between two shifts and your sleeping time. Time to meet with friends, relax, maybe get some education, etc. And well do your duty for the communauty (make children :-)).

You can add prayers or orations to emphasize the ideals of the religion, and motivate the people towards the goals.

The strict and frugal life imposed by the religion rituals allows to keep everyone in check. Due to the frequency of the religious acts, and the presence of priests on all levels, it is possible to detect any misbehaviour. And by emphazing the sense of duty for everyone, you limit the chances of outright rebellion, and get most of the population to condemn the person who misbehave.

Link with the original civilization

At the end, you want to make a colony, that means mainting quite some level of communication with the original planet. So they should not forget it, especially considering that they never saw it, nor will they ever. But this is a very good opportunity to filter out the image they might have. You remove the bad things, talk about how great is life there, but at the same time, you could consider some ideas of duty. The civilization is great, but one very important ressource is becoming scarce (maybe simply place), so they need the colonists to help save that great civilization. Also if you explain how well the people live there, it will motivate the next generation to escape the harsh life of the ship and build a new society on the new-Earth similar to what their ancestors left.

This would help the people on-board to accept their relative suffering for a greater future for themselves, their children and the whole of humanity. Heroes sacrifying themselves for the Greater Good.

The meaning of life?

With the rapid advance of science, (at least) one philosophical question remains: what is the meaning of life? Biological concepts (we live to pass on our genes) seems unsatisfying, as it lowers the influence of the Human intellect, and goes somewhat against many of our modern behaviours. user6511 mentioned Sartre's existentialism: the meaning of your life is what you make of it. There are a few others as well. I particularly like Camus' Absurdism. But none of those are particularly good for your aims as they tend to favour libre-arbitre (free will), which might clash with the Humanity goals. The main religions1 tend more to the concept of God, and the meaning of life is the Will of God. That meaning may be unkown to the living, but it is according to God's plans. Your engineered religion should provide a similar answer. The meaning of someone's life might not be cleared to himself, but it part of some sentient's plan.

Similarly the religion should reward people who behaved according to the plan, and punish those who don't. The simplest is to build some afterlife discussion: paradise vs hell, or reincarnation cycle with new reincarnation depending on how well it you lived. This provides extra incentive to follow the shown path.

More specific ideas

You can add some important figure. A somewhat inspiring example is given in Warhammer 40k but the main idea in this case isn't the colonization of remote planets, but the extermination of all non-human species. Nevertheless, an Emperor-like figure who is the main representant of God amongst humanity, and he, himself cannot die. A bit like the Catholic Pope, but as they never get in contact with the person directly, you could build up the image of an idealized Pope. Loved and respected by all. Strict yet understanding, etc.

One ritual that you could consider to emphasize the after-life concept. Is that you can't allow to have corpses accumulating as whole, but you could burn the deceased. And the ashes of those who behave correctly will be use to fertilize the new ground, whereas those who didn't are simply thrown into the emptiness of space. Due to the extreme feeling of communauty, it is a way to give some physical meaning to the afterlife.

Now to your question, do some/all know that that religion has been fully engineered? I would say no. 1st generation should have been somewhat brainwashed from the beginning and none aboard should have a clue. That way you make sure no-one would be tented to leak the information. Plus you want them to stay on the colony later, and not try to come back. So apart from themselves, the only source of information which could lead to the discovery of the falsehood comes from the remote communication. And THAT is pretty easy to keep in check for that long.

Well it turned out to be longer than what I thought, so I'll leave the considerations at that point.

1: Abrahamic religions


The ancient Egyptian civilization was very conservative and run essentially on a ritualistic basis for 3000 years, with most changes being imposed from the outside (invasions by the "Sea People" and later by aggressive new Hellenistic and eventually the Roman civilization). Within the long ebbs and flows of Egyptian civilization there were strands of innovation and cultural changes, but an ordinary person from the 18th dynasty being transported to the 25th dynasty might not notice too many changes.

Even when changes were attempted internally, such as imposing "Sun God" worship by Akhenaten, or the ascension of a woman as Pharaoh (Hatshepsut) were quickly reversed by the innate conservatism of Egyptian society. You could innovate, but only slowly and carefully.

Other long lasting institutions that might be mined for the sort of religious/conservative society desired might include the Church of Rome, or Chinese society, which despite the veneer of modernism is still organized along the sorts of lines a Confucian bureaucrat after the Warring States period would recognize.

Generally, there would have to be a cultural base that is deep and all encompassing, like the Egyptians, Catholic religion or Confucian philosophy that limits the arcs along which people think, and of course a fairly "sheltered environment" where there are few external shocks to destabilize the culture.

The wild card, of course, are the people themselves. Despite generations of cultural conditioning, they can still question, still aspire to something different and still try to create changes, regardless of the system they are brought up in.


The key advantage of religion is the implicit appeal to authority. It has served human society for many years in exactly this fashion - we build into the religion a set of rules of conduct, and censure those that fail to comply.

In some cases, this has backfired a little - for example, some religious prohibitions are for public health reasons that no longer really apply. (e.g. outside hot countries and when refrigeration is available).

So this is the mechanism whereby it might work on a generation ship. The core problem you have is - over many generations - you require continuous vigilance from people who may well never get to see their destination. As generations pass, and younger generations grow up having never seen home, never seeing their destination, and not actually seeing much point in making an effort ... you need something to act as the social glue.

After all, a generation ship will need to be well looked after, and there will be menial jobs that need doing. Overqualified people (e.g. those that really understand the implications of a generational mission) are likely to become miserable with their 'destiny' to mop the floor for the rest of their lives.

So that's where you'd bring in 'religion'. Introduce a priesthood, and apply an element of mysticism to the process. Ensure that training for the priesthood also includes engineering/scientific training as part of the process, so those who are acting as priests can also make good decisions. And then tell everyone else that their holy duty, worship and spiritual transcendence will be fulfilled by them completing their duties as assigned by the priesthood.

You run a bit of a risk of human fallibility superceeding the 'because God says so' element. You might have to be careful to ensure that the tech priests remain 'on top'. But given they're the people given the mechanical and engineering training, then perhaps that's not as hard as it sounds. After all, in the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

The tech priests could serve to steer a course without anyone really realising they were actually running the show, and teaching people 'acts of worship' that involve following the holy schedule of maintenance properly, and seeking to notify the priest when warnings are seen.

I suspect - overall - this might be more successful than ensuring everyone in the crew is well educated and skilled - nepostism and cronyism is largely inevitable in a closed environment, but if you do it right you can suppress the resentment because the 'blame' can be ascribed to an infallible outside authority.

This might be an actual 'thing' like a computer system, but actually it's probably better if it's more spiritual than that, and the 'will of God' is interpreted via computers and priests, so you don't have to ever deal with 'God being wrong' - God was clearly right, but the priests misunderstood.

You actually want to instill cultural inertia, and religion is good at that. Just make sure you don't set the roots so deep you can't shift gear when you actually reach your destination. (You'd perhaps need a 'second coming' plot arc when you're getting near your destination).


From reading the interesting comments here about how it would all work. It does occur to me that a Generation Ship seems like an inefficient and problematic way to colonise space. Why overcomplicate everything when you could send small self-contained pods and just deep freeze the inhabitants and re-awaken them when they get to their destination? There is no advantage of being conscious for decades/centuries on big complicated, inefficient ships, and you guys have pointed out all the difficulties it would pose... Sorry to go off tangent, I'm not allowed to comment yet. Genuinely interested if someone has reasons to favor this mode of transport...

  • $\begingroup$ This assumes that a cryogenic system exists within the universe - if it does, then you'd be 100% right. Slow, risky, inefficient colony ships might be the only option available. $\endgroup$
    – user6511
    Jul 21, 2015 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ We've managed to cryogenicly freeze people already, surely it's a matter of time before we can unfreeze them safely? I'd imagine we'll be able to do it before we're able to travel and relativistic speeds... $\endgroup$
    – Varrick
    Jul 21, 2015 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ It's not a sure thing at all. Even if we do suppose it's possible, it then has to be more feasible than carting warm bodies through space. $\endgroup$
    – user6511
    Jul 22, 2015 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ Freezing people is easy. Unfreezing them again, in working condition, is impossible so far as we know. Certainly there's no proof that it's possible, as no one's come close to doing it. $\endgroup$ Aug 23, 2016 at 4:58

As I tried to get across in my answer to the original question, I don't think that hiding the truth is a viable option. That's because, during the course of the trip, certain unforeseeable things are likely to go wrong, and the people on board are going to have to problem-solve. Problem-solving is a rational process, and it can't work if it's based on incorrect information. Moreover, even if the ship could be maintained by pure ritual, that still can't be trusted. Religions tend to evolve over time, and all else being equal, the ways in which they evolve aren't really grounded in reality. Christianity evolved a pope, a whole pantheon of saints, and bribes paid to priests to get you into heaven... not to mention about ten thousand disagreeing, and sometimes warring, sects. If the Earth were a ship, and it was relying on Christians maintaining the ideals originally preached by Jesus in order to keep functioning, it would have sunk about 1700 years ago.

This religion has to remain grounded in reality, or it will render its adherents unfit for the tasks they must perform, in order for the religion to fulfill its purpose - which is to land a spaceship on a distant, alien planet. This fact cannot safely be obscured, unless the ship is so stable and autonomous that no intelligent action is required on the part of the crew, during the entire duration of the voyage. Can people be expected to accurately steer a space ship, if they don't know that they're on one? No. More generally, can people intelligently and creatively solve a problem, if they can't understand the nature of the problem because they've been lied to about everything that matters their entire lives? Again, no. And furthermore, can they be relied on to maintain a given set of rituals for generations without altering them, when so far as they know, these rituals are a bunch of arbitrary flim-flam preached to them by a sect of dogmatic priests, and any other arbitrary rituals might do just as well or better? No, they cannot. They need to know the reasons for what they are doing, or they may well improvise catastrophically.

This is why I advocated, in the original answer, borrowing the tools of religion but centering the experience around a ritual with a two-fold purpose:

  1. Shock the acolyte into a state of "imprint vulnerability" (Timothy Leary's term, I think), wherein the normal certainty about what is real is shaken, and the mind becomes ripe for systemic reprogramming. This effect can be enhanced by doing it at the cusp of adolescence, when the brain is already undergoing a major, biologically mandated reprogramming cycle. The care and maintenance of the ship can then be imparted to them, and retained as a part of their fundamental character for life.
  2. Do so by incontrovertibly demonstrating the actual truth of the "religion" in a viscerally overpowering way.

This will help maintain adherence to the original mission (which is synonymous, in this case, with the "religion") without mucking up the brains of the crew with a bunch of dogmatic nonsense. A religion based purely on tradition can and will drift, change, and lose sight of its original purpose, because it lacks a consistent grounding force. A religion based firmly on reality will tend to remain stable, because its grounding force is reality, and it can be conclusively proven to each successive generation in a way that makes rebellion unthinkable (because it's so obviously stupid and self-destructive). They need only understand that they are on a ship, and it does rely on them for survival, just as they themselves rely on it.

The best morality is reason, and the best dogma is the truth.


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