Space Religion: Cao Dai and the 72 Inhabited Exoplanets

A devotee attends the altar at the Cao Dai Great Temple in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. A devotee attends the altar at the Cao Dai Great Temple in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. (© Paul Panayiotou/Grand Tour/Corbis)

Religion and science both seek to explain humanity's place in the cosmos. Yet while scientific cosmology is ever changing, theological cosmologies have a tendency to lag behind.

Ah, but what of faiths that emerged more recently? As I've blogged about before, Mormonism takes into account both alien worlds and intelligent alien life. Various 20th century UFO religions go even more cosmic, but in this post we'll consider the Vietnamese faith of Cao Dai, founded in the early 1920s.

As explained in the New York Times piece "Where the Faithful Worship Among the Tourists," Cao Dai draws upon notions of Buddhist reincarnation, Confucian ethics, Catholic hierarchy (they have a pope!) and the Taoist concept of balanced complementary forces. It's essentially an attempt unify the positives of various Eastern and Western faiths into a single ideal religion.

The 72 Inhabited Worlds Given my inclination for salad bar spirituality, that all sounds well and good to me -- but it wasn't this that grabbed my attention, nor was it the Divine Eye pictured in the photo. It was the notion that 72 inhabited planets bridge the space between Heaven and Hell.

Their notion of "Hell" is a bit murky based on what I've read thus far. This Cao Dai faq refutes the notion, while this one mentions the "10 Courts of Hell."

What seems reasonably clear, however, is that Cao Dai cosmology involves a string of planets numbered 1 through 72.

Earth is Planet 68 in this chain and each world gets progressively better the closer you get to Planet 1. Live a good life here on Earth and you'll reincarnate onto Planet 67, where life is different and overall better than here on Earth. Do good there and it's on to Planet 66. Keep this up and you'll pass through the entire flight of increasingly excellent worlds till you pass on into the Nine Grades of Heaven.

Live a bad life, however, and you'll fall down the chain to Planet 69 -- and then there may or may not be 10 Hells lurking beneath Planet 72.

Please, take my outsider analysis with the grain of salt it deserves. Plus, like any religion, there's a lot of room for overt complexity and contradiction.

But I rather enjoy the theological idea of 72 planets, whether it ultimately proves less of a "space religion" concept and more of a metaphysical map of the human soul, ala the Buddhist wheel or life or Dante's Inferno.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.