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Científicos examinando un extraterrestre
Científicos examinando un extraterrestre

Will Religions Crumble If We Find Extraterrestrial Life?

NASA funded a group of theologians to try to assess the probable reaction of religious people to extraterrestrial life or intelligent aliens

In 2016–2017, NASA partially funded 24 religious scholars to brainstorm how adherent of various faiths would react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. As Erin Snodgrass put it at Insider,

A rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a research program funded by NASA to talk about the intersection of God and aliens.

It’s not the start of a religious joke. It’s precisely what happened at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey in 2016 when two dozen theologians gathered to participate in a program partially funded by NASA to research how humans might respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

Erin Snodgrass, “How would humans respond to the discovery of aliens? NASA enlisted dozens of religious scholars to find out.” at Insider (December 29, 2021)
Andrew Davison

One of them, Andrew Davison, has been talking about it of late, not only because of the current active pursuit of fossil microbes on Mars but because he is set to publish a book this year, Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine.

He doesn’t foresee any particular angst among religious believers:

“The headline findings are that adherents of a range of religious traditions report that they can take the idea in their stride,” Davison wrote in “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine,” a forthcoming book that touches on his time during the program, reported The Times, which obtained portions of the book.

Davison also wrote in the book, which is set to be released in 2022, that the nonreligious community tended to “overestimate the challenges that religious people” might face if evidence of extraterrestrial life were discovered.

Erin Snodgrass, “How would humans respond to the discovery of aliens? NASA enlisted dozens of religious scholars to find out.” at Insider (December 29, 2021)

That makes sense. First, the most likely find would be fossil (or even living) microbes somewhere. Evangelical Christian astronomer Hugh Ross believes, for example, that we will likely find fossil microbes on Mars but that they probably came from Earth back when the planets were less solidly formed and were exchanging materials. But it’s not clear what they would prove or disprove in a religious sense.

Anyway, NASA didn’t think it would hurt to get a discussion going. After all, we could find something more complex one day:

Will Storrar, director of the CTI, said NASA wanted to see “serious scholarship being published in books and journals” addressing the “profound wonder and mystery and implication of finding microbial life on another planet,” the Times reported.

Brooke Migdon, “NASA used religious experts to predict how humans may react to aliens” at The Hill (December 28, 2021)

Of course, if we encountered an alien civilization, we might have more to think about. Davison’s own astrobiology-cum-theology research concentrates on the role of Jesus:

“The most significant question there is is probably whether one would respond theologically to the prospect of life elsewhere in terms of there having been many incarnations, or only the one theologians talk about in Jesus,” he wrote at the time. “I have also been thinking about the doctrine of creation, especially in terms of how it deals with themes of multiplicity and diversity.”

Brooke Migdon, “NASA used religious experts to predict how humans may react to aliens” at The Hill (December 28, 2021)

It’s an interesting question and one, Davison notes, that has been discussed over many decades, all the more when space travel first began to be envisioned.

C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), who wrote a science fiction trilogy himself, had some thoughts on the topic:

First, Lewis published an essay titled, “Religion and Rockets” that can be found in a lesser known book, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays. Lewis’ faithful fans may be surprised to find that the author seems quite open to the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life, something he believed begged a bigger question: “How can we, without absurd arrogance, believe ourselves to have been uniquely favored?” If humans did find alien animal life (he believed discovering alien plant life would be theological insignificant), Lewis said, they would need to determine if these alien beings were rational, have “spiritual sense,” and are fallen like humans are.

If all three were present in these extraterrestrial life forms, and if we discovered that no form of redemption had reached them, then the human task might be to evangelize them. Lewis suggested that it might be that “redemption, starting with us, is to work from us and through us [to the extraterrestrial beings].” He continues, “Those who are, or can become His sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks. It is spiritual, not biological, kinship that counts.”

Jonathan Merritt, “What C.S. Lewis thought about space exploration and aliens” at Religion News Service (November 25, 2014)

The Catholic poet Alice Meynell (1847–1922) expressed a similar view:

But in the eternities,

Doubtless we shall compare together, hear

A million alien Gospels, in what guise

He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

Alice Meynell, “Christ in the Universe” at The Catholic Thing (June 4, 2021)

Despite some of the claims we hear, it is actually old news that most religious people would be quite comfortable with the idea of extraterrestrial intelligences:

José Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, recently stated in an interview that the belief in aliens is compatible with belief in God. This isn’t exactly news—another Vatican astronomer, Guy Consolmagno, published a pamphlet on the matter three years ago, and Vox Nova points us to a treatise by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) that says essentially the same thing.

Gabriel Mckee, “Are God and Aliens Compatible?” at Religion Dispatches (July 3, 2009)

And even if the extraterrestrials turn out to be atheists, well, there you have it, a unique opportunity for evangelism!


You may also wish to read:

Harvard astronomer: Hunt for ET can unify science and religion. Avi Loeb told The Hill that the Galileo Project, which looks for physical evidence of extraterrestrials, could answer religious questions as well as science ones. Fewer scientists seem to think we can do without any source of intelligence for the creation of the universe. Hence the idea that advanced ET created it.

and

Harvard astronomer: Advanced aliens engineered the Big Bang. Avi Loeb writes in Scientific American that when we humans are sufficiently advanced, we will create other universes as well. Avi Loeb’s hypothesis is not logically stranger than the many hypotheses that attempt to account for the Big Bang without underlying information/intelligence.


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Will Religions Crumble If We Find Extraterrestrial Life?