Does our place in the cosmos sit alongside other intelligences out there? What does this say about our story and our religions?
Across the Western world, the feast of the Ascension is coming up, celebrating the day Jesus rose up into heaven. It is the final story in his life that included him being killed and then, miraculously, returned to life. And now…he’s in outer space? The tale starts to look strange when put into the cosmology of modern science.
What else might be strange in light of our newfound knowledge of the universe?
The story of a deity on Earth, born in a particular hovel, may have a wide following today, but how much wider could the story be told among the stars? Some have speculated there are other worlds that have not yet heard the tale, as they are stupendously far away. This is in fact a scientifically-grounded theological quandary because of our knowledge of the size, age, and plausible habitation of the universe.
In recent years, with renewed interest in alleged evidence of encounters with technology from the stars, there has been an increased reflection on how the rest of the universe is supposed to fit into the narrative of a man in Judea bringing peace and universal salvation. Does this theology only apply to humanity, or do extraterrestrials also have a chance to go to heaven? Do they have their own Messiah. Or perhaps there are even incarnations of Vishnu galivanting across the galaxy instead?
The problems that the Christian story has with the existence of other intelligence species were realized centuries ago by Thomas Paine, imagining if Jesus had to go to each world, die, and be resurrected. With the vastness of the universe, Jesus would be coming and going, reincarnating into alien bodies for billions of years across billions of galaxies, all the while new civilizations were coming into existence and others turning to dust.
Conversely, one may posit only humans get to have the greatest story ever told, while the trillions of alien souls get left out of paradise. This runs contrary to what science has indicated: We are not the center of the universe, nor even the center of the Milky Way; we are a cul-de-sac of a sprawling galactic city, a city that is one of hundreds of billions in the observable universe. Did the Truth really arrive only at one address on our cul-de-sac? Suggesting that the creator of the universe entered into history in such a parochial fashion strikes of human egocentrism, not just geocentrism, a sort of homo sapiens chauvinism. Neither a singular Jesus nor a legion of Messiahs makes sense.
This was not a problem in the early days of the faith. Before modern science, the universe we knew was small, specially crafted for us. Indeed, suggesting there were other habitable worlds was heretical, declared so by gifted theological minds like St. Augustine, among others. In 1600, one person was burned at the stake for advocating such a heresy—the famous Giordano Bruno. But now Bruno’s heresy is vindicated by the thousands of known planets around other stars, though we await proof that any of them have people.
While we may lack definitive evidence that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, probability favors us not being alone as trillions of worlds are potential harbors for life. (It is easy not to comprehend the size of these numbers, notwithstanding that there are theories that see the universe as infinite.) Our place in the cosmos must take this into account, both scientifically as well as religiously. Astrotheologians ponder how to fit dogmas and deities into this grander view of the cosmos. While they have attempted to answer issues about communion and salvation, extraterrestrials still make no more sense to them than the archaic words said in the Latin Mass do to the average believer.
For now, in this intersection between science and religion, the theologians appear unable to give clear, undeniable answers. The chances of reaching a consensus in these matters is on a par with the probability of waltzing through a black hole unscathed.
But science might be able to do something that the theologians may not be able to: show us if we have a long, great future. When scientists attempt to estimate how many active civilizations are in our galaxy (the Milky Way), they use an estimator called the Drake Equation. The factors in the equation suggest how many active and advanced civilizations are around us now. One of the factors is the lifetime of such an advanced extraterrestrial (E.T.) civilization. If it is short, then even if life emerges on every possibly habitable world, the galaxy would be eerily silent. However, if it is long-lived, then instances of intelligent life would be more numerous. If there are more civilizations, the more likely one is nearby and discoverable.
A detection would tell us something about E.T., but also about ourselves. If E.T. were to be detected around a neighboring star, then this would indicate being able to thrive for millennia, perhaps even longer. And because we are not the special people of the universe, this gives us hope. We should expect to be neither expectational nor degenerate, but average (this is known as the Copernican Principle). If the average civilization lasts for tens of thousands of years, then that tells us that we should expect to be like them.
To listen for signs from the stars, using scientific rather than magical or religious means, and finding out we are not alone should give us hope that the troubles existing now can be overcome. Because if another civilization has found a way, then we too can overcome our foibles and troubles. Our worries about war, climatic decay, and technology run amok lead many into despair, but the scientific demonstration of intelligent life beyond Earth would tell us we might just be able to have a glorious future.
The Ascension caps off the hope for everlasting life after death, based on the story of one special person returning from the dead. What could be an even better, more impactful story, is that we, in our mediocrity rather than our specialness, have a reasonable hope? This would be a hope justified by the most powerful tools of discovery we have ever known—the scientific process. Scientific curiosity, rather than revelation, about the universe is both our way of discovering that glorious future as well as our best path to get there.
Jonathan MS Pearce and Dr. Aaron Adair’s book Aliens and Religion: Where Two Worlds Collide -Assessing the Impact of Discovering Extraterrestrial Intelligence on Religion and Theology is out today.
How big is the universe? Does intelligent extraterrestrial life exist somewhere in the universe? If so, how much extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) might there be? And if it is there, is it moral? Would they have a religion? And what would their existence say about human religions, theology, and beliefs?
In short, is the existence of ETI incompatible with the belief in God, with certain religions and their theologies?
These are the questions that Pearce (a philosopher) and Adair (a scientist who has worked on SETI – the search for ETI) seek to answer in this book. They take a close aim at Christian theology, focusing on previous claims of prominent astrotheologians who claim that there are no considerable problems that ETI existence causes for their belief systems. Pearce and Adair, however, show in this wide-ranging book (that touches on science, philosophy, psychology, and theology) that Christian (and other religious) belief is indeed threatened by the existence of ETI.
Would aliens be fallen creatures, requiring salvation through atonement and the resulting incarnation of God? Would one Jesus suffice, or would the universe require trillions of Jesuses, many existing simultaneously? This, and many other such questions are discussed in this engaging book that adds to the growing discipline of astrotheology (and perhaps astro-atheology).
“This well-written and provocative book is a substantial contribution to studies of the societal impact of astrobiology, and especially to the new field of astrotheology.” – Steven J. Dick, former NASA Chief Historian, author of Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact
“I love definitive treatments of a subject. This is a definitive treatment of its subject. The impact and significance to religion of even the possibility of alien civilizations is much in need of a thorough look. Pearce and Adair cover every angle, and well.” – Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Jesus Christ from Outer Space
“The breadth and depth of knowledge in Aliens and Religion are truly impressive…” – David E. Pritchard, Physics Professor of Physics, MIT, and editor of Alien Discussions