Could the world’s religions survive the discovery of extraterrestrial life? Or would their beliefs be so shaken that they would eventually collapse?
A survey (pdf) discussed on Tuesday at a meeting on the search for alien life at the Royal Society in London suggests religion would survive.
The survey, designed by Ted Peters, a professor of Systematic Theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, asked 1300 people whether they thought the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would shake their individual belief, the strength of their religion as a whole or would adversely affect the beliefs of other religions. The survey included both religious and non-religious people, and most respondents were based in the US.
None of the 70 Buddhists questioned thought that the discovery of ET would undercut their belief systems, although 40 per cent thought it could pose problems for other religions.
More Roman Catholics believed ET could pose a problem for their faith. Only 8 per cent of the 120 surveyed thought that their individual beliefs would be shaken, but nearly a quarter – 22 per cent – said it could adversely affect their religion. Even more – 30 per cent – thought it could threaten the beliefs of other religious people.
The patterns were similar for the other Christian sects surveyed, including evangelical and mainline Protestants, but there was not enough data to draw firm conclusions about people of other religions, such as Hindus and Muslims.
Of the 205 people who identified themselves as non-religious (either atheists or those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious), only 1 per cent thought it would affect their atheist or spiritual outlooks. But 69 per cent thought the discovery of ET could cause a crisis for other world religions. An average of only 34 per cent of religious people shared that belief.
Paul Davies, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University in Tempe was one of the first to suggest that the world’s religions would not cope with the discovery of ET. And he still believes such a find would pose theological problems for Christians.
“They believe that Jesus came down to earth to save humankind – not dolphins, Neanderthals or extraterrestrials,” he said in response to the survey results. “To make sense of this, either you need multiple incarnations [of Jesus on other planets] or a reason why this planet and this species was singled out for special attention.”
Many survey respondents expressed no such qualms. A Roman Catholic said: “I believe that Christ became incarnate (human) in order to redeem humanity and atone for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Could there be a world of extraterrestrials? Maybe. It doesn’t change what Christ did.”
Another wrote: “From an evangelical Christian perspective, the Word of God was written for us on Earth to reveal the creator… Why should we repudiate the idea that God may have created other civilisations to bring him glory in the same way?”
“There is nothing in Christianity that excludes other intelligent life,” asserted an evangelical respondent.
Indeed, Vatican astronomers have said in recent years that there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of “extraterrestrial brothers”.
Readers of this blog will know that I am skeptical of the existence of intelligent life on other planets, in other star systems. Not that I think it’s impossible, it’s just that it seems to require a set of incredibly unlikely conditions for life on Earth to have survived 4 billion years… and those condititions seem so rare that it’s hard to see them being duplicated very often.
However, if God did create other intelligent beings on other worlds, they will have a moral sense of some kind… or they won’t (hard to see them surviving as a species in this case). If they do, and indeed, if we discover multiple intelligent races, ALL with moral senses, a belief in right and wrong, that belief will have to have come from somewhere. I suspect we would learn of some striking parallels between our own history and the history of such beings, and I expect it’s likely that they would have “their own revelation.”
So, the shoe is really on the other foot. How well will atheism survive the discovery of intelligent life on other worlds, particularly if THEY happen to be theists? Since it’s more likely that they will discover us than it is that we will discover them, I wonder if they’ll try to “evangelize us”?
Perhaps, on their world, the Savior will have said, “You must be hatched again.” Or, “If thine tail offends thee, cut it off.”
I’m only half kidding… our “humanity” is not a matter of our anatomy, it is a matter of our minds, souls and will.
But my guess is that if the aliens are indeed atheists, historically without a belief in God the Creator, we may not survive the encounter (unless, of course, God protects us), because they will have had no religious ethic to shape their beliefs about how to treat “the other.” There will have been no moral teaching preceeding the adoption of atheism that would shape a sense of right and wrong, unlike our own atheists, who end up affirming most traditional moral teaching in a kind of back-door “prooftexting” and materialistic mysticism.
But hey, who knows? Maybe the aliens will have an equivalent of PETA who will prevail on them to protect us. You know:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Aliens.