There is such a plethora of information on the Internet these days on virtually every topic you can think of , no matter how obscure you may think it is. My interest in how the discovery of life ( and let’s just assume that we are talking about the discovery of intelligent life ) will impact religious dogma and the world view of the membership of that particular church , is by no means unique. I know for a fact that there have been several articles written on the same or similar topic and I have read several of them but certainly not all. But the subject rarely surfaces in mainstream headlines and from what I can tell, church leaders are paying little to no attention to it, much less engaging their members in discussion to prepare them for what could ultimately be a distressing and frightening revelation . Perhaps they prefer to manage by crisis —no point in talking about it it actually happens, right? And even then–there may be some who elect to go right to denial . After all, there still is a Flat Earth Society and reasonably intelligent people who somehow don’t believe that we landed on the moon in 1969.
But thankfully, there are many likeminded curious folks out there and I’m fortunate to have to have some good friends and colleagues in the space community who pass on articles that they think would interest me , especially in this regard. One such article came my way a few months ago from my “Mission Control” –a technically gifted colleague and friend from the local astronomy club who kindly shares his expertise with this periodically technically challenged writer, especially when I need to wrestle down a concept for an article. This piece, entitled “How will our religions handle the discovery of alien life ?” was written by David A. Weintraub for Nautilus online magazine. The magazine, which I had not heard of before , describes itself as a literary science magazine that ” looks at a single topic in science from multiples perspectives ” . I love it!! What a concept! We need more of this in all aspects of society. But don’t get me started on that. … 🙂 So when an article on this topic came my way–it was –if I may use that tired old cliche. —right up my alley! Thanks, Mission Control–it helps to have extra eyes out there in the Universe. I would have hated to miss this piece.
The article starts out with one of those provocative questions that I wish I had thought of: What would your priest, rabbi or imam say if we discovered alien life?” The piece itself doesn’t tell me how Weintraub sourced his information to reach his conclusions but I checked him out and he has “creds” that match the authentic tone of this writing. He is not only a Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville but he is a Director of a Communications program for science and technology. He is also the author of several books, most notably one entitled ” Religions and ET Life: How will we deal with it?” which is where I am assuming that he collected the data for this article. Therefore , it is far more scientific than this blog, which as I have pointed out several times, is strictly anecdotal and meant to be a catalyst for conversation , not a scientific paper. That’s my official disclaimer because some of his summaries didn’t jive exactly with interviews I’ve done with clergy and faith members on this topic. So many differing points of view.
Weintraub summarizes the acceptance and thoughts of the following major religions: Judaism, Seventh Day Adventism , Creationists ( Fundamental Christians ) , Roman Catholicism , Islam and Buddhism. In reviewing them, I found some interesting perspectives that I was not familiar with and it certainly reinforces what we all know to be true—there is a wide range of opinions on this and the interpretations are as diverse and in some cases, diametrically opposite as the religions, cultures and peoples that populate this planet. How are we ever going to figure this out?
For example, Weintraub holds up the Jewish religion as likely being one of the most open to the concept of ET. Because Jews believe that there are no limits on the power of God , they are very accepting of the concept that God has created more than one species in the cosmos. Well that might be true and is consistent with some interesting discussions I’ve had with Jewish people , I think that might vary with sects and I suspect that strictly traditional orthodox Jews might be less flexible. I recall the interviews for my June 23rd/17 posting ( Speaking with people of the Jewish faith ) where I spoke to an orthodox rabbi who felt strongly that the cosmos was created only for humanity but was also enthusiastically open to the idea of we humans becoming a space faring species who would populate other planets. Which of course, leaves no opening for the concept of ” the other ” (ET ) as other planets would be populated be us–human beings only.
Weintraub’s discussion on Seventh Day Adventism was a real revelation for me! I knew nothing about this religion and was surprised to learn that it emerged in the 19th century as a solution to what was already perceived as a much needed “solution” to theological problems that would be created by the discovery of ET life. Wow–they were ahead of the game on this one and it seemingly was on their radar long before others were discussing it. They describe ET’s as “tall majestic beings” who are without original sin so not in need of Christian redemption. So other than saying “hello”–no need to worry about them or do any proselytizing.
Fundamental Christians will obviously have a much more difficult time as they take the Bible literally and the Bible certainly doesn’t speak to the existence of life beyond our own planet—or even to the existence of other planets. We now know otherwise and as I have often suggested—does the Bible need an update?
As Weintraub points out, beyond outright denial ( which will become impossible if we have solid proof and have established contact with other intelligent species ) , Creationists will “need to accept divergent views on a wide range of scriptural matters’.”
This will be really, really hard and some might not be able to make that leap and they will suffer. But as a relentless optimist and a person of faith myself, I believe that the God they believe in so deeply will ultimately guide them on the journey–if they leave themselves open.
You might be surprised to learn that Islam , a religion which we often perceive as rigid and extreme, is by nature of its doctrine quite open to the concept of ET. Islamic scripture already believes that intelligent life forms exist on many worlds. But there is some interpretative divergence once again, about proselytizing. Weintraub points out that while many Muslims believe that Islam forbids proselytizing , we all know that many others view non Muslims as as threat to their faith and must be converted. So it is probably a safe bet to assume that at least some Muslims will be joining the line up to convert ET.
Buddhists, on the other hand, are the poster children of inclusiveness and acceptance. Their sweeping and broad view of the Universe, which they believe is filled with all kinds of living beings , also includes other universes with reincarnating souls being permitted to be reborn into another universe. So the concept of ET is already built into their world view and core principles. And, as Weintraub points out, Buddhists wouldn’t be the least bit interested in converting ET because they don’t believe in blindly following any idea or person and that there are many paths to enlightenment.
It is when Weintraub discusses Catholicism that I become a bit puzzled. Perhaps it is because it is my religion, ( although truthfully, not one I have practiced a lot lately ) and because it is not consistent with the openness and vision that I witnessed while taking part in the Faith and Astronomy retreat at the Vatican Observatory in 2017.
Weintraub points out, rightly, that RC Church leaders take the likely existence of ET very seriously. But then he points out , wrongly in my opinion, that they believe that ET is “sinful” although they can’t agree why. That has never been my experience or interpretation of the Catholic point of view, either through my reading or discussions with RC clergy or other Catholics. Mind you , not that there is a vast body of work on this and like all other religions ( as far as I know) the Church has no official stand on ET life.
Weintraub gives us the historical perspective on the Church’s unofficial stand on this topic by telling us about the famed Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, who was a French philosopher , as well as a trained paleontologist and geologist. De Chardin believed that original sin permeated the Universe and that Christ’s redemption of Earth would not benefit any ET so there would be no point in other beings embracing Christianity. But he also believed that Christ could become incarnate on other worlds which would create opportunities for a Christian like belief system on those worlds. DeChardin’s ideas never became mainstream and Weintraub tell us that they have been suppressed since 1962.
He then goes on to give us a more updated version of the Catholic perspective on ET by quoting Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit and professional astronomer who is currently the Director of the Vatican Observatory. I obviously did not know De Chardin but I do know Brother Guy as he lead the Faith and Astronomy retreat that I was fortunate to be able to be part of in 2017. He is a gifted and dynamic communicator and as the co-author of “Would You Baptize and Extraterrestrial?” ( published in 2014) -obviously very open to discussing this subject. Weintraub points out that Brother Guy believes that finding ET would not pose a problem for the Catholic Church but feels that his belief that there is only one Christ ( the one who lived and died 2000 years ago ) and only Christ could redeem other beings from original sin, makes Earth the most important place in the Universe. Weintraub goes on to say that these kind of views would place the Catholic Church in the line up of those ready to convert ET at the first opportunity. I’m not so sure that I agree with that. Having read Brother Guy’s book and being blessed to have had the opportunity to have some discussions with him, I’ve never seen any indication of the Church preparing to convert any potential ET’s that we may encounter ( perhaps they’ve learned from past experience ) . In fact, Br. Guy points out in the book a point that I believe is significant and overlooked in most discussions on this topic. We humans are so darn egocentric that we are assuming that ET doesn’t have any belief systems and therefore is in need of ours. But perhaps ET has no interest in or need to join our “club”. I think that Br. Guy sums it up best when he answers the title question of the book “Would you baptize an extraterrestrial ? ” with this witty, tongue in cheek but very insightful response:
“Only if she asks!”
Weintraub closes with some thoughtful perspectives on how painful and challenging embracing the concept of other beings that are not us and may not believe in the things we believe in will be for some religions. Our history is littered with the blood of believers and non believers alike who became caught in the power struggle of conversion to Christianity and Islam. For me, it is beyond horrifying to even consider that this pattern would repeat itself in First Contact with extraterrestrial life.
Weintraub concludes on a positive note by musing that first contact could also provide us with a newfound understanding of ourselves. Perhaps confronting the fact that we are not unique, he says, will help us to let go of the notion that we are superior to others in the eyes of God and in the eyes of each other. He wonders if it is possible that learning of other kinds of life will encourage us to be more tolerant of each other? I like that. Our “second” chance at “first ” contact! Perhaps we’ll get it right this time 🙂
I hope that church leaders are at least starting to think about this and engaging their members in discussion. We can learn a lot about ourselves just by starting the conversation.
What do you think? Let’s get the conversation started 🙂