Every now and then, I receive some unexpected validation that this topic that I am so passionate about is not obscure, “fringe” or worse, irrelevant! And better yet- I am not the only one writing about it! Excuse the pun, but yeay!- I am not alone in my sometimes strange universe of wondering about how religion is going to “survive” first contact with Extraterrestrial life- whether intelligent or not.
A friend recently sent me a link to an online article that appeared in the Guardian on April 26th of this year. The article, entitled ” The discovery of alien life may be close. How will religion survive it?” , was written by Dr. Santhosh Matthew, a Math and Physics professor, researcher and science writer from the Boston area. I have been in touch with him and he has generously given me permission to post the link on my blog and if I have been successful in performing another successful technological feat, the link should appear at the end of this post. Please take the time to read this article- it’s an excellent read that will be well worth your time.
As I post this entry, it is one day after NASA announced the latest results from the Kepler 2 mission: 219 new exoplanet candidates have been discovered and 50 of those are orbiting nearby stars and are in the habitable zone of their star. And 10 of those are orbiting stars that are just like our sun- rocky planets that are potential Earths. As of this date, the count of exoplanets is now up to 4034 and it should be remembered that the planet hunting mission only looked at a tiny fraction of our galaxy–something like a quarter of one percent. In a very unscientific metaphor, a mere grain of sand in the larger universe.
In a tantalizing prediction of what this all means, Kepler scientist said this during the news conference: ” Are we alone? Perhaps Kepler has told us indirectly ,although we need confirmation, that we are probably not alone”.
As these discoveries become more common, the search for life is heating up and science and faith are about to meet each other face to face. Dr.Mathew’s article is timely indeed. And thought provoking. Here are some of the thoughts that it provoked for me 🙂
First of all, let ‘s assume that we are talking about the discovery of intelligent life for these observations. Although I believe we will likely find evidence of other kinds of life, such as microbial life, before we find sentient life, it’s safe to say that the discovery of intelligent life and other civilizations is the revelation that is going to have the most profound impact on society and religion. Dr. Mathew rightly points out that this will present the ultimate challenge to all religions but especially Christianity, which is based on the belief that God created man in his own image. This dilemma of whether God’s creation extends beyond a single planet and the incarnation of Jesus as the Redeemer also extended to other worlds was the central point raised in Ed Langlois’s article ” Are We Alone” –discussed a few posts back. I often wonder if any of the Christian theologians are giving this some thought? From my own experience as a Catholic and my experience at the Vatican Observatory, I know that the Catholic Church, through the science and faith outreach being done by the Vatican Observatory, are hosting some philosophical discussions about astronomy discoveries in general. But to be honest, I cannot imagine how they will resolve this deeply abiding and seminal issue that is the foundation of the Christian faith. But then, I cannot imagine what inhabitants of a civilization other than our own would be like either. I guess that is the whole point- we must be open to having everything we have ever believed to be true turned on its head. And now is a good time to start the conversation.
Another point that Dr. Mathew raises in his article that really resonated with me is the fact that human institutions are very adaptable ( as we have learned throughout our history ) and perhaps none more so than religion. He states: ” These institutions have always shown an amazing ability to remain relevant. Whenever they encounter a new paradigm shift, they come up with interpretations from scriptures that justify their own existence.”
This is, of course, quite true but I can’t help thinking that this is one paradigm shift that is going to require some deep creativity to find something that applies. Certainly interpretations vary widely, even within religions that have firmly established dogma backed up by scripture that by their very nature, will not and cannot change. In other words, you can’t re-write the Bible or whatever holy book you follow but you can re-interpret it. Dr. Mathew also comments that “there is something special about religion that resonates with humans on a deeply fundamental level.” So true! And that is why it will survive. I believe, that even as we live in an every changing and evolving world, there is something inside of us that craves and take comfort in things that are timeless–as timeless as the Universe itself. Rituals comfort us. I know that, even as a somewhat less than devout Catholic, I still am moved by the rituals of the Mass that I grew up with and Gregorian chanting almost makes me teary. We love –and need –the concept of the “sacred”. In order to prepare for what will ultimately be the biggest paradigm shift in human history, perhaps we need to expand our concept of what is sacred.
One of the most critical take aways for me from Dr. Mathew’s article is the reference to the fact that discussion on how humans will react with alien life is not just in the religious and philosophical realm but has now entered the scientific one as well. I consider this really good news! More validation that I’m not part of the fringe element by blogging about this because bringing science to the table boosts the profile and credibility of this narrative. Bring it on!
Check out the link in the article to the Center of Theological Inquiry, an independent ( but rooted in Christian theology, Dr. Mathew points out ) organization that received a $1.1 million dollar grant from NASA in 2014 to study the societal implications of astrobiology. The conversation is starting and more importantly, the fact that NASA is recognizing the responsibility of the science community in preparing society for this, makes my inner conspiracy theorist ( which I only engage very periodically ) wonder-do they know something already? 🙂 I say this purely tongue in cheek but it’s fun to muse about the possibility.
This post is already too long and I’m breaking my own rules by already being over my self imposed word maximum.
Please read and reflect on this informative and intriguing article and as always, your thoughts are welcome.