There have been an increasing number of discoveries of planets orbiting other stars that are in the habitable or ‘Goldilocks’ zone, not too close or too far from the star and thus having the kinds of temperature and size that might be able to support life. The possibility of intelligent life existing on other planets is tantalizing no doubt and opinion is split as to whether it exists or not. I for one think that it does. From our own existence, we know that the probability of intelligent life emerging is non-zero. Given the huge number of stars and planets out there in the universe, it seems possible, if not likely, that it could have emerged elsewhere too. But at the same time this same vastness of space makes it highly unlikely that we will ever find out about other life so it will likely remain a theoretical speculation.
The confirmed existence of extraterrestrial life, even if we could never make physical contact with it, would have profound implications for our way of thinking, perhaps making us realize the pettiness of our own divisions. But assimilating that fact would not cause any real difficulties for those not bound by religious dogma.
Not so for religions, many of which are predicated in thinking that Earth and humans are somehow special creations of their gods. For Christians in particular, the existence of intelligent life would create enormous theological difficulties because of their doctrine of original sin. Christians believe that humankind is intrinsically sinful because of the shenanigans by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that was passed on to us because we are descendants of them. Jesus was sent to Earth to save us from it. The Bible treats the Earth as the center of the universe and containing all of god’s creatures and does not mention other worlds. Since the denizens of another planet could not be descendants of the original sinning pair, what would that mean? How could they be sinful? And if they are, did Jesus visit them too?
Jeff Schweitzer discusses why the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be bad news for many Christians but that the church will somehow sweep those problems under the rug.
Be clear I am talking here only of how just the simple existence of life elsewhere undermines religion. I leave the question of how religion would accommodate thornier questions like would such life go to the same heaven as earth life, or the same hell, or would such life be tainted by original sin even if not descendant from Adam and Eve. Maybe childbirth would not be painful. That is fodder for another blog.
As I stated at the beginning, none of this will matter upon life’s discovery elsewhere. Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible. Just like they eventually swept under the rug being wrong about earth’s position in the heavens. Or evolution. They will create contorted justifications to support this view, cite a few passages of the bible that could mean anything, and declare victory. Don’t say I did not warn you.
There is precedent for this kind of accommodation of new discoveries that contradict prior dogma. In the Middle Ages, there was theological debate about the ‘antipodes’, the other side of the Earth. This post looks at the arguments of those who argued that it was impossible for life to exist on the other side because they would be upside down, and some extended this to argue that the Earth had to be flat, though this was a minority view. A bigger problem was that the antipodes were believed to be separated from the known parts of the world by unpassable seas or fiery furnaces and hence they could not contain human life because they would not be descendants of Adam and Eve.
In his book Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence David Wilkinson discusses the theological problems that at that time were thought would ensue if human beings were found to exist in the unreachable antipodes, and the solutions that might be needed such as Christ appearing a second time to them or that they were unredeemed.
All these problems caused St. Augustine to dismiss the possibility of humans living in the antipodes thusly: “[I]t is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.”
Of course, when Christopher Columbus brought back news of people there, then the fact that he had gone there solved the problem since it meant that descendants of Adam and Even could have gone there earlier too, taking their sinfulness with them, and the church then sent out missionaries to ‘save’ these newly discovered heathen.
Reconciling life on other planets with original sin will not be that easy since it would be harder to argue that earlier humans had colonized that planet, especially if they were not like humans. But religious dogma is nothing if not ingenious in its ability to twist itself so that what was once a heresy then gets accommodated and finally becomes part of a new dogma.