Religious implications of finding life on other planets


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.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    Obviously the question concerns intelligent life and conservative evangelical sects (and the equivalent in non-Christian religions). Non-sentient life would pose no more problems for conservative religious beliefs than a round earth, a heliocentric solar system, or meteorologists’ ability to predict the path of hurricanes without the hypothesis of God personally moving the storm systems around. And liberal religionists don’t have the beliefs specified in the OP and view their religious texts as imperfect metaphors for understanding their deities; they can easily accommodate the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence into their beliefs and probably already do so.

    While it is interesting to speculate what effect a personal, face-to-face meeting with extraterrestrial intelligence would have on conservative, evangelical Protestants, such a thing, I think, has an extremely low probability of happening in the next few centuries. More likely, if we discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the evidence will be in the form of long range telecommunications. And that can be as easily explained away by the faithful as the evidence for a four-and-a-half-billion year old earth and the common descent of all life on earth.

  2. raven says

    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.

    True.

    1. Religion not being anchored in reality or capable of falsification is very malleable. Those eternal truths can change in a second and change back an hour later. It happens often.

    2. Xianity dealt with the existence of other religions in a very evil and destructive way. They simply declared all other gods to be demons. This led to several centuries of persecution of Pagans until there weren’t very many left. Quite often they were simply killed.

    3. If we ever ran into intelligent ET’s, I’m sure the fundies would just call them demons and that would be the extent of their thinking.

  3. JohnV says

    Mano, you may be interested in a science fiction novel wrtiien by James Blish titled “A Case of Conscience”. It was awarded a Hugo in 1958 or ’59.

    jv.

  4. says

    The one consistency of the religious is their inconsistency, their hypocrisy.

    Claim 1: “There’s no life elsewhere! That means humans are the purpose of creation!”

    Claim 2: “There IS life elsewhere! That ‘proves’ gawd can create life anywhere!”

    They will always have an out, they can claim “godidit” either way. The dishonest leaders and the gullible followers will pick the most convenient position and then pretend they never claimed anything else.

  5. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    In C. S. Lewis’s science fiction books Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet, alien races are seen as innocent, free of knowledge of sin, as humankind was in the garden of Eden. Particularly in Perelandra, the protagonist battles to preserve the innocence of the queen of Venus from the suasions of a “scientific” tempter.

    In general there are all kinds of mythological roles into which intelligent aliens could be slotted in order to relieve the cognitive stress of nervous humans, none of which of course would have any relation to the actuality of those aliens. And the reverse: what alien mythological roles might we find ourselves forced into? Any symbol-using intelligence would surely have myths… what if each chooses to cast the other as demonic? (Or as angelic?)

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    James Blish’s A Case of Conscience dealt with an alien race whose existence seemed to conflict with Catholic dogma. The Jesuit protagonist concludes that they are the work of Satan, although he is quite fond of them. A good read, anyway, like most of Blish’s work. At least I thought so as a young man – haven’t reread his stuff lately.

  7. machintelligence says

    I recall an essay by a science fiction author (my Google fu isn’t up to locating the reference — probably in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 40 or 50 years ago) who suggested that based on the evidence we have on the results of a technologically superior culture making contact with an inferior one, our best policy would be to follow the example of the Amazon tribes that maintained their culture the longest: kill and eat the missionaries.

  8. lpetrich says

    Or follow Japan’s strategy. Keep them out but learn from them anything that might be worth learning. Japan first learned from China, and then from the West.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Xianity has also another problem: humans colonizing other planets. Due to the distances the connections between populations will be very sparse, and Homo sapiens will fragment to several different species. Which one is the true human, created as God’s image? Especially if Tellus has to be abandoned, and the original species goes extinct.

  10. says

    If scientific evidence of intelligent ET was found (and made public) then I suspect it would be dismissed by the conservative religious in the same manner as evolution and climate change is (e.g. the evidence is made by lying scientists pushing atheistic agenda, etc.). For those of a more liberal religious bent, ET will essentially be classed as either spirits, angels and\or demons (who are obviously intelligent and NOT human and are recorded in the ancient tomes…).

    I will also predict that Scientology would get an upswing in membership (The cult will say, “See! Xenu (and all that rot about alien souls) was predicted by L. Ron Hubbard …”).

  11. Robert, not Bob says

    Anything short of in-person visits from sapient ET’s (unlikely in the extreme) would be either ignored or dismissed as fraud by the devil and/or god-hating scientists. Mars groundwater or Europa ocean bacteria would probably be ignored-I suspect many people don’t seriously believe in bacteria anyway. I do foresee two quite creative possibilities: bacteria being reclassified as “not really alive” and any other life in the solar system being the result of spacegoing antediluvians (seriously…)

    Most people though would simply ignore it all as they generally ignore the entire universe above the airliners.

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