Questions about the impact of extraterrestrials on religious belief are not new
A new (Oct. 2) article at Space.com reports that theologians speaking at the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year-Starship Symposium have raised questions about the possible impacts on religion, and especially on Christianity, if the existence of extraterrestrial life is ever confirmed. The symposium itself was a public event held this past weekend (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) in Orlando, Florida, for a purpose that’s worth quoting:
The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.
Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz attended the event and issued detailed descriptions of its proceedings, including the above-mentioned Space.com article, which reports on a presentation given by philosophy professor Christian Weidemann of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum about the meaning of ETs for religion in general and Christianity in particular:
The discovery of intelligent aliens would be mind-blowing in many respects, but it could present a special dilemma for the world’s religions, theologians pondering interstellar travel concepts said Saturday (Oct. 1). Christians, in particular, might take the news hardest, because the Christian belief system does not easily allow for other intelligent beings in the universe, Christian thinkers said.
[…] “According to Christianity, an historic event some 2,000 years ago was supposed to save the whole of creation,” Weidemann said. “You can grasp the conflict.” Here’s how the debate goes: If the whole of creation includes 125 billion galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars in each, as astronomers think, then what if some of these stars have planets with advanced civilizations, too? Why would Jesus Christ have come to Earth, of all the inhabited planets in the universe, to save Earthlings and abandon the rest of God’s creatures?
[…] While the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would likely spur profound soul-searching for people of all faiths, many of the world’s religions might have an easier time accommodating the knowledge than Christianity, said theologist Michael Waltemathe, also of the Ruhr-University Bochum. “It seems to be only a problem of Christianity,” Waltemathe said.
Full story at Space.com: “Are Aliens Part of God’s Plan, Too? Finding E.T. Could Change Religion Forever.”
This all sounds fascinating, and I wish I had been there to listen and participate. At the same time, I also think it’s important — very important, in fact — to remember that the kind of speculation in question is hardly unprecedented. I’m thinking, for example, of Ray Bradbury’s philosophical and emotional tackling of the precise question of Christianity’s future and status in the face of alien intelligence in The Martian Chronicles, which was published in 1950 — sixty-one years before last weekend’s symposium. I’m thinking of C. S. Lewis, who addressed the subject directly not only in his famous Space Trilogy (published in 1938, 1943, and 1945) but in more than one essay, including “Religion and Rocketry” (originally published as “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?” in 1958) and “The Seeing Eye” (1963). In the former, he wrote that
Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.
But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of “life on other planets” — if that discovery is ever made.
Both Lewis and Bradbury wrote about these matters in the context of the early- and mid-20th century rise of a new set of philosophical concerns paired with scientific and science fictional concerns, all stemming from the culturally totalizing effects of the scientific materialist worldview as fueled by advancing discoveries in astronomy and the imminence, both literal and psychological, of manned space flight. These all raised new questions for typical human worldviews, philosophies, and religions, including the West’s dominant Christian-inspired outlook. Nor were Lewis and Bradbury the only ones to tap into such things; the philosopher C.E.M. Joad, for instance — one of the century’s most prominent and celebrated intellectuals — addressed the questions raised for philosophy and religion by modern science in his final book, The Recovery of Belief, where he acknowledged the pressing nature of the issue and then argued that the size and age of the universe as revealed by science does not have “any necessary bearing upon our views as to the nature of the universe as a whole, more particularly as regards its origin, purpose, destiny and end.” These were only three among many thinkers who spoke to these issues, and of course the conversation has extended well beyond the 20th century up to the present, with the Vatican even holding a conference on extraterrestrial life and its implications for religion in 2009.
My point is that the conversation at the 100-Year Starship Symposium didn’t take place in vacuum. In fact, far from it. I’m not exactly criticizing Moskowitz for failing to note this in her article, since the historical-cultural context of the theological discussion that took place there lay outside of her and its point. But I am emphasizing that it’s all too easy to get caught up in a kind of news-of-the-moment mindset that’s eventually indistinguishable from historical amnesia. The 100-Year Starship Symposium was a brand new thing. Questions about the meaning of other worlds and extraterrestrial life for human religious beliefs are manifestly, and importantly, not.