Mar 18, 2010
Are we alone in the universe? Or, given the vast numbers of stars and planets, is the universe teeming with intelligent life? The search is intensifying, and what if that electrifying first contact comes? How would it impact human society? How would it affect religion?
I’d like to believe in a creator God. Would such a God have made the universe to bring forth innumerable species of intelligent life? Or would such a God have made human beings, on this ordinary planet circling an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy, to be so absolutely and utterly unique? Some religions teach that what God does right here is supremely and stunningly special. Christianity cannot duck this question: Would intelligent aliens undermine God?
NASA chief historian Steven Dick questions the consistency of the Christian salvation plan if there are sentient beings on other planets. The salvation of humans on Earth depends, according to traditional doctrine, on Jesus’ death and resurrection, but what about those beings on other planets? Does his death on earth save them?
“If the answer is ‘No,’” says Dick, “then you have a scenario of a planet-hopping savior, which was not kindly looked upon by, say, theologians in the Middle Ages.”
Dick’s solution is a radical rethinking of what is meant by “theology.” He argues for what he calls a “cosmo-theology,” meaning “we need to take into account what we know about the universe, including whether or not there are extraterrestrials.” This includes the fact that “physically, the earth is not at the center of the universe” and the likely fact that, in Dick’s opinion, “biologically, human beings are not at the center of the universe either.” He suggests that there are other, far more advanced intelligent life forms. “We are most likely not at the top of the great chain of beings,” he says.
Dick’s cosmo-theology, which would be energized by extraterrestrial, or ET, intelligences, is hardly “theology” in any traditional sense. God is nowhere to be found. Nor are humans very much important. I’d be thrilled to know such “new truth,” though deeply disappointed, I’d admit, that God were no more.
Physicist Russell Stannard’s belief in the Christian God would not at all be shaken by the discovery of ET intelligence. “There must be teeming numbers of earthlike planets out there capable of supporting life,” he says, “and it’s almost axiomatic that ET is out there, a whole variety of different kinds of ETs.” As for their relationship to God, Stannard calls it “a very fascinating thought,” saying, “If I were to meet ET, my first question would be, ‘What’s your take on God?’”
Stannard raises the next questions: “How would Jesus relate to them? The Christian belief is that the Eternal Son of God took on human form as Jesus for us. So does the same Eternal Son of God then take on the form of ETs to act as their savior? Do ETs even require a savior?”
Stannard says he has no objection to the “planet-hopping savior” spending his time on millions of planets, living and dying, going through the same process over and over and over again, even though some people don’t like it and it seems to subject the Christian story to a kind of mocking. “If we’re happy to go hopping around to different countries,” he laughs, “I don’t see any problem for the Eternal Son of God to go to different planets.”
He continues: “Assuming there are ETs more intelligent or advanced than humans, I think the more interesting question is: Does God value them more than God does us? ET might look down on us as being rather primitive just as we look down on apes as rather primitive, and slugs as even more primitive. So does God pay more attention to them than God does to us?”
Stannard stresses, however, that just because a person is highly intelligent does not mean that he or she is highly spiritual. “One knows of very intelligent people who are spiritual pygmies, and of people with low IQs who have deep spiritual lives,” he says. “The true measure of spirituality is how close you are to God, how real is your relationship with God. And God is the only judge of that.”
Stannard’s firm belief in God embraces, not fears, ET intelligences. He would welcome ETs, seeing in them novel vistas for apprehending God. I respect Stannard’s conviction, but recognize that scientists who are firm adherents to particular religions have biases.
Cosmologist Paul Davies offers the controversial idea that the universe must be “about” something. Could a cosmos filled with ET intelligences be what the universe is “about”?
“Four hundred years ago, Bruno was burnt at the stake for espousing the idea that there’s a plurality of inhabited worlds,” Davies says. “The church thought this was a very dangerous doctrine, and I think the church got it exactly wrong. … If the emergence of life and mind are part of the great outworking of the laws of the universe, then we would expect to find that life is widespread. Life would not be just some sort of irrelevant, meaningless, side issue, but integral to the whole great cosmos.”
He adds, “One of the things that I have found rather surprising and a bit depressing is that theologians have given very little thought to this extraterrestrial dimension. They don’t want to think about it; it makes them uncomfortable.”
To Davies, ET intelligence is central to his vision of a universe in which life and mind are a meaningful part. And such expanding conscious awareness, by sentient life colonizing the universe, may be in some way responsible for having brought our kind of life-generating universe into existence in the first place.
Davies recognizes that he is in essence proposing a kind of retroactive, backward causation mechanism in which the development of consciousness billions of years after the origin of the universe somehow “causes” just the right kinds of original laws of the universe that seem fine-tuned for life. As for the charge that such a backward-causing hypothesis is “absurd,” Davies counters by asserting that all ultimate explanations are absurd. As for Western religions, Davies suspects that ETs would undermine them all.
Robin Collins, a young Christian philosopher, disagrees. A leader among modern theists in trying to discern God’s design, he is ready to embed ETs. “My theism itself inclines me to think, though I can’t be sure, that we humans are not alone,” he says. “God is infinitely creative, and if God wants embodied, intelligent life like us, then even more such beings would even be better.”
Would those ETs have to follow the same salvation process that Christians have followed on this planet? “Maybe, maybe not,” Collins responds. “If they were ‘fallen,’ if they had by free choice turned away from God, then a Christian would probably want to say that there would be some kind of similar salvation scheme for them. … Probably you’d want to say there’d be multiple incarnations.”
As to the semi-mocking charge that a planet-hopping savior would be “rather busy,” Collins gives a serious analysis. “Well, that depends on how one conceptualizes the doctrine of the incarnation,” he says.
“There are two major views in philosophical theology. The first is ‘kenosis,’ which is the idea that the second person in the trinity emptied himself of his divine attributes and became a human being. Under this view, God the Son would indeed be very busy going from our civilization to the Clingons to the Romulins to where have you. But under another view, often called the ‘two minds view,’ what God the Son does is take on a human consciousness and a human body as part of his own God-consciousness, where he still has this overarching consciousness of God the Son.”
“Multiple personalities,” I ask helpfully?
“It’s multiple personality by choice,” Collins stresses—adding that, in any event, “even an infinite number of salvation processes would not in any way exhaust the divine being. … It just seems hard for me to conceive of an infinitely creative God just doing it once.” ETs don’t threaten Collins’ belief. Indeed, he welcomes ET intelligences as evidence of the infinite God, though his position contradicts historical church doctrine that asserted human beings are unique creations of God.
How might salvation work on innumerable worlds? One planet-hopping savior, dying and rising innumerable times? Or innumerable saviors, incarnating the same spirit of the same God? Both seem, well, a little bit odd. But there’s lots of “odd” in existence—including us. I should visit scientists who are actually searching for ETs.
Astronomer Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research, personifies the search for ET intelligence. Does she think the discovery of intelligent alien life would undermine God?
“I see that question as nonsense,” Tarter says. “If God exists and extraterrestrials exist, God was responsible for them, so how can their existence undermine God? If God doesn’t exist, there’s still the question of whether extraterrestrials exist or not? It’s an open question to be asked of the universe and hopefully answered with experimental methods.”
Psychologist Doug Vakoch, Tarter’s colleague who focuses on the potential cultural impact of ETs, disagrees. “I think it would be a real question for some,” he says. “Some Christians believe that Christ came only to Earth and that salvation applies only to human beings. Others, even Bible literalists, argue that if in fact there is intelligent life beyond Earth, that would do nothing to change the special relationship between God and humankind in the same way that if a young couple decides to have a second child, it does nothing to change their special relationship with their first child. It’s important not to conflate the notion of human specialness with a sense that there are no other civilizations out there.”
Tarter comments, “This whole idea that any particular discovery might undermine organized religion is proved wrong by centuries of counterexamples. Organized religion is extraordinarily flexible and has been able to adjust itself to accommodate different cosmologies, different knowledge. I would be surprised if most organized religions would not be able to embrace other intelligent civilizations in the universe.”
And Vakoch adds, “The real challenge as we try to anticipate the nature of extraterrestrials is: How do we avoid transposing our way of conceptualizing ourselves, our relationships with one another, our religious concerns, onto other being? … The real challenge is for us to be open to extraterrestrials being very different than we are. Some say that if extraterrestrials have a religion of their own and if they’re much more advanced than we are, it would be very difficult to resist their religion. I don’t buy it. Our religions serve human needs. And for some people, there’s no need for religion.”
After listening to all opinions, what do I think? First, whether ET intelligences exist has profound implications. There is an ultimate answer—either we are alone or we are not alone—but theists and atheists will each mold that ultimate answer to fit their opposing worldviews.
If we are alone, theists will stress human uniqueness, a special creation, while atheists will mock “God” for making so barren a universe.
It we are not alone, theists will praise God for creating so bountiful a universe, while atheists will ridicule human uniqueness as archaic self-deception.
If ETs exist, Christianity does have special issues, primarily the process of salvation. Did Jesus’ claimed death and resurrection on earth suffice for all beings on all worlds for all time? Many ET civilizations must predate humanity.
Maybe there’s another way to salvation? Christians wouldn’t like that.
Or maybe ETs gets no salvation. Hardly fair, don’t you think?
It would seem that there are six and only six possibilities for Christian salvation to work in the context of sentient life beyond Earth:
1) Jesus’ death and resurrection on Earth covers all beings on all worlds and at all times.
2) Jesus goes through a similar process of life, death, and resurrection on innumerable planets to save innumerable beings and creatures.
3) Human beings, as galactic missionaries, will ultimately colonize the universe and spread the Word of God to heathen ETs.
4) There are other mechanisms to attain salvation on other planets.
5) Salvation is not offered to other beings and creatures on other planets.
6) There are no other sentient beings on other planets anywhere; humans are utterly unique.
Given Christianity’s worldview, I don’t see any other alternatives. Judaism and Islam do not have the problem of the incarnation, but they do subscribe, at least traditionally, to the very special place of human beings on this particularly planet, and thus might be disturbed or at least disoriented by the discovery of ETs. Many Eastern religions, by not claiming a personal God, would not be so troubled.
Here’s my bottom line: Just asking the question, “Alone or not alone?” is closer to truth.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Steven Dick, Russell Stannard, Paul Davies, Robin Collins, Jill Tarter, and Doug Vakoch in “Would Intelligent Aliens Undermine God?”—the seventh episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (46th in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.
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