The Implications for Christianity of Finding Extraterrestrials
Lynn L. Allmon
Although not apparently a central topic among most Christian leaders, the question of what kind of implications for religion, specifically Christianity, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would hold is an interesting one. First of all, does Christianity even allow for the existence of other intelligent beings besides humans? Despite whether or not this it does allow for their existence, although this too would have to be taken into consideration when measuring the impact, if advanced alien life forms are indeed found, I believe their religion, whether similar or almost exactly matching Christianity, or the lack thereof would definitely have some sort of impact upon Christianity, although many factors concerning ourselves and the extraterrestrials would have to be taken into account when considering what that impact may be.
There is no doubt in my mind that there is life, perhaps even intelligent (if so, most likely much more advanced than we), in the universe other than that on Earth. The detection of any firm, convincing proof of this life will force humans to change the way they think about the universe. The discovery of advanced life forms will have an especially altering effect on the human race. In light of such a discovery, mankind would have to reconsider and rethink science, ethics, and, among other things, religion.
At about thirty-three percent of the world's population, Christianity is the largest religion worldwide. (Fairchild 2007) According to The Association of Religion Data Archive, in the US alone, there are well over 200 million adherents to some form of Christianity, meaning they profess a belief in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the impact the discovery of extra-terrestrials would have on Christianity is most interesting to me, as Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, the one with the greatest proportion of adherents.
First, I will investigate whether or not the opinion of Christian leaders as well as, perhaps more importantly, the main text of the Christian religion, the Bible, allows, in any interpretation, for the existence of extraterrestrial beings or indicates any clue of anything relating to life forms beyond Earth. Surprisingly to me, I could not find a huge abundance of texts concerning any sorts of beliefs having to do with extraterrestrials tied into Christianity—this may owe to the fact that religion, in my eyes, tends to be reactive, forming policies only after the event that prompts it (in this case, it would be the discovery of extraterrestrials) rather than speculating on such things before the fact, in a proactive manner. Despite this, I still found a few informative opinions. Brother Guy Consolmagno, part of the Vatican Observatory staff, which claims to be oldest astronomical research institutions in the world ("Vatican Observatory" 2007), and author of the book Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life asks why it should be assumed that God would make any place, specifically Earth in this case, more "special" than any other place. In fact, he says, the Bible is full of references to "heavenly beings" (which has usually been interpreted as angels, but could perhaps apply to extraterrestrials) who "shouted for joy" when God created the earth. Even some ancient theologians, among them Cardinal Nikolaus Cusanus (1401-1464) and Fr. Angelo Secchi (1818-1876), although they do not seem to reference Biblical scripture, claimed it is absurd while thinking that there are many stars and planets surrounding us that there is not the possibility of life on these planets.
On the other hand, though perhaps a bit "outdated" for our purposes, Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiae that only one world existed. In addition, though not based on any specific texts, but rather a personal estimate, Thomas Paine wrote "Are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent and a redeemer? In this case, the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life" ( The Age of Reason , New York 1961, p. 283), implying that there is not life on other worlds—or at least that, if there is life, God did not reveal himself to all of it.
The possibility of the discovery of microscopic life on Mars in 1976 (though later refuted) raised many questions, many pertaining to theology. If indeed there was life on Mars, what implications would this hold for the genesis of life on Earth? We would first have to determine whether or not life originated on Earth (or conversely, Mars) and migrated to the other planet, or whether life evolved independently on each planet. Even though these Mars findings were generally proved to provide negative results for the existence of life on Mars, the questions are still relevant and could be applied to any planet. French biochemist and Nobel prize winter Jacques Monod believes, given that the creation of life is infinitely unlikely and even surprising on this planet, that it is impossible that the process which created life on Earth could occur anywhere else (Paul Davies, 2003). This, of course, would negate the question of what implications life elsewhere in the universe would have on religion (and Monod used this assertion as proof for the truth of atheism). On a related note, many Christian scientists are reluctant to claim God as the creator of life, in opposition to views like Monod's, for two reasons: first of all, should someone create life in a lab, this would quite possibly demolish the idea of God if Christians were to use the creation of life as prove of God; second of all, the Christians could be accused of creating of "God of the Gaps" should they try to use God to explain the creation of life—that is, using God as an explanation for anything that can't yet be explained by science. (Paul Davies, 2003)
Although it is true that even just microscopic beings would have something of an impact on religion, the discovery of advanced beings certainly would have even larger and more fascinating to examine implications for Christianity. A main question that comes to mind is: "What kind of religion might the aliens have?" According to The Alexander UFO Religious Crisis Survey, 70 of those surveyed believed that any extraterrestrial civilization would have the basic tenets of civilization, though it was not specified what kind of religion they believed it might be. In my opinion, I do not see why it should be assumed that extraterrestrials do not have any concept of religion—surely they too would wonder about the "meaning of life." Branching off onto the "Theory of Mediocrity," if it is safest to assume that Earth is not "special," I think the same principle would apply to other planets as well—why should other beings have greater access to the religious mysteries of the universe? If they do, it must be a result of more time or better ways of searching, not because of some "higher status" or "exclusive access" to any sort of god.
The next question might be: if these beings' religion is not Christianity, would contacting these beings be the death of Christianity, as well as perhaps all other religions? In The Alexander UFO Religious Crisis Survey, only 14 agree that if the extraterrestrials had beliefs significantly different from their own, it would pose a threat to Earth religion (specifically Christianity and Judaism); only 11 believed that if the extraterrestrials had no religion, it would pose a threat to Earth religion. Brother Guy Consolmagno wonders why atheists believe that the discovery of extra-terrestrials would be the death of religion—that even if the aliens did not have Christianity as their religion, it would not necessarily mean that Christianity was "incorrect." Another Vatican astronomer, George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, states that he thinks that scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life would pose a "a great challenge" to believers, but that it shouldn't be viewed as a "dramatic event." (Corrales, 2002) Although I am inclined to agree that discovery of extraterrestrial life would not be the death of religion, Jill Cornell Tarter, one of the leading SETI researchers, thinks that finding extraterrestrial life would be a means of disproving God, as she believes that if long-lived, stable ETI were contacted, they would have "outgrown" religion and its divisiveness or never have had religion at all, thus hopefully providing an example for mankind (Wilkinson, 2004), showing us what she has believed all along—that "God is our own invention" (Davies, 2003). Steven Dick, a science historian at the U.S. Naval Observatory and an expert on the history of speculation about extraterrestrial life, holds this view as well, asserting that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would bring about a revolution in thought, a new "cosmotheology." (Davies 2003) I think that this argument is worth considering, but still would not necessarily wipe out the beliefs Christians already have or even in fact "prove" the non-existence of a Christian god—in my opinion, just because there is an absence of religion in extraterrestrial beings does not prove the absence of God or the invalidity of religion. Stronger proof than that would be needed, especially if these beings are seen as fallible, and not omniscient, much like us.
Would the alien's beliefs (or lack thereof) or even just the knowledge that there is other intelligent life out in space change our own religion at all? According to Brother Consolmagno "Finding any sort of life off planet Earth, either bacteria or extraterrestrials, would pose no problem for religion," and that "I really don't think anyone who's aware of the science would be fundamentally changed by the discovery, because nearly everyone expects that it will happen eventually." This claim, to me, do not seem very convincing, especially the second one. Despite my intuition, according to The Alexander UFO Religious Crisis Survey, only 8 of those surveyed believed that the discovery of any advanced civilization would have negative effects on religion, morals, etc and just 12 of those surveyed thought that their congregation would question fundamental concepts regarding the origins of life. At first glance, I thought this to be very unusual that anyone would believe that the discovery of advanced extraterrestrials would have not fundamentally change religion. Then I wondered: perhaps it is an egoistic assertion; that few ministers or any other religious leaders would think that their congregation would stray or their religion would be changed—simply by virtue of wanting to be "correct" in their faith, or believe that their faith is unshakable. Phil Bowermaster of The Speculist believes that all in all, discovery of a new race, while perhaps changing people's views, would ultimately teach us nothing that we didn't already about ourselves or religion—that there is no reason why the aliens' history of religion (but not the religious beliefs themselves) shouldn't be subject to similar trials as our own religious histories.
On the other hand, Brian Tee of the International Society for Philosophers claims, based upon his belief that many religions, especially Christianity, see humans as central to God's plan, that the fundamental Christian belief (whether explicitly stated or implied) that humanity is paramount to God's plan would, of course, be critically damaged and need revisiting upon discovery of extraterrestrials. Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti of the DISF echoed this thought, saying that such a discovery would lead to a new "Copernican revolution," perhaps once and for all depriving mankind of the belief of its centrality to the universe. Wilkinson refutes this declaration, pointing out that there is a difference between status and place—the relationship between man and God need not be devalued just because God may have a relationship with another race as well.
Even more interestingly, Professor Michael J. Crowe, in his journal article, asserts that we need only to look at the present to see if alien beings would impact human religion—already many religions and cults based upon the (purported) existence of extraterrestrials have influenced large numbers of people and claimed members who abandoned their original religion for a new one involving a belief in aliens. In this sense, extraterrestrial beings, if only the ones invented by mankind, have had an impact on Earth religions.
To continue, if this weren't the death of religion, would Christianity welcome these newly found acquaintances into their faith? Brother Consolmagno, in his book Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, contends, "In any event, good extraterrestrials (ETs), just like good humans, do not need to know about Christ for salvation; that's the tradition of 'baptism by desire.'" ("Catholic Exotheology" 2003) He goes on to say that "St. Paul's hymns in Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1 make it clear that the resurrection of Christ applies to all creation ('… everything in the heavens and everything on earth')." Bowermaster writes that if Earth came in contact with alien beings, it would automatically be assumed by most Christians, especially if these aliens were similar enough to humans, that the beings had souls, regardless of the other beings' religion (which he believes is very unlikely to be extremely similar to any of our own religions).
Therefore, I believe that the mainstream of religion would invite the extraterrestrials into their religion, perhaps even competing to have them join. In fact, one can find in history many examples of religious groups that welcome (or coerce, in many cases) new civilizations into their religion, such as Native Americans during the Great Awakening. It can be argued that this example is a radical stretch, as the Europeans were distanced from the Native Americans by a mere water, while Earth as a whole would be distanced from any other beings by vast space. I still think this comparison is legitimate, though—is not space simply the ocean of the twenty-first century?
Contacting a new civilization in the cosmos would be even more remarkable as if this newfound civilization had the same, or at the very least, a very close approximation of any of our Earth religions—in this case, Christianity. In my mind, this would almost certainly confirm the Christian religion as being truth, depending, of course, on how closely any sort of religious texts or beliefs that the aliens have agreed with Christian tenets and mythology.
Brian Tee of the International Society for Philosophers theorizes that (if the solution to the Fermi paradox doesn't happen to be that religion is the only thing deterring alien beings from contacting us and if the aliens followed Christianity) there would be many "sticky" doctrinal issues within the Christian faith with which to contend; specifically, whether or not the covenant (which I will explain to my best abilities in the next paragraph) between man and God is exclusive, and if so, if aliens claimed that they too had such a covenant, what would it mean, and also such things as the Eucharist (a ritual in which Christians, mainly Catholics, partake of wine and bread claimed to be the blood and body of Christ)—would the aliens partake in a similar ceremony and would the blood and body be that of "alien Jesus"?
One main issue with which Christianity has grappled is whether or not there is a possibility that Jesus, the "savior" who visited Earth in order to make a covenant with the human race that if humans followed God's Law, then they would be protected and "saved"—that is, allowed into heaven after death—could have visited this alien race.
Many Christians and scholars believe that this covenant need not be exclusive to the human race and that it is very well possible that Jesus could have visited other planets to spread God's word. Dr. Stephen Barr, a physicist and lifelong Catholic, sees no conflict in Jesus having a covenant with beings other than humans, thus implying that Jesus probably visited these other life forms. "There could be more than one Incarnation, different ones for different rational species," says Dr. Barr of the possibility of Jesus visiting other intelligent, rational beings other than the human race.
Brother Consolmagno shares this belief. He claims that there can only be one Incarnation of Jesus, but according to John's Gospel, even though Jesus' life occurred at one point in space-time (namely, on Earth), his Incarnation could've happened at one time throughout space, although how other civilizations experienced it could've been different. Kenneth Delano, author of Many Worlds, One God, proposes a slightly different theory: what if the single redemptive act performed by Christ on Earth applied to all of the cosmos? This is an interesting question, though personally I see a few problems with it, the main one being "How would the extraterrestrials know of this happening?" I cannot claim to understand the specifics, but I always thought that it was necessary to "accept Christ as savior" in order to be "saved" and why would any God condemn any part of his creation by not allowing them access to this belief? Of course, this question can be pondered on a more local level—if this is in fact true, what sort of fate stood before ancient Earth peoples who could not possibly know about Jesus, as he had not yet been born or performed his redemptive act. It is my understanding that some Christians believe that these souls go to "purgatory" (if they are virtuous) or they automatically are "saved" by the virtue of not being able to know. According to the Web of Contradictions website, baptism of the Holy Ghost (baptism flaminis), another name for "baptism by desire," was devised by Catholicism in order to accommodate ancient peoples, and later applied to those in the "New World" and theoretically could be applied to aliens, who could not have known of Jesus so that they too may be allowed to be "saved." This, of course, brings into debate whether or not Christianity can by any stretch of the imagination be taken as truth, which is not the purpose of this paper.
After much research, my main conclusion is that while contact with extraterrestrial life will have great implications for religion and culture as a whole, mirrored perhaps by European contact with Native Americans, started in the 1400s, that Christianity will probably still continue as a religion, without widespread renouncement, although it may certainly be altered, as contact among Earth civilizations has altered almost every religion in some way. Believers would find ways of fitting these beings into their faith, maybe as a fulfillment of prophecy or some part of God's plan, or find some aspects of the alien culture or religion that are similar to Christianity and use that to justify saying that the similarities are evidence for the truth in Christianity. Thus, Christianity and many other religions will almost certainly persevere, if perhaps a little changed, in the face of discovering extraterrestrials.
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