There’s nothing new in The discovery of alien life may be close. How will religion survive it?, which appears in the UK’s Guardian, but it’s a good overview of the issues so it’s worthy of our attention. The article has already attracted over 1,100 comments.
It was written by Santhosh Mathew, about whom we’re told: “Santhosh Mathew is a math and physics professor at Regis College. He is also a freelance writer who tries to decode science for those with an aversion to it.” Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:
About two decades ago, it was quite uncertain whether stars other than our own sun even hosted their own planets. However, according to Nasa, the latest count of confirmed exoplanets stands at around 3,500 – and at least six of them are potential Earths. This count will definitely go up and many researchers believe that the advancement of technology will enable humans to discover some form of life on another planet in the coming years.
We checked the NASA website at Planets Beyond Our Solar System. Their total is 3,475 extra-solar planets, of which 359 are are of terrestrial composition. They don’t say how many of those orbit within their star’s Goldilocks zone, or rather, the Circumstellar habitable zone. The last time we discussed this subject — see NASA’s Tally of Extra-Solar Planets — it was about 4%, which suggests that we’ve found at least a dozen worlds that are potentially Earth-like. Okay, back to the Guardian:
Understandably, these discoveries will kindle questions about Earth’s place in the universe. Moreover, contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will present theological and philosophical conundrums that many religions will find deeply challenging. This is especially true for Christianity, which primarily focuses on humankind – and teaches us that God created man in his own image, and all other animals and plants were created for mankind.
The mainline denominations will be able to deal with it. They’ve all adjusted, albeit with some reluctance, to the continuing discoveries of science. It’s the creationist denominations that will in trouble. Santhosh Mathew says:
The core question would be, does God’s creation extend beyond a single planet? If so, would the inhabitants of those planets believe in the same gods as humans do? How could the creator of the universe deny the inhabitants of those worlds a chance to redeem their sins? Does that mean that God incarnated as Jesus in those worlds contrary to Bible teachings that say that the redemption in Christ was a unique event meant for humans on Earth?
Difficult questions — for those who worry about such things. Santhosh Mathew tells us:
You could make a very strong case for institutional religions surviving the discovery of alien planets and the ensuing tussle with exotheology – a term that describes theological issues as related to extraterrestrial intelligence.
Hey — we learned a new word! Moving along:
These institutions have always shown an amazing ability to remain relevant. Whenever they encounter a new paradigm shift, they come up with interpretations from scriptures that justify their own existence.
It’s fun to watch them squirm as they do it, however. The article continues:
For traditional religions and religious institutions, the desire to expand their material wealth and power has often take precedence over the spreading of theological doctrines. This has often led to a culture of exploitation, of both people and the planet. This perhaps explain why the Copernican revolution or Darwinism didn’t displace the religious order in a significant way in the past. The religious elite on Earth will derive the courage and determination to pursue their goals from this material world even if they are convinced of the existence of multiple universes that operate under different laws of physics.
Santhosh Mathew seems to have a cynical view of things, but it may be accurate. Let’s read on:
The triumph of these institutions is analogous to the audacity of organisms when facing challenges in nature. Religious institutions possess impressive survival skills, greater than individual human abilities. They also have their origins in personal and emotional needs – and for many, they will continue to offer those requirements.
Here’s the final paragraph:
So, how could we resolve the theory of many worlds and their many gods? We can be certain that earthly religions will not accommodate the alien gods. Perhaps we should turn to the astronomer Carl Sagan, who wrote in Cosmos: “Meanwhile, elsewhere there are an infinite number of other universes each with its own God dreaming the cosmic dream. It is said that men may not be the dreams of the Gods, but rather that the Gods are the dreams of men.”
So there you are — at least that’s Santhosh Mathew’s view of things. We think he’s right, religion will survive. But we’re more interested in those sects with views like ol’ Hambo’s — the ones that deny reality and insist on a literal interpretation of scripture (except for undeniably impossible things like flat-Earth). Will they survive? In due course, we’ll learn the answer.
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