The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
~ Psalms 19:1
If indisputable evidence were discovered that there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, how would that affect all the major world religions? That’s the subject of a new book by David Weintraub, called Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?
I haven’t read Weintraub’s book, having just found out about it a couple of days ago in a Boston Globe article by Chris Wright. Neither Weintraub’s book nor this article have to do with UFO sightings; while there are many people who claim to have seen a UFO, or flying saucer, to date there has been no evidence that could be substantiated to bear out any of their claims, so I’ll leave that subject to those with an interest in such things. No, what I’m referring to is serious science, known as SETI, or the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, which is carried out by scientists using radio telescopes and advanced computer technology to search the sky for any sort of radio signals indicating an intelligent origin instead of the normal radio static that is heard when you point one of the giant dishes at most stars. These signals, if found, could be a repeating series of prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, or even something as simple as a one-to-ten numerical sequence. Or perhaps something even simpler. The point is, they’re searching for something that would never occur in nature, and would therefore indicate that the signal had an intelligent origin.
While I looked forward to reading the interview in the above-mentioned article, it turned out to be short, not very interesting, and I felt Weintraub didn’t really attempt to give a satisfactory answer to some of the questions. In fact, at one point he seems dismissive of two excellent scientists: Carl Sagan and Enrico Fermi.
Carl Sagan once said, “If it’s just us; if there are no intelligent civilizations elsewhere, then it seems like an awful waste of space.” Years before that, Enrico Fermi said, “If the universe is teeming with life, where is everybody?”
Weintraub’s response to those quotes? “Right, and both of those statements reflect strong opinion and complete ignorance.” Rather strong words, considering that both Sagan and Fermi are practically household names due to their work, while Weintraub is, compared to them, relatively unknown.
Fermi’s question is valid. The general consensus among astronomers and astrobiologists is that, given the sheer size of the cosmos, life almost has to have arisen somewhere other than the earth. Although you can plug different numbers into the Drake Equation, in most calculations it still comes up with pretty good odds for the chance of intelligent life somewhere – the only difference being how common it is. That some scientists have estimated there could be thousands of technologically advanced civilizations in the Milky Way alone makes Fermi’s question all the more relevant: if there are, where are they?
Carl Sagan, as well as being an accomplished scientist, brought the wonders of the universe to millions with his PBS television series Cosmos. In addition, he also wrote a number of books geared to the general (read non-scientific) public. Among these were the accompanying book to the Cosmos series, as well as The Dragons of Eden; Broca’s Brain; and Pale Blue Dot. Sagan also wrote an excellent novel entitled Contact, which is about – you guessed it – first contact with an alien species. It dealt thoughtfully, even profoundly with the subject, and remains one of my favorite novels of all time.
It was, perhaps, precisely because of Sagan’s treatment of alien contact in his novel that I found his remark about wasted space disappointing. Notwithstanding Sagan’s atheism, there is much in the universe to hold our attention and provide us with study and pleasure for a lifetime, whether or not there are other civilizations. And Sagan knew it, because he devoted his life to the study of astronomy.
Something I want to mention before moving on to the religious aspect is that there is a protocol to be followed should a promising signal ever be detected, which involves eliminating the possibility of earth-based interference such as a TV or radio station, satellite, or any other spurious signals that might have been the source. Once it’s satisfied that there is no earth-based contamination of the signal, confirmation is then sought from other facilities around the globe to confirm that the source of the signal is indeed from beyond the earth. If it all looks good at this point, the public and the scientific community at large will be informed, in addition to the International Astronomical Union, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the International Telecommunications Union. The discoverer may also request the ITU to minimize use of the frequency band of the signal, understandably, so further reception would be unhindered.
So, let’s assume the big event has occurred and been announced. Does this mean the end, or at least a radical change for the religions of the world? Well, it would certainly have an impact; of that there’s no doubt. There is a companion article to the one I mentioned earlier by Chris Wright of The Boston Globe which looks specifically at how each of the major religions would view an announcement of this nature, but I found his summary somewhat frivolous, especially concerning Roman Catholicism and Judaism, when he resorted to mentioning how those religions would fare with Klingons. As an example, quoting from his short blurb on Judaism: “Judaism is not for the Klingons, unless the Klingons wish to live on Earth, though Judaism could continue to make sense as a religion for descendants of humans living on other planets.” What? That sounds about as far out there as the aliens SETI is trying to find. In any case, Wright should make an effort to remember that Roman Catholicism and Judaism are real; Klingons are merely a figment of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination.
Taking a lesson from Chris Wright about how not to address the issue, I won’t be so presumptive to speak for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or any of the other religions of the world. I probably shouldn’t even attempt to address it for all Christians, either, because there are so many denominations of Christianity extant. But I will, realizing it’s really only my point of view anyway.
After a signal is received, verified, and announced to the world, it does present theological problems for Christians. Not necessarily insurmountable problems, but philosophical food for thought. The first thing that comes to mind is that when Adam fell, all of creation fell. That would, of necessity, include the entire universe along with every living being, no matter where they are or where they came from.
There’s also the problem of Jesus Christ. He came to Earth, lived a perfect life, and died an innocent man to pay the price for our sins. Does that atonement extend to all life in the universe, assuming there is any beyond the earth? And if it doesn’t, then did He go to their planet, live among them, and die for them also? If He didn’t, does that make them eternal reprobates without hope? As difficult as these questions are to ask, how much more difficult will they be to answer? Although the Bible doesn’t say whether humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, it’s implied nonetheless. So far, it’s been borne out by the silence from the stars.
Mostly for religious reasons, and partly because no signal has been received by SETI or others in the past fifty years, I find it difficult to believe there is life out there anywhere. Perhaps time will prove me wrong. If so, it won’t sound a death knell for my belief in God; I’ll merely have to rethink what I believed the Bible implied by omission. I think this will probably also hold true not only for Christianity, but the other major religions as well.
As for SETI? I’m all for the continued search for life elsewhere. I think it’s a question worth answering, and I’ve always supported their efforts, sometimes financially, and other times with my enthusiasm for what they’re doing. For about fifty years now, the search has been going on to a greater or lesser extent depending upon funding. If we don’t find anything within the next fifty years, there’s no reason to stop. There are countless stars which remain to be observed – enough that the lifetime of humanity won’t exhaust them all.
Sagan’s wasted space comment keeps coming to mind, though, so I have a couple of parting thoughts. Genesis 1:14 says that God made the stars to be for signs, seasons, days, and years. Also, the verse that heads this article gives another reason, and one that’s probably the most important reason to God Himself – it displays His glory to us. Given those two reasons, I find it hard to believe that the universe is wasted space, even if there is no other life beyond the earth. If Sagan really died as he lived – as an atheist – what I find sad is that if he was wrong, he’ll regret it for eternity. If he was right, well, he’ll never know it, will he?