17 December 2009

Would Finding ET Collapse Religions?

Posted by Michael McFadden

Would finding ET collapse religion?Earlier this year, the Vatican Observatory at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences published a report saying that astrobiology offers many important philosophical and theological implications. With this in mind, I was eager for the second half of P33C. Astrobiology and Society: Challenges and Opportunities session, which presented three talks from theologians about the impact that finding life outside Earth would have on religion. It was one of the most interesting series of talks and a fascinating perspective to hear at a scientific conference.

Richard Randolph presented data from Ted Peters of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, who was absent due to surgery. Previously, scientists such as Paul Davies have put forth the hypothesis that world religions would collapse following contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Peters wanted to see if this was true. He conducted a survey of people from many religious backgrounds—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and atheist—and asked how they would personally respond to news of advanced aliens. Nearly all of the religious adherents said that they did not think such news would undercut their beliefs and cause them to face a religious crisis.

In a separate talk, Randolph, a Christian theologian from the University of Kansas, elaborated on this idea. He explained that many Christians are not biblical literalists and understand that scripture is bound to a particular time and place. But there are over-arching recurring themes that shape and guide Christian thinking about these contemporary ethical issues.

The Book of Genesis suggests that humans are created in the “image of God.” But, as Randolph points out, this idea needs to be presented in the context of the ancient Hebrew and their neighbors. Egyptians and Mesopotamians thought their leaders to be created in the “image of the gods,” meaning that the king was responsible for the well being of his people. The Hebrews merely democratized and expanded this view. For Randolph, Genesis I suggests that human beings are meant to care for all creation and possibly even have an ethical obligation to help promote life in the universe.

Connie Berthka, theologian from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, suggested that scientists should play a more active role in religious discussions. Instead of being adversarial, they should be engaging in order to help explain scientific concepts to laypersons. After all, religious leaders can influence the thinking of a congregation. She urged scientists to bring scientific discussions to seminaries and clergy, moving beyond the contrast and conflict view of science and religion.

Overall, I found this nuanced perspective of science and religion particularly important to have in astrobiology and a very welcome edition at AGU.

-Adam Mann, UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Graduate Student