Faith science interface

If there's life on other planets, what does it mean for faith here on earth?

Astronomers are finding exoplanets by the thousands, raising prospects of life on other worlds. Would such a discovery threaten established religions here on earth? James Garth explores.

By James Garth

June 7 2019 

At the end of 2018, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope ended its decade-long career hunting for Earth-sized planets. Over its lifetime, the Kepler detected over two and a half thousand planets, known to scientists as exoplanets, orbiting other stars. And while the telescope has now retired to a safe orbit, the data it has accumulated will be pored over for decades to come.

Understandably, finding Earth-like planets on our proverbial cosmic doorstep can stimulate some deep questions regarding humanity’s place in the universe. Are we alone? Are we unique? And with more than 80 per cent of our planet’s population identifying as religious, do these discoveries have any implications for the faithful?

It’s a complex topic and opinions differ. What’s important to remember is that religions have hardly been taken by surprise by the prospect of life on other worlds. These questions have been actively explored by theologians for quite some time.

The telescope’s namesake, the great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), was a pioneer of science whose elegant laws of planetary motion are still used to predict the orbits of satellites and space probes today. For Kepler himself, there was no conflict between his science and his faith. He speculated about creatures living on other worlds, writing a science fiction novel, The Dream, where he imagined a trip to the moon. He wrote commentaries on the Psalms with the same passion with which he explored the night sky, and saw the geometry and comprehensibility of our universe as having spiritual significance:

Those laws [of nature] are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.

More recently, C.S. Lewis’ fictional Space Trilogy envisaged a mythical cosmology where God’s creation extended beyond a single planet. In his epic story, the battle between good and evil played out over a wider canvas.

Lewis also advised caution for those who would foretell Christianity’s demise based on new scientific discoveries. In his 1958 essay Religion and Rocketry he writes:

“Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.

But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.”

In the present day, discussion about life on other worlds is alive and well, with prominent journals of religion and science like Zygon and the International Society for Science and Religion regularly publishing articles from respected thinkers exploring these themes. For example, astrophysicist and theologian David Wilkinson has written positively on the hard science and implications of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), and theologian Ted Peters helped to devise a unique field of inquiry dubbed “astrotheology”. For these thinkers, life on other worlds is a fascinating area to explore, not a threat to their theology.

These scholarly perspectives are in line with views on Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) held by religious adherents more broadly. A 2011 survey published by the Royal Society surveyed over 1300 people from seven different religious traditions, finding “widespread acceptance of the existence of ETI and incorporation of ETI into their existing belief systems”

The survey decisively found that adherents thought that the discovery of ETI would not precipitate a personal crisis of belief. Survey recipients were asked the two questions in the boxes below.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that non-religious people predicted that a crisis for the world’s religions would occur, should ETI ever be found. But, crucially, religious adherents did not share this assessment. These empirical findings and the openness of theologians and scientists on the matter indicate that a thoughtful religious person can keep an open mind on the implications of exoplanets and ETI. This isn’t a make-or-break issue for their faith.

Some scientists go further, suggesting the idea of a divine super-intelligence should actually stimulate space exploration. Dr Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, articulates this view:

“…I think it’s exciting as Christians to go exploring, because we’re never going to find anything that’s outside of God’s realm. Everything is part of this majestic creation, and the more you discover the more amazed you get by thinking about God, and so I think exploration is a divinely Christian activity and people should be excited about it.”

So what will science reveal to us about other worlds in the future? The final conversation in the film Contact, where astronomer Ellie Arroway addresses a group of schoolchildren, seems a fitting blend of hope and humility:

Child: Are there other people out there in the universe?

Arroway: That’s a good question. What do you think?

Child: I don’t know.

Arroway: That’s a good answer. A skeptic, huh? The most important thing is you all keep searching for your own answers. I’ll tell you one thing about the universe though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… it seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”

James Garth is an aerospace engineer, unmanned systems designer and Fellow of ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology (www.ISCAST.org). He enjoys hard sci-fi, flying drones and engaging with the big questions of life, the universe and everything.

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