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AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

By Ted Peters

Books with expanded discussions:

  • Ted Peters, The Evolution of Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Life (Pandora 2008)
  • Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Can You Believe in God and Evolution? (Abingdon 2006)

Introduction

How should theologians reflect on the religious implications of what seems to be the imminent discovery of extraterrestrial life? Will it make a difference if this extraterrestrial life is intelligent or not? Will it make a difference if this extraterrestrial life form is superior to us, perhaps more intelligent than we human earthlings?

In order to ready the theologian to engage in such speculative reflection, we ask theologians to partner with the scientists working in the relatively new and exciting field of astrobiology. When contact is made with life beyond earth, the astrobiologists are most likely to announce it to our world.

Astrobiology is the scientific study of biological processes on earth, and beyond (University of Arizona). NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap of 2003 orients the field around three fundamental questions: (1) How does life begin and evolve? (2) Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? (3) What is the future of life on Earth and beyond? (NASA, 2003, p.1). According to Christopher McKay at NASA Ames Research Center, “Astrobiology has within it three broad questions that have deep philosophical as well as scientific import. These are the origin of life, the search for a second genesis of life, and the expansion of life beyond Earth” (McKay, 2000, p.45).

Within the encompassing field of astrobiology, we should distinguish between unintelligent and intelligent life. The field of exobiology focuses on the discovery of microbial or biologically simple forms of life, non-intelligent life forms. At the risk of insulting Martian microbes, we will refer to them as ETNL, extraterrestrial non-intelligent life. We will distinguish the search for ETNL from the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, from which the SETI project gets its name. In what follows, I plan to use the acronym ETIL to refer to extraterrestrial intelligent life.

Exotheology is the name I have given for that branch of theology which reflects upon extraterrestrial life, both biologically simple and intelligent.Elsewhere I have introduced the work of exotheology (Peters, 2003, pp. 121-136) as speculative reflection on the theological significance of extraterrestrial life. Whether we call it ‘exotheology’... One might just as easily call it Astro Theology or, better, astrotheology.Perhaps these terms might be considered interchangeable, at least for the time being.

In what follows, I will look briefly at the implications of ETNL. Then, I will turn to the larger question of ETIL and the assumptions with which many astrobiologists begin their inquiry. Among these assumptions is the inclusion of the origin of life right along with speciation in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory dealt solely with speciation; but astrobiologists require an explanation for life’s origin as well. They assume the grand cosmos is biophilic - that is, it loves life and that life is likely to be plentiful among the stars. What this means for the theologian is that religious reflection will have to deal not just with the subject of ETIL but also the evolutionary assumptions that structure the astrobiologist’s research agenda.

The matter before exotheology is not a simple one of reflecting directly on what scientists know or say. What we consider to be scientific knowledge is all mixed up with myth. The line between science and myth is blurred, at least in the field of astrobiology. This is because astrobiology relies upon a number of assumptions regarding the theory of evolution, assumptions which are unproven yet decisively important. The employment of assumptions in itself belongs within the sphere of science, to be sure. But when assumptions begin to take on the structure of a worldview and elicit a passionate hope for a scientific savior, we have entered the domain of myth. The exotheologian needs to discriminate between science and myth in order to pursue a rational response to the prospect of ETI.

When we turn to theological responses, I will ask whether people who have faith in God should believe the ETI myth? I will answer in the negative. The negative applies not to the question of whether extraterrestrial beings exist. Rather, it applies to the implicit belief that science can save earth’s humanity from its own self-inflicted demise. Terrestrial science, even if augmented by extraterrestrial science, is insufficient for the human race to heal itself. To reflections on ETNL, ETIL, science, and myth, we now turn.

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