AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms
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)
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?
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.
is the scientific study of biological processes on earth, and beyond
(University of Arizona). NASAs 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).
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. 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.
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 Darwins theory of
evolution. Darwins theory dealt solely with speciation; but astrobiologists
require an explanation for lifes 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 astrobiologists research agenda.
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.
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 earths 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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| Contributed by: Ted Peters