Analysis of Responses to Questions 6-10
Questions six through ten deal
with a number of tacit and overt beliefs regarding ETI that presently exist in the
scientific community as well as the wider culture. These questions seek to refine
the images religious and non-religious persons have of ETI and its potential impact
on our life on earth.
The reason for
including this question in the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey is due to a widely
held position among scientists which affirms the following: evolution is progressive;
evolutionary progress leads to increased intelligence; intelligence leads to science
and technology; science and technology lead to democracy, an end to war, and eventually
peace; and, finally, world peace is the destiny toward which evolution is aimed.
It follows from this assumption that, if an ETI civilization has evolved longer
than ours on earth, then it will have achieved advances in health, ecology, politics,
and morality; and, further, ETI will even have replaced religion with science. More
highly evolved ETI, accordingly, will treat earth with benevolence, bringing to
earth the equivalent of technological salvation. This assumption is dubious for
two reasons: (1) specialists in evolutionary biology frequently deny that evolution
is progressive, either on earth or on any other planet where a second genesis of
life might occur: and (2) this assumption seems to be naïve about the relationship
of the concomitant growth of science and morality among intelligent beings. Human
nature would seem to refute such an assumption regarding co-growth, regardless of
how widespread it is. Contact optimists often assume that more advanced extraterrestrials
will treat us benignly, writes Michael Michaud. Technologically superior aliens,
many argue, will have evolved past the warlike behavior we have seen in our own
species....The human example provides no support for such optimistic statements (Michaud,
304). With this as background, the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey poses questions
to ferret out such a constellation of assumptions.
Because of the
significant number of respondents in the Neither agree nor disagree category, and
due to additional respondent comments, it appears that many are reluctant to combine
advance in science with advance in politics and morality. An advance in intelligence
or in science does not necessarily imply a higher level of moral commitment nor
a move in the direction of peace. Im not sure advances in politics and technology
necessarily go hand-in-hand with advances in morality, or vice versa, comments
a mainline Protestant. The simple fact of technology says nothing about advanced
morality, iterates a Roman Catholic; when non-terrestrial beings show up on the
horizon they may just be thugs. A Buddhist wrote, I believe they [ETI] will be
more advanced in technology, possibly politics, but not morality - hence the neutral
answer. Another respondent criticizes the epistemological bias of Question 6,
adding one must look back no further than the World Wars of the 20th
century to understand how discongruent technological progress and moral progress
can be. We conclude that both those who disagree and those who are in the neither
category are allied in opposition to the widespread assumption regarding progressive
significance is that we find more than 50% agreement among those who self-identify
as non-religious. This suggests that more non-religious than religious individuals
make the progressive evolution assumption. Even so, one non-religious respondent
comments: its likely that they [ETI] will be more technologically advanced than
us...but that doesnt necessarily mean that they will be morally advanced. I think
their morality will likely be alien to us (no pun intended).
The reason for
asking Question 7 is that included in the assumption regarding progressive evolution
mentioned above is that science surpasses religion, that allegedly a more highly
evolved civilization would be non-religious. The Disagree/Strongly disagree received
well above 50% among those self-identifying as Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical
Protestant, Orthodox Christian, and Mormon. Jewish, Buddhist, and Non-Religious
tended to cluster in the Neither agree nor disagree range. Of note in the Agree/Strongly
agree range we find 25% of those self-identifying as Non-Religious, the only group
to score this high.
As already mentioned,
the Non-Religious category includes a variety of outlooks. Perhaps some (but not
all) within this category share belief in the evolutionary superiority of science
over religion. Respondent comments point in this direction. Religious superstition
is likely the hallmark of a youthful sentient species. As an intelligent sapient
species evolves, science and materialism regularly trump the unfounded, undemonstrated,
and untested beliefs of religion, wrote one who self-identified as Non-Religious.
Another wrote, I believe that we will evolve into an atheistic system in the far
future. I also think that any advanced race will also be atheistic.
If the responses
we received from Question 7 provide worthwhile data, they would indicate that a
minority of Non-Religious persons hold to the view of progressive evolution, even
though it does not dominate.
If it is the
case that earths religious traditions would suffer a crisis or collapse upon hearing
of an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization, we might want to inquire: why?
What is it about ETI that would precipitate such a crisis? A number of reasons have
surfaced. Two are of particular interest. One such reason is that contact with ETI
would allegedly de-center or de-anthropomorphize our terrestrial consciousness.
The reasoning here presupposes that earths religions are earth-centric and anthropocentric.
Upon hearing of sentient beings in outer space who are our equals or perhaps even
our superiors, then allegedly our fragile or brittle self-centeredness would collapse.
A second reason
we might forecast a religious crisis follows a different logic. What is projected
here is a conflict of beliefs, a conflict between the established belief systems
of terrestrial religions and a competing set of religious our counter-religious
ETI beliefs. If ETI turn out to be superior to us, then their beliefs would be sufficiently
superior as to persuade us to give up our previous perspectives and adopt the new
one. Earths religions would disappear as earthlings convert to the ETI perspective
or both of these two patterns of reasoning be at work among respondents to Question
8? Not according to the comments. On anthropocentrism, Sorry to sound so negative,
wrote one Orthodox respondent; Q 6,7,&8 and the others are too anthropocentric.
Evidently this Christian accepts the above logic as a theological perspective and
not as a counter-theological perspective.
show no indication of fearing a conflict of religious doctrine between themselves
and ETI theologians. One evangelical Protestant wrote: I think that extraterrestrial
religious beliefs and traditions will differ, perhaps greatly in some ways...However,
they live in
the same universe
with the same God, and a similar array of religious responses and developments would
likely have developed on their world....There would probably be noticeable similarities
between points of their theology and Christian theology. Another argued that truth
is universal. It does not change from planet to planet, life form to life form.
One Roman Catholic might disagree, expecting without apparent anxiety differences
between earth perspectives and ETI perspectives: I would welcome such discoveries
of extraterrestrials but I would not expect them to share my points of view.
What might we
learn from the responses to Question 8? The clustering in the Neither Agree/disagree
middle with a near comparable clustering in the Disagree/Strongly disagree range
makes interpretation a bit difficult. It is not clear to us what conclusions might
be drawn. We note the singular strength of disagreement among Mormons, perhaps due
to the existing incorporation of ETI into Mormon theology. Otherwise, however, no
clear trend seems discernable to us here.
teases out assumptions we make regarding the character of ETI. Might there exist
among us a hope that evolutionarily more advanced ETI would be benevolent and want
to share with Earth its solutions to human problems? Certainly this is what some
scientists hope for. Avid SETI supporters such as Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, for
example, have predicted that contact with extraterrestrials would inevitably enrich
mankind beyond imagination (Sagan and Drake). Drake believes that advanced ETI
civilizations live in a medical utopia, free of disease; and ETIs are even capable
of producing immortality. Drake proceeds to speculate that the technologically advanced
ETI are also benevolent; and space aliens could bring to earth the benefits of their
ecological science, advanced medicine, and their ability to prevent war. Everything
we know says there are other civilizations out there to be found. The discovery
of such civilizations would enrich our civilization with valuable information about
science, technology, and sociology. This information could directly improve our
abilities to conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example.
Cheap energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in medicine
It is important
to note how in the mind of Sagan, Drake, and other SETI scientists that the benefits
of contact with ETI will come through a sharing of information, not through visitation.
Interstellar space travel is too expensive and too difficult for us to expect it
to happen. The impact on earth of ETIs advanced knowledge will come to us via radio
communication, it is assumed here. These astrobiologists do not look to the skies
for saviors on fiery chariots; rather, they listen to the skies for ETI information
that could be transformatory of life on earth.
Such a set of
beliefs indicates a thirst, a thirst for redemption or salvation to come to earth
from ETI life forms. Even though it is cast in scientific language, this is a religious
thirst. With empathetic understanding, Michaud writes, the frustrations and limitations
of human life on Earth, the overhanging threat of disastrous conflict, the lack
of moral anchors, our isolation amid the vastness of an unfeeling universe, our
apparent helplessness against uncaring entropy, all have driven many humans to hope
for intervention from above (Michaud, 230). SETI critics such as Edward Regis show
less empathy but make the same point, namely, what we see here is a secular hope
for salvation from the Stars (Regis, 243). What comes packaged in scientific language
is a myth, a myth of salvation for earth to be delivered by what at this point is
only an imaginary civilization of extraterrestrial intelligent beings.
We posed Question
9 to ask whether religious people might believe this myth of ETI salvation. Would
such a belief be unique to astrobiologists, or might the average religious person
also pin hopes for salvation on benevolent ETI? The clustering majority of responses
in the Neither agree/disagree middle suggests that the ETI salvation myth is not
a strong force in religious consciousness. However, it would be too much to say
that religious believers outrightly reject the myth. This is because they might
not have given it much consideration one way or the other. This survey falls short
of precision at this point.
comments help us discern a direction of thought? One mainline Protestant flatly
rejected the myth: I strongly disagree that they [ETI] could actually come to help
us. A Buddhist complained that the survey does not address the possibility that
they [ETI] may not be benevolent. An evangelical Protestant held out for ambiguity:
They may come to help, but they may come to exploit and plunder. One non-religious
person said curtly: SETI sucks. In short, the survey did not provide evidence
for widespread belief in this secularized hope for earths salvation to come from
intelligences among the stars.
we the survey researchers do not concur that SETI sucks. We heartily endorse the
mission of SETI and share excitement over the possible discoveries of the astrobiologists
currently at work. The concern of this survey is limited to one and only one matter,
namely, testing the hypothesis that terrestrial religions are subject to crisis
Question 10 is
a straightforward request for a prognostication, a prediction. By asking to speculate
about the possibility of contact with ETI either via SETI or UFO visitation, answers
might entail belief in the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrials. The
low number of Agree/Strongly agree respondents suggest a dearth of contact optimists
among religious people.
When we turn
to the comments, many reported that they simply lacked the knowledge to make a forecast
regarding contact. One self-identified Buddhist in the Neither agree/nor disagree
category said, my comments mostly reflect a Zen dont know mind.
were more forceful. An Orthodox Christian supported the rare earth position for
theological reasons: I strongly disbelieve in the possibility of other intelligent
life other than on earth. I think Christ came to release us from our sins on this
planet and that is exclusive. One evangelical Protestant enunciated the same rare
earth commitment but for non-theological reasons: advanced life, especially intelligent
life, is so rare that Earth is probably its only location. We note the logic of
this response. Affirming the low probability of making contact with ETI is done
so as a scientific judgment - namely, intelligent life is rare - rather than a theological
judgment. Rejection of the probability of ETI contact is not the result of a religious
belief, in this case.
A curiously convoluted
argument against our making contact with ETI was articulated by a North American
Lutheran: I am convinced that extraterrestrial life does not exist...My theological
reasoning is as follows: God created the universe and then man in his own image.
This creation then rebelled against God and necessitated judgment. God then worked
through history to fulfill that judgment by taking the punishment on Himself in
the person of Jesus...It is quite possible that there are other universes where extraterrestrials
exist, and those people did or did not rebel, but they would not visit our planet
(since they are not part of our universe).
also made their position known. A mainline Protestant asserted, Honestly, I think
extraterrestrial life probably exists somewhere else. And an evangelical forecasted:
I do believe the inhabitants of the UFOs will make contact with us within the next
Protestant surmised: I think they will be out there, but it may be ages before
we meet them. A comment such as this suggests the following: it appears that we
ought not divide these religious respondents simply into the two categories of rare
earthers and contact optimists. This is because religious people tend to be open
the possibility of the existence of ETI but not necessarily optimistic regarding
near future contact. One non-religious respondent made this point: it is likely
we will identify a planet that shows signs of habitation. However, contact is unlikely
given the vast distances.
Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters