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Previous Relevant Surveys

Of the previous surveys dealing with similar matters, we found most relevant the work of Victoria Alexander. In 1994 Alexander conducted a survey of U.S. clergy regarding their religious responses to extraterrestrial life. She provided clergy from Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations with a set of questions such as: would you agree that “official confirmation of the discovery of an advanced, technologically superior extraterrestrial civilization would have severe negative effects on the country’s moral, social, and religious foundations”? She tabulated her data and concluded: “In sharp contrast to the ‘conventional wisdom’ that religion would collapse, ministers surveyed do not feel their faith and the faith of their congregation would be threatened” (Alexander, 360). This study provides significant evidence toward disconfirmation of the widespread assumption regarding a religious crisis precipitated by knowledge of ETI. The Alexander study differs from the Peters study on two counts: first, the latter study covers a wider range of religious traditions, both lay and clergy; and, second, the focus of the Alexander survey is on ETI associated with Unidentified Flying Objects whereas the Peters study is prompted by the scientific field of astrobiology.

A second valuable although less directly relevant resource has been the 2000 survey conducted by D.A. Vakoch and Y.-S. Lee, “Reactions to Receipt of a Message from Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Cross-Cultural Empirical Study” (Vakoch). To conduct this survey of possible reactions to receipt of a message by SETI, Vakoch and Lee designed a set of psychometric scales to assess six beliefs among Chinese and American undergraduate students: (1) that extraterrestrial life exists; (2) that ETI would be benevolent and that we should respond to a message; (3) that ETI would be malevolent; (4) that message receipt would be unsettling; (5) that message receipt would be religiously significant; and (6) that experts should determine the content of a reply. Among the results the researchers observed we note the following: among “both Americans and Chinese, those who were more religious were less likely to think that extraterrestrial life exists...It seems that those Americans who viewed message receipt as spiritually significant were both more open to life existing beyond earth, and less apprehensive about making contact” (Vakoch, p.743). Although belief in the existence of ETI could be pertinent, disbelief in ETI’s existence (belief in a rare or unique earth) is not in itself a measure of anxiety or fear regarding a crisis of religious belief that could be caused by gaining knowledge of ETI. Vakoch and Lee tested for items related to our focal question, but they did not target precisely the same concern. Although the Vakoch and Lee study does not provide direct support for the Alexander and Peters studies, the results are not inconsistent.

Much to the point, thirdly, is a Roper Poll prepared for the Sci Fi television channel in September 2002, “UFOs & Extraterrestrial Life: American’s Beliefs and Personal Experiences.” Although this poll deals with the UFO phenomenon rather than astrobiology, what it reveals regarding the relationship between religion and extraterrestrial life is pertinent. The relevant question was: would announcement of ETI precipitate a religious crisis? The overwhelming answer was negative. The positive greeting of ETI increased step by step as the sample increased in age. Of those between the ages of 18 and 24, 80% declared that their present religious beliefs would not change at all. This rose to 85% for those 25 to 34; 89% for those 35 to 49; 91% for those 50 to 64; and 93% for those above 65 years of age. Roper concludes: “very few Americans say that an official government announcement about the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life would cause them to question their religious beliefs. A full 88 percent say that such an announcement would have no impact on their religious beliefs” (Roper). The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey strongly reinforces this Roper conclusion.

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

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