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The Scientific Warrant for this Survey

The Focal Research Question of this survey research project is the following: Would either the Christian religion or selected non-Christian religions confront a crisis or even collapse when confronted with confirmation that extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETIL) exists? This question is important because of a widespread assumption found frequently articulated by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists and other astrobiologists, namely, that the terrestrial religious traditions with which we are familiar are subject to collapse in the face of new knowledge regarding extraterrestrials. This assumption requires confirmation or disconfirmation. The Peters ETI survey of religious leaders has provided relevant data for constructing a reliable expectation.

The director of the Center for SETI Research in Mountain View, California, Jill Tarter, articulates the assumption that warrants further investigation. Dr. Tarter predicts confirmation of ETIL would be devastating to terrestrial theology. The god of terrestrial religion is our own invention, Tarter contends. It is possible to evolve and grow and get beyond our inherited belief in God. Although to date no contact of any sort with extraterrestrial intelligent life has occurred, Tarter can imagine myriads of planets teeming with living beings. All will have evolved. And, if some ETI began their evolutionary development earlier than we on earth, their technology will have progressed further. She also imagines that these extraterrestrial societies will have achieved a high degree of social harmony so as to support this advanced technology. And, in addition, if ETIs have developed their own religion, it too will be more advanced than the religions we have on earth. Or, more likely, the “long-lived extraterrestrials either never had, or have outgrown, organized religion” (Tarter, 146). We can forecast, then, that contact between earth and ETIL will necessitate the end of our inherited religious traditions and the incorporation of a more universal worldview.

Let us try to retrace the path of SETI reasoning that leads to such a postulate. SETI is selective. SETI is listening to the skies in hopes of hearing a signal emitted from an extraterrestrial intelligent source. Non-intelligent or less intelligent beings may live elsewhere in the universe, to be sure; but the only ones likely to be sending signals are those with advanced technology. SETI does not make judgments about ETIL in general, but focuses rather on those intelligent beings capable of sending radio signals. To be sophisticated enough to devise a signal emitting technology, an extraterrestrial civilization must have been evolving for a long time. We here on earth developed radio only a century or so ago; so if we are to make contact with ETI they must be at least as old as we earthlings and perhaps even older. The statistical possibilities for long evolving societies in a universe that is 13.7 billion years old are myriad; so ETI most likely exist even if the distances are too great to be traveling from their home to ours. Here is the logic that leads to a religious judgment: with increase in evolutionary age comes an increase in technology; with increase in technology comes social changes appropriate to sustaining such a technology, perhaps even a social peacefulness that provides the stability to sustain such a technology for thousands or millions of years. Benevolence would become a necessary ingredient among such beings in order to prevent annihilating themselves. The disposition toward benevolence accompanies a lengthy evolutionary history and the development of advanced technology. Insofar as earth’s religious groups are prone to competition and even violence toward one another, SETI speculators can reasonably imagine that the ETI who make contact as post-religious or supra-religious. All this leads to the prospect that contact with a more advanced ETI civilization would create a crisis, perhaps even a collapse, for our existing religious belief systems on earth.

We find this train of reasoning in the work of Arizona State University physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. Davies suggests that ETI will be too smart to believe what earthlings believe. If ETI visit us, their superior supra-religious beliefs will squash our more primitive biblical beliefs. “It might be the case that aliens had discarded theology and religious practice long ago as primitive superstition and would rapidly convince us to do the same. Alternatively, if they retained a spiritual aspect to their existence, we would have to concede that it was likely to have developed to a degree far ahead of our own. If they practiced anything remotely like a religion, we should surely soon wish to abandon our own and be converted to theirs” (Davies, 37). Michael Michaud concludes, “many scientists believe that more advanced intelligences, if they ever have organized religions, will abandon them” (Michaud, p.206).

With this as background, it seems warranted that actual adherents to the belief systems of earth’s religious traditions should be consulted to determine whether they fear that their beliefs are in jeopardy. We tested the following hypothesis: upon confirmation of contact between earth and an extraterrestrial civilization of intelligent beings, the long established religious traditions of earth would confront a crisis of belief and perhaps even collapse. The evidence gathered by the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey tends to disconfirm this hypothesis.

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

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