Alien Ideas: Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

In this Crisis Magazine classic, Benjamin Wiker revisits the strange history of belief in extraterrestrials and considers what impact their existence might have on Christianity.

 
 
We tend to consider speculation about extraterrestrials to be a recent phenomenon, a task forced on us by the scientific knowledge we’ve gained during the last century. It’s rather surprising, perhaps, to find out that the debate about whether there is extraterrestrial life stretches back just shy of two and a half millennia.
 
Given the antiquity of the question, we might be even more surprised to find that the Catholic Church has never issued any formal pronouncement, one way or the other, about the existence of extraterrestrial life.
 
Yet unofficial pronouncements have recently come from respected sources connected to (but not speaking for) the Vatican. Rev. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Astronomic Observatory, considers the possibility of extraterrestrials an “exciting prospect, which must be treated with caution…. The universe is so large that it would be folly to say that we are the exception.” Rev. Christopher Corbally, S.J., another astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, believes that if we discover extraterrestrials, it will entail an expansion of our theology, for “while Christ is the First and the Last Word (the Alpha and the Omega) spoken to humanity, he is not necessarily the only word spoken to the whole universe.”
 
Theologians have weighed in as well. Thomas O’Meara, O.P., professor of theology at Notre Dame, argues, “The history of sin and salvation recorded in the two testaments of the Bible is not a history of the universe; it is a particular religious history on one planet.” For O’Meara, “the central importance of Jesus for us does not necessarily imply anything about other races on other planets…. Believers must be prepared for a galactic horizon, even for further Incarnation.”      
It would seem, then, that for Catholics the question of whether to believe in extraterrestrials is wide open. Tempting as such speculation is, however, a closer look at the history of the debate in relationship to Christianity might take some of the wind out of our speculative sails.
 
 
Atomism and Aliens
 
To begin with, Christians inclined toward believing in the existence of extraterrestrials should be aware that such belief makes for strange bedfellows. Historically, the idea of aliens arose more than 2,000 years ago among the ancient atomists (Democritus, but especially Epicurus and Lucretius) as part of an overall philosophical argument, rooted not in evidence but in the desire to rid the world of religion.
 
According to Epicurus and Lucretius, belief that the gods interfere in human affairs was the root of all evil, causing human beings to engage in all manner of vile and foolish activities from war to child sacrifice. In Lucretius’s famous words (which 17 centuries later were to become a favorite taunt of the anti-Christian elements of the Enlightenment), “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” (Only religion was able to persuade men of [such] evil things).
 
The Epicurean solution? A rather modern-sounding one: Eliminate religion by embracing a materialist view of the universe. The atomists got rid of the need for a divine creator of nature by asserting that everything in the universe came into being as a result of the chance jostling of brute matter (a.k.a., atoms). Because the number of atoms in a limitless universe is infinite, the random motion of the atoms must have produced a “plurality of worlds.” As Lucretius declared in On the Nature of the Universe, if “the purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms” brought about all living things in our world — plants, people, and everything in between — then certainly “in other regions there are other earths and various tribes of men and breeds of beasts.”
 
Since the first speculation about the existence of extraterrestrials bubbled up from the materialist belief that chance could spin forth a variety of reasoning creatures with ease, Christians ought to be a bit more careful about heaving themselves into the same theoretical hammock, so to speak.
 
 
The Advent of Christianity
 
To further sharpen the point, there were both cosmological and theological reasons why early Christians either did not believe in extraterrestials or refused to speculate about them. The early Christians held to a geocentric universe: The earth was the only location possible for intelligent embodied beings. As patristics scholar Rev. Joseph Lienhard points out, there were no extraterrestrials in either the Epicurean or modern sense, because in the world of the early Christians, “anything ‘extra terram’ (that is, apart from earth and water) had to live in the air — hence, they would be spirits of some sort…. In no case I know of did a Father of the Church postulate corporeal beings living on some other planet.” According to Father Lienhard, the closest thing we find among the early Christians is the belief of some (rooted in neo-Platonism) that “the seven planets or wanderers (the sun, moon, and five visible planets) were indwelt by rational beings or minds” because their circular motion “had to have a rational origin.”
 
Such rude cosmology may strike us as irrelevant, but the early Christians also had theological reasons for their position. First, in direct contrast to the Epicureans, Genesis makes it clear that God (not chance) created the universe and, consequently, that human beings were intentionally (not accidentally) created by God. Second, according to Scripture, the universe is already quite well populated with intelligent extraterrestrials; they’re called angels. But most important of all, the incarnation of Christ was the union of God’s divinity with our humanity. Human beings were thereby placed at the center of the cosmic drama, which made no room for questions about the redemption of other intelligent beings (even angels).
 
For all these reasons, we find no evidence of speculation about extraterrestrials among the early Christians. Not only did such speculation run directly against the central doctrinal claims of Christianity, but it also smacked of Epicureanism (which entailed, among other things, the denial of the immortal, immaterial soul, heaven, and hell). Small wonder the early Christians tossed the Epicurean package, extraterrestrials and all, into the abyss of doctrinal errors.
 
And there it stayed for nearly a thousand years.
 
 
The Rise of the Modern Extraterrestrial Debate
 
Three things caused the debate about extraterrestrials to resurface in the West: the theological anti-Aristotelianism of the late 13th century, the rediscovery of ancient atomism in the 15th century, and the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century.
 
Beginning about 1100 a.d., text after text of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle reached the West, and Christians were suddenly confronted with a unified, well-constructed account of the universe, an account written by a pagan. Aristotle denied that there could be a plurality of worlds. Of course, if there could not be a plurality of worlds, then the question of extraterrestrials was moot.
 
There were three reactions to Aristotle’s purely natural, non-Christian philosophical account: vehement rejection (the radical Augustinians), careful embrace (St. Thomas), and passionate embrace (the radical Aristotelians).
 
Around 1265 a conflict between the two radical wings began to heat up, resulting in the famous (or, for Thomists, infamous) 219 Propositions in 1277, issued by the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. Proposition 27 condemns all who hold the Aristotelian position “that the first cause cannot make more than one world.”
 
It should be stressed that the aim of this condemnation was not to affirm a plurality of worlds but to affirm God’s omnipotence against any account of nature that seemed to restrict God’s powers. Aristotle’s insistence that there could only be one world accorded nicely with the Genesis account of creation, but it appeared to the radical Augustinians to make God the servant of natural necessity rather than its master. The remedy, so Bishop Tempier and his followers thought, was to assert that the first cause could indeed create a plurality of worlds (even if we know, by revelation, that He happened to make only one).
 
But the condemnation had an unforeseen effect. No sooner had the ink soaked into the vellum than speculation about a plurality of worlds began in earnest. By the beginning of the 15th century, that speculation had led some Christian thinkers to affirm the existence of extraterrestrial life. In his On Learned Ignorance (1440), Nicholas of Cusa argued that “life, as it exists here on earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose, in a higher form in the solar and stellar region.” Cusa then began to churn out a zoology:
 
It may be conjectured that in the area of the sun there exist solar beings, bright and enlightened intellectual denizens, and by nature more spiritual than such as may inhabit the moon — who are possibly lunatics — whilst those on earth [i.e., human beings] are more gross and material. [Quoted in Steven Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant]
 
So it was that Christian speculation about lunatics and solarians moved from the lunatic fringe closer to the acceptable center. But exactly what is such let-us-supposing and conjecturing based on? Evidence? Revelation? Reason? No. In fact, it issued from an unhappy union of sloppy logic and untethered imagination. To affirm God’s omnipotence (by condemning the proposition that “the first cause cannot make more than one world”) does not entail that God indeed has created more than one world (and peopled it with aliens). As for footloose imagination, the embarrassing claim about solarians and lunatics speaks for itself.
 
Dovetailing neatly with this new Christian affirmation of the plurality of worlds (and even the possibility of extra­terrestrial life), we have the rediscovery in the 15th century of the long-buried texts of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. During the next two centuries, the words of these ancient atomists spread all over Europe, becoming the foundation of the modern scientific revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries.
 
As we might expect, the atomists’ belief in extraterrestrials blossomed anew with the advance of the materialistic view of modern science. But in contrast to the ancient antagonism between such materialism and religion, modern atomism met with Christian theologians moonstruck by the possibility of lunatics. The Epicurean-Lucretian cosmology, designed to eliminate religion, was now welcomed as the bearer of galactic good news.
 
We’ll return to this irony below. Our analysis would be incomplete, however, if it did not include the visible support that the plurality-of-worlds theory seemed to receive with the invention of the telescope. When the new “spyglass” (as Galileo called it) was trained on the heavens in the early 17th century, the heavens were found to be far deeper and far, far more populated with stars than anyone could ever have imagined. Were these not the suns illuminating the infinite worlds promised by Epicurus and Lucretius?
 
When coupled with the earlier arguments of Copernicus — that the earth was not (as Aristotle had argued) the center of the universe — this open expanse of space filled with countless stars seemed to shatter any notion that our little sun and our little world were anything other than a drop in the cosmic bucket. For many Christians, the expanded cosmology seemed to demand an expanded theology.
 
 
The Era of Speculation (and Secularization)
 
From approximately 1600 to 1900 there was first a trickle, then a flood of scientific-philosophical-theological speculation on the nature of extraterrestrial life.
 
From this period, we can cull a veritable bestiary of extraterrestrials that were supposed to inhabit every known planet in our solar system, as well as the sun and moon and, beyond that, every star, planet, and comet in the universe.
 
Such speculation often came from the best scientists of the day. Sir William Herschel (1730-1822), the astronomer who discovered Uranus (1781), claimed that he saw near-certain evidence of forests, circular buildings, canals, roads, and pyramids on the moon — all, of course, signs of lunarians. He was equally certain that the known planets of our solar system were all peopled and insisted the sun was “a most magnificent habitable globe” filled with solarians “whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vast globe.” Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), William’s son, inherited both his father’s science and his fantasies; he argued that since the front side of the moon was apparently dead, lunarians must live on the dark side.
 
Johann Bode (1747-1826), a director of the Berlin Observatory and famous for Bode’s Law, asked of these same solarians, “Who would doubt their existence?” The reason for such certainty was quasi-theological. “The most wise author of the world assigns an insect lodging on a grain of sand and will certainly not permit…the great ball of the sun to be empty of creatures and still less of rational inhabitants who are ready gratefully to praise the author of life.” The same reasoning led him to affirm the existence of extra­terrestrials on the moon, Mercury, and Venus.
 
We find, throughout this period, similar speculations approved by equally eminent scientists: Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1856), Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), François Arago (1786-1853), J. Norman Lockyer (1836-1920), Jean Liagre (1815-1892), Jules Janssen (1824-1907), William Pickering (1858-1938) — and the list goes on well into the 20th century, a Who’s Who of the leading astronomers. As François Plisson, a French physician and coolheaded critic of extraterrestrial mania, wrote in 1847, “Almost all the astronomers of our day, and the most eminent among them, freely adopt the opinions that not long ago were viewed as being able to spring only from the mind of a madman.”
 
If belief in solarians, lunarians, jupiterians, venusians, mercurians, and martians seems madness now, during the 18th and 19th centuries it was taken to be the only rational, scientifically grounded view. Small wonder, then, that theologians — both Christian and deist — felt not only inspired but obliged to incorporate extraterrestrials into their systems.
 
Looking first at the Christian attempts, one notices immediately that the doctrine of the Incarnation underwent a transformation as well-intentioned Christians rushed to keep up with the latest menagerie of extraterrestrials.
 
To cite a few examples: John Wilkins, an Anglican theologian who would go on to become a bishop, penned a popular account of extraterrestrials called Discovery of a World in the Moone. Wilkins insisted that the existence of extraterrestrials would not contradict Christianity. The absence in Scripture of any mention of other worlds or extraterrestrials did not preclude the possibility of their existence because “’tis besides the scope of the Holy Ghost either in the new Testament or in the old, to reveale any thing unto us concerning the secrets of Philosophy,” and further, an inhabited “Moone” was an expression of God’s creative power, unduly restricted by believers, for too long, only to the earth.
 
A more famous and far more influential work was the quasi-Christian Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), which asserted that the existence of creatures on other planets would not upset Christianity because such creatures would not be descendants of Adam and therefore would not be subject to the Incarnation.
 
A bit later, and pushing things a bit further, Traité de l’Infini Créé was published in 1769, allegedly by Abbé Malebranche but actually by Abbé Jean Terrasson. In it, Terrasson argued, against Fontenelle, that the Incarnation was not peculiar to our planet. If “it is asked…if the eternal Word can unite himself hypostatically to a number of men [i.e., different rational creatures on multiple planets]; one responds without hesitation — yes. The men would all be men-God [hommes-Dieu], men in the plural, God in the singular, because these men-God would in effect be several in number as to human nature, but they would be only one in respect to divine nature.” Indeed, even where there was no Fall, Christ would embody Himself as a member of the race, for they deserved this honor even more than those who had fallen.
 
Other attempts to reconcile Christian revelation with extraterrestrials abound. William Hay (1695-1755) argued for multiple modes of salvation entailing multiple modes of Christ’s incarnation; James Beattie (1735-1803) asserted that Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection served as an inspiring example for all extraterrestrials; and Beilby Porteus (1731-1808) maintained that the Incarnation actually extends to all extraterrestrials.
 
By the beginning of the 19th century, belief in the plurality of worlds was so well accepted, especially among Protestants, that it was now incorporated as an essential element of evangelical orthodoxy. Some proponents, like Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), were fairly cautious. Chalmers would say only that “for anything we can know by reason, the plan of redemption may have its influences and its bearings on those creatures of God who people other regions.”
 
But as we have seen, others showed less restraint. To such speculations, we should add those of the influential visionary Baron Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed to have conversations with the angels of each of the planets of our solar system and reported that the lunarians speak very loudly “from the abdomen” because “the Moon is not surrounded with an atmosphere of the same kind as that of other earths.”
 
Ellen Harmon (1827-1915), prophetess and foundress of the Seventh-Day Adventists, reported after one of her visions that “the inhabitants [of Jupiter] are a tall, majestic people, so unlike the inhabitants of earth. Sin has never entered here.” The Mormons were another sect inspired by astronomical speculation; they also believed in a universe populated by a plurality of gods, angels, and extraterrestrials.
 
 
The Infinite Machine
 
Of course, Christians weren’t the only ones busy with theological speculation about extraterrestrials. The 18th century was a time of transition for the West, from a Christianized culture to a secularized culture. Deism, standing midway between Christianity and atheism, was the religion of transition.
 
To be more exact, deism was the religion of the Newtonians. At the end of the 17th century, Newton had used the materialist atomism, ultimately rooted in the thought of Epicurus and Lucretius, as a foundation for his geometrical account of nature. As a result, the closest Newton could come to Christianity was deism, in which a distant god created the atoms and gave them an initial shove. The Incarnation was simply jettisoned as cosmologically incompatible and therefore irrelevant.
 
Deist poet laureate Alexander Pope composed “The Universal Prayer,” which praised the deist god as the creator of multiple worlds and was intended by Pope to replace the all-too-provincial Lord’s Prayer. The works of the archdeist Voltaire, who called himself the new Lucretius, were shot through with multiple worlds peopled by extraterrestrials. On America’s own shores, Benjamin Franklin included such cosmic pluralism in his personal articles of belief, even claiming that the plurality of extraterrestrials included a plurality of gods to watch over each of the suns.
 
Perhaps more clearly than anyone else of the time, the deist Thomas Paine realized that the existence of a multitude of worlds (and, thus, of extraterrestrials) was entirely incompatible with Christianity: “[T]o believe that God created a plurality of worlds at least as numerous as what we call stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air.” For those who attempted a reconciliation of such plurality with Christianity, Paine warned that “he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either.” Paine, convinced of plurality, chose deism.
 
Many eminent figures agreed. The existence of extra­terrestrials made belief in the particularity of Christianity an embarrassment. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley found it easy to believe in extraterrestrials but, as a consequence, “impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman.” John Adams wrote to warn Thomas Jefferson against hiring anyone at the University of Virginia who holds the “awful blasphemy” that the “great Principle which has produced… Newton’s universe… came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by the Jews.”
 
Scanning the 18th and 19th centuries, we find, then, two overlapping but opposing trends — one Christian and the other deist — united in one pluralist effort. Both sung endless paeans to a mighty God, creator of heaven and many earths, and both chiseled away at the doctrine of the Incarnation to make it fit such pluralism. Christians bent on saving Christianity from irrelevance cheerfully hacked away at the embarrassing particularity of the Incarnation until the doctrine itself became largely irrelevant. The deists, true to their Epicurean-Lucretian origin, simply gouged the Incarnation out of the cosmos as completely unsuitable to the new cosmology. The intelligentsia sided with the deists.
 
The revolution was not over, however. In the latter half of the 19th century, the intelligentsia shifted from deism to atheism. To be more exact, it simply embraced full-scale Epicurean-Lucretian materialism, now called Darwinism. Since the chance actions of matter were sufficient to create the universe, a deity was no longer either necessary or desirable. The deist god was given the bounce, replaced by the blind materialist forces of cosmic evolution. Atheism no longer needed the halfway house of deism. Secularization could now proceed at full throttle. And the belief in extraterrestrials was an essential part of the new materialist creed, just as it had been an essential part of the old one.
 
 
The Evidence of Absence
 
Only by the beginning of the 20th century was science advanced enough to move from speculation to the actual search for hard evidence. As amply documented by Steven Dick in Life on Other Worlds: The 20th Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate, by the end of the 20th century, scientists had demonstrated to all but the most zealously intransigent that — humble Earth excepted — our solar system was devoid of intelligent life and most likely devoid of any life. Further, as biologists discovered the ever-greater complexity of living organisms and the delicate balance of conditions that make them possible, it became clearer and clearer that fewer and fewer places in the universe could meet the conditions required for even the most rudimentary forms of life.
 
Yet the dismal result of the high-tech search for extra­terrestrials only stirred advocates all the more, resulting in the optimistic but defensive battle cry: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” While this might warm the dwindling fires in the enthusiast’s heart, it pays little service to reason. To be blunt, since it was the negative result of a century-long search for aliens, the absence of evidence is evidence for absence. What else would it be?
 
A naysayer might ask, “But if what you’re saying is true, doesn’t the lack of scientific evidence for angels prove that angels don’t exist?” Such a riposte merely deflects attention from the seriousness of the self-inflicted wound. Again, whether or not angels exist, scientists were actively looking for extraterrestrials, convinced without a shred of evidence that they must exist.
 
The simple truth remains: Over the span of the 20th century, science systematically eliminated the possibility of extraterrestrials in our solar system, and their existence elsewhere has dwindled from an absolute necessity to a dim chance.
 
Further, those who compare angels to aliens forget that angels are by definition immaterial beings. What kind of a scientific test would one devise to locate a being who, because it is not embodied, has no location? Extraterrestrials, on the other hand, are supposed to be material organisms; if they exist, we should be able to detect them the same way we detect any other physical body.
For the nonbeliever already convinced that angels don’t exist, to be forced to admit that he has no more reason to believe in aliens than in angels is an admission of defeat. This admission is all the more important precisely because extraterrestrials function for secularists as material substitutes for angels. In the great religion of secularism, aliens have now been reduced to, at best, a matter of faith.
 
 
Lessons for Theology
 
First, a humbling lesson for those inclined to hitch theological doctrines to the science of the day: Think how foolish we would appear today if the Catholic Church had modified its doctrine of redemption to make room for the solarians, venusians, mercurians, martians, and lunarians. We would be in the same speculative boat as Swedenborgians, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Mormons. The lesson? There’s nothing more dated than the ideas of those who insist on keeping their ideas up-to-date. The best remedy for theologians so inclined is a long, deep draught of the elixir of history, especially the history of science, where it becomes evident that today’s verities are often tomorrow’s absurdities.
 
Second, as we have seen, belief in the existence of extraterrestrials is not a modern thing, and that means it does not depend essentially on any advance in science. Rather, the belief stems from a particular metaphysical stance, not Christian but Epicurean in origin. As I argue long and hard in Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, such Epicureanism acts as an acid toward any religion but especially toward Christianity.
 
Third, Christians should be wary of leaning on revived forms of the sloppy logic of omnipotence, which arose after the publication of Tempier’s 219 Propositions in 1277. In its original form, it is a theological truism: “God is omnipotent; therefore God can create anything.” But all too soon, this became a very different proposition: “Since it is possible for God to create anything, then God must create everything possible; therefore, extraterrestrials must exist, and the doctrine of the Incarnation must be expanded accordingly.” This double inference is not only invalid but leads to foolishness. Would we say that since God is all-powerful, He must create fairies and also redeem them?
 
Fourth, Christians should be equally wary of the idea that God would somehow be a second-rate deity if He allowed human beings to be the only intelligent embodied beings in the universe, since that would mean a lot of wasted space. What frightens us into making such claims is, I believe, the immensity of space itself. But while the vastness of the universe rightly humbles us, its size means nothing to God, an immaterial intelligence. Since He has no size, it is all the same to Him whether He makes the universe as big as a pin or a pin as big as the universe.
 
A final, related point: Christians should not be cowed by the materialist’s logic of probability, which had its birth in Epicurus and Lucretius. The logic runs thus: Our sun is a star; since the number of stars is so vast, sheer probability demands that there must be other inhabited planets beyond our solar system. But probability does not demand any such thing, unless we think (with Epicurus) that the universe is governed by chance, and that, of course, would be a reason to give up our Christianity, not to rerig its cosmology.
 
I can already hear the parting objection: “But what would you do if extraterrestrials actually show up? It is possible, after all. And the Church hasn’t pronounced one way or the other.”
I am as prepared for the arrival of extraterrestrials as I am for that of elves, and for the same reason: All evidence points to their nonexistence, and yet it remains a very, very remote possibility — so remote that to change our central doctrines to accommodate either possibility would be folly.
 


Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of the new book,
 The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009).

Benjamin D. Wiker

By

Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com, and you can follow him on Facebook.

  • Adriana

    In your analysis you omit the effect that the discovery of America had in this belief.

    Here was a new land, totally unknown until the end of the fifteenth century, that was *never* mentioned in the Bible, nor on any Holy Texts. And it had inhabitants that could be preached to.

    So, if by taking a boat and sailing the ocean for a long time you find an inhabited world, then if you take a spaceship and travel long enough you will find an inhabited world.

    (Respect to that, there was a comment that Spaniards do not write Science Fiction is because what was the basic plot of science fiction – heroic Earth pilot travels through long expanses of space and ends up in a strange alien empire and gets involved in the politics there – is basically a fictionalized account of the discovery of America and its conquest. They had the original, why bother with the copies?)

    Analogy is a very powerful mind tool.

  • Joe H

    I just wish people didn’t have to rain the parade. No, we shouldn’t modify theology on the assumption of extra-terrestrial life, but it is also quite unwarranted to believe that we actually know the true probability of life existing on other worlds. In fact, making such a strong statement seems to me to repeat the same error made in the past, only in the other direction.

    I’ve seen the “Drake equation”, for instance – but other scientists estimate that 10% of the planets in the galaxy are hospitable to life. Our favorite skeptic Michael Shermer writes of the Drake equation,

    “Although we have a fairly good idea of the rate of stellar formation, a dearth of data for the other components means that calculations are often reduced to the creative speculations of quixotic astronomers.”

    So, there is what we can see – which is far from everything – and there is what we might predict, which is often “creative speculation”, nothing to really take to the bank.

    Which doesn’t mean I believe with absolute certainty in intelligent life, but I do believe that it is reasonable, given how much we still do not know, to hope that there is. As for the thousands, perhaps millions of people who have claimed to seen aliens, to have been abducted on and experimented on by aliens – I’m not quite ready to dismiss them all as liars or universally mistaken. It may be some other strange phenomenon taking place, but it may not.

    It isn’t always the hillbilly in the trailer park or the attention-seeker making these claims; I’ve heard interviews with enlisted soldiers and officers, scholars, ordinary folks who have no particular interest in science fiction and who don’t seem particularly opportunistic. I believe that they believe they are telling the truth, at the very least.

  • DC

    So I see the DI is now taking on astrobiology! I assume the Kepler mission is the reason why the DI is getting out ahead of this to protect us from all this new science clouding the minds of theologians. The science here is all based in sold math, physics, biology, and chemistry. The history of theology and feeble human understanding has no relevance to scientific astronomy.

    The Kepler telescope just started scanning one sector of the Milky Way and will likely indentify several hundred planets with earth-like characteristics within a few years of operation. (see:

  • Bill Sr.

    The reality is this world is part of God

  • Henry Karlson

    If one studies them carefully, one finds there would be no problem with one incarnation and alien life — for the incarnation is a cosmic, holistic event which works not only for humanity, but for all creation. St Maximus the Confessor is a great theologian to explore if one wants to understand the cosmic dimension of Christ’s work.

    Once one moves outside of the very limited, post-Reformation rhetoric, Christology and Soteriology have no problems with alien life. Indeed, it has no problems with elves, either (though Protestant rhetoric did, which called them papist devils!!!!). But I didn’t expect to discover much different from the Discovery Institute when engaging the modern question which elves represented.

    Again, an examination of patristic sources, like St Jerome, will show the acceptance of other rational forms of life outside of humanity, and they seem to know something about Christ (The Life of St Paul the Hermit shows this). And, if one explores the fullness of the alien life debate, one will note it was a commonly acceptable belief — God IS the God of life, after all — so to look to a vast universe and to be the only life within — would feel as a rejection of life in the universe and question whether or not God is a God of Life. It’s not just an issue of omnipotence, but it how God the artist is represented by such a bleak work of art.

    Now, saying that –while we do not know if there is alien life (or maybe some do?), we can, as Joe suggest, hope it is there without it being against our Christian faith (and indeed, flowing from it). But I would also suggest that those who contend against it tend to have a limited, univocal understanding of the incarnation, and that alone explains why we should continue to discuss the possibility and the theological explanation for it.

  • R.C.

    An interesting piece, as an overview of history.

    The author may be correct as regards the socio-psychological effect of Epicureanism on Christianity, and if so, it’s something to be wary of. The need for corrective measures can be anticipated, and those measures can be enacted, much as the need to teach historical truth increased (and was well-met in many parishes) when Dan Brown’s fantasies became popular.

    Not Mr. Spock
    All the same, that’s a socio-psychological matter. In such matters, we acknowledge that human beings aren’t Vulcans; they don’t evaluate all their beliefs on the basis of pure logic except when circumstances fortuitously encourage the cool use of right reasons. Instead, sadly, 90% of folk “go with their gut” 90% of the time, and their “gut” is often not a very clear-thinking kind of apparatus.

    Hence our need to know (whether it’s species-evolution, or Epicureanism, or what-all) of a particular idea, not only whether it is true (or plausible), but how belief in it will affect people’s understanding of other things that are true. We should never label as false a true idea — God forbid! — or even an idea not yet shown to be false. But it’s often wise to keep a weather eye on the conclusions folk draw from any new ideas they’ve adopted recently. For human beings are often apt to draw illogical conclusions from new information, out of the sheer excitement of its newness. It takes humanity several decades, at least, to get adjusted to a big “new idea,” and after that, they generally look back on what they thought were its implications, and laugh or groan at their own na

  • RP

    Before we factor in the Drake equation, should we not factor in an earth-moon system such as ours for the relevance of life? I would hope the answer is yes, and if that is the case then we should consider that the moon formed from the earth’s crust after the earth was struck by an object the size of Mars. That should reduce the DE by a very significant factor.

    I think it is also interesting that part of the impetus behind the SETI project was that science could not explain the origin of life on earth. So, materialists like Dawkins think that it must have come from elsewhere in the universe, and this goes right along with the materialist creed that matter begets matter. Boy, these last two reasons sure sound like ones of faith and hope, sound a bit like a fundamentalist to me! Let’s hope those ET’s like to practice charity as well and that carbon based life is not a delicacy in their part of the cosmos or were all screwed![smiley=laugh]

  • RP
  • DC

    Classic Discovery Institute mumbo-jumbo.
    The writer conflates all alien life with intelligent life. The real issue is just life of any sort.

    The first discovery of life will likely be more like the biochemistry-of-life found evident in an atmosphere or lithosphere of a planet using remote sensing. At not advanced life forms we have to be concerned about being ‘fallen’ or ‘not-fallen.’

    There is a extremely low possibility of encoutering or detecting actual advanced civilizations in the next few hundred years. Unless the civilization happens to broadcast in analog, which would be a short window of time for an advanced civilization. (Humans have used radio for about 100 years. The US tuened off analog TV last week. That signal is now gone. Anybody tuning artificial radio waves in NBC 500 light years from here will pick up the signal in about 450 years and lose it in 500.)

    The time and distances involved are beyond human scale and overwelming.

    I don’t see why religious belief on earth would change in response. The early evidence will not convince the non-scientific since it will be based on remotely sensed complex biochemistry data from a probe.

    Most science that conflicts with faith is simply ignored or suppressed. That will not change. (The Discovery Insitute would be out campaigning to remove exobiology from US schools!)

    The RCC is the best at adjusting to scientific realities and would have a plan in place. The RCC thinks ahead.

    Theology does not seek or add new information – it starts with the answer from the ancient text and work backwards to find the answert in the test itself.
    It just explains away any lack of evidence as non-material.

  • Adriana

    There may be aliens, or there may be not, but their presence or absence will respond to reasons that have nothing to do with the presence of theologians. If a discovery is made, then theology will have to work it out, as it always does.

    I do not think that it would be harder than it was to accomodate the continent of America, a whole place with a history of its own which the Bible was blissfully ignorant. Theology got out of it by following the dicta of “go and make disciples of all nations”.

    Why should the Bible tell anything about aliens? As opposed to other religions, the Bible never gets into the specifics of the inhabitants of Heaven. There is no genealogical chart of the gods, nor an account of their daily doings. The Lord commands Man, and that’s it. What matter is that Man obey the commandmenets, not that Man elucidate the relationships between those who are not Man.

    So, if the Bible mentions no aliens, nor traditional theology it is for the simple, sensible reason that such musings are, in the words of Buddha “matters leading not to enlightment”.

    So, anyone who expects that knowledge of aliens will rock the theological edifice is a fool who has not studied history.

  • Gabriel Austin

    I recommend a reading of Egon Friedell’s IST DIE ERDE BEWOHNT? [Is the earth inhabited?].

  • Faze

    For me, this passage from Mark (Douay 13:27) certainly suggests that there an “elect” beyond earth, especially if this doesn’t refer to heaven with a capital H.

    And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.

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