Would They Believe? Religion and First Contact with Extraterrestrial Beings.

So a friend of mine from work read me this headline:

“NASA gives $1 million grant to a theological organization to study the religious implications of extraterrestrial life.”

And my reaction to this was along the lines of “oh no…”.  Because whenever religion and science get mixed up together, things have a habit of getting murky and confusing.  And then people get mad.

Now, the blog post I just linked you to isn’t a big fan of this idea.  The author believes it is a waste of money as well as a violation of the First Amendment, “for it is an unnecessary entanglement of church and state.”  On some level, I do agree with this.  However, I also think that the subject is worth discussing.

Humans have been fascinated with the idea of alien life for centuries.  Whether it is in literature, art, or conspiracy theories our ideas of what alien life could be range from the intimately familiar to the terrifyingly bizarre.  We can’t help but think of it.  The universe is so large that it seems unfathomable that it would just be empty and devoid of life aside from our little planet in our lonely corner of existence.

Have you ever heard of the Fermi Paradox?  The basic gist of it is that there are so many stars and so many planets that some of them would have to give arise to Earth-like conditions.  And these conditions would give rise to intelligent life that would eventually seek out a way to cross the interstellar void.  Enrico Fermi, one of the authors of the argument, came to the conclusion that Earth should have already been visited by intelligent extra-terrestrial life, leading him to ask “where is everybody” and give rise to the paradox in question.  The paradox has been answered in many different ways, but here are just a few: that evolutionary life is rare or non-existent, that other intelligent life lacks the advanced technology, that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself, or that Earth is specifically avoided or isolated (which reminds me of the story “They’re made out of meat” by Terry Bisson…it’s a very short read but a good one).

But say that one day humans did encounter intelligent life?  What would we do then?

First off, let’s backtrack a little.  A long time ago, someone posted a chart to my Facebook wall which proposed what you should do if you end up being the first human to interact with intelligent aliens.  I remember this specifically because at one point it suggests leaving religion out of the equation and choosing instead to show these creatures the concept of our evolutionary history.  Some of my more religious Facebook friends took issue with this, wondering “well why can’t we present them with religion?”

 

Here's the chart for your viewing pleasure.

Here’s the chart for your viewing pleasure.

 

The first problem that arises with presenting aliens with religion is the question “what religion do we start with” or “what religion do we present to them that best represents humanity?”  If we were to go on a cold, logical level, we would say Christianity.  According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2010 Christians are still the majority around the globe.  But by the time we make contact with alien life, things might be different.  Pew estimates that by 2050, the number of Muslims and Christians around the world will be nearly equal because Islam is the fastest growing global religion.  So even on a pure logical level things may get murky in a few decades.

But from my perspective, none of this matters.  I see two possible outcomes when aliens are presented with our religion or religions.

 

Outcome 1

The aliens have no religion anymore or never had any concept of religion in the first place, in which case they would find our steadfast belief in a creator being that we cannot see or even know for certain exists baffling and possibly primitive.

 

Outcome 2

The aliens already have their own religion, and so ours would be incorrect in their eyes.  They would likely brush off our beliefs the way modern Christians brush off the beliefs of, say, the ancient Egyptians.

 

Both of these circumstances hold the possibly for a violent outcome, whether due to our fault or theirs.  But then again, any first contact situation could result in this, regardless of the presence of religion.  But I stand by my point.  Our religions would likely be of no consequence to extraterrestrial beings.

Now, is it possible that these beings would find our concept of a god/creator so fascinating that they would want to learn more and maybe even be converted?  Yes, but I don’t see that really happening.  If their thinking process is anything at all like ours, they will hold steadfastly to their own system of beliefs and philosophies.  As it stands, the two outcomes I listed above are far more likely.  The third is based on this faulty assumption that the “truths” in religion are self-evident and would be immediately obvious to anyone intelligent enough (which is not to say that religious people aren’t intelligent…I know some people out there will take it that way even though that is not my intent at all).

But then, this isn’t the question the group NASA granted money to is looking to answer.  They’re more concerned with a question along the lines of “what impact would the revelation of other intelligent life in the universe have on US and OUR religions?”  Because humanity is sort of self-centered like that.

Again, the way I see it, there are two likely outcomes to this:

 

Outcome 1

Contact with other life leads to a drastic re-evaluation of religious texts in an effort to discover any meaning to the existence of alien life which either leads to the collapse of the current religions and the start of new ones or with the consolidation of current religions with the new knowledge.

 

Outcome 2

Religion will remain largely unchanged.

 

There will of course be other outcomes, like fringe sections of the religious community possibly associating the aliens with devils and demons.  But they would be a small voice in a large crowd, a tiny fraction and not representative of the entire human race.

Regardless, it’s an interesting thing to think about.  And it is indeed very difficult to say what would happen in the event of first contact.  It is possible that none of the outcomes I listed would even happen.  I could be entirely wrong in my assumptions.  To err is human, after all.

I’m sure others would have their own opinions on what might happen if and when we run into aliens out in the universe.  It is a part of our nature to theorize and hypothesize, analyze and criticize.  We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.  It is a part of our process.  It is how we adapt, how we change.  It is how we progress as a civilization, as a race.  Change is inevitable.  It may not always be good, but it will come.  There is no avoiding it.

So with that, let’s look to the future with bright eyes and curious minds.

 

That’s all I have for this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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One thought on “Would They Believe? Religion and First Contact with Extraterrestrial Beings.

  1. Pingback: Universal Perspective: The Implications of First Contact with Alien Life – Rumination on the Lake

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