So in the past week, there has been quite a bit of excitement after the discovery of Kepler-452b (aka Earth 2.0) was announced. The most interesting discussion for me was Benjamin L. Corey’s response to Jeff Schweitzer’s claim that the existence of alien life would spell the end of religion. Ben refutes Schweitzer pretty comprehensively, so I’m not going to take too much time on that, but the topic did leave me absolutely fascinated with all the questions it would open up.
As Corey shows in his response, I think that Schweitzer’s main issue is that he picked the wrong proof to base his article around, mainly because he seems to believe that every Christian (and religious person for that matter) is a young earth creationist. This is already a rather poor “proof” to base a whole opinion around though, because it has already been long established that you can be Christian without taking the creation account literally. It’s also rather silly to insist that, because the Bible never mentions extraterrestrial life, then therefore the Bible is wrong if they are discovered. I assume the logic of this notion is that Schweitzer can’t understand why God would hide knowledge from us, but this just seems like a poor assumption to me. Considering that nearly everything in the Bible was written to, and about, a specific time, place and peoples, why the heck would they mention “oh yeah, by the way, there are aliens out there too. Have fun!”
While Schweitzer’s article is fundamentally flawed, that’s not to say that the topic is not entirely without merit. While I sincerely doubt that alien life will spell the end of religion, it would certainly cause a shift in some traditional dogma and cause a small percentage of religious people to abandon their faith. For example, young earth creationism would be dealt a major blow and would become even more of a joke than it already is (and yet, despite Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research stating that alien life is impossible within a creationist’s belief system, they will definitely change their tunes to save face). This, of course, doesn’t even take into account all the people who will ignore or deny these discoveries.
Personally, I think Schweitzer would have been far better served if he had tackled his thesis by asking theological questions about the impact alien life would have on religion, because I believe this is where peoples’ faith will be tested the most (since I understand it the best, I’ll focus on the impacts on Christianity in particular though). For example, if we discover an intelligent species, then are they capable of attaining salvation (aka, did Jesus die for the aliens too)? Or what if we discover an intelligent alien species which has very similar Christ-like narratives – would this mean that God’s son had to come and die multiple times for each species? And if not, then how much sense does it make for Jesus to only come to one life-bearing planet and leave all the others in the dark (this, of course, assumes that all of creation is sinful)? If all discovered species have animal-level intelligence, then can we just ignore them in terms of their theological impact? Will alien life debunk Christian dogma, or are our beliefs meant to be tied to humans and our planet only? Perhaps most dangerous is the following question that all Christians will have to ask themselves: am I just twisting my beliefs so that I don’t have to deny them?
In any case, I think that these sorts of theological/philosophical issues would be far more likely to lead people out of religion if we contact alien life, rather than any supposed “incompatibilities” with the Bible and extraterrestrial life. I do find it quite interesting though that, in the past 10-15 years, belief in alien life has gone from being a crackpot idea to a very plausible possibility (that said, believing that Earth has been visited by alien life is in a whole other league – there’s a big difference between probability and an unverifiable lack of concrete evidence). Of course, just like how these attitudes have adapted over time, the religious response will surely evolve and become more sophisticated as we inch closer and closer to the possibility of extraterrestrial contact. With any luck, Christianity will be progressive enough to be open to the possibility when the time comes and have the proper responses to deal with it.
Oh, but screw the young earth creationists. They’ve had it coming for a long time.