What would happen to the world's religions if we made contact with alien life? I asked Dr. David A. Weintraub, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University who's been trying to get to the bottom of that question.
Once, a long time ago, while partaking in an activity that is now legal in Washington and Colorado, I got stuck on one hell of a deep question: What would happen to the world's religions if we made contact with alien life? Would leaders tweak their theology in the face of the revelation that humans are no more unique than a particularly resilient strain of mold? Or would the pious see that their scriptures were bullshit and riot in the streets with nothing left to live for?
Instead of just forgetting the question like I did, Dr. David A. Weintraub, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University, wrote a book of answers. Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It? examines how the world's major religions will handle it if we ever discover life elsewhere in the universe. So I talked to him about that.
VICE: Why did you write this? Do you know something we don't about first contact?
David Weintraub: No contact I'm aware of. Astronomers have gotten very good at discovering planets, and the reason we're interested is the possibility they might host life. That's the driving question, ultimately. Astronomers are just as interested as everyone else, but we're throwing big toys at the problem. As we speak, that question is very quickly becoming one astronomers may be able to answer.
How do astronomy and religion overlap?
Let me give some examples. One very simple and obvious one is the Star of Bethlehem. That's a religious question for most Christians, but it's also an astronomical one. Was there an actual Star of Bethlehem? If so, what was that thing? There's an overlap between the accuracy of calendars and astronomical holidays. One of the courses I teach is on the trail of Galileo. Why did the Roman Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for saying the Earth orbits the sun? Isn't that an astronomy question? Apparently, 400 years ago, that was a religious question.
It seems there are two competing narratives between religion and astronomy. Religion is the story of how every single person is special, while astronomy is the long reveal of how our planet is not all that special. Is there room for coexistence?
It depends on what astronomers find, and then how different religions deal with that. The existence of alien life does not, in and of itself, threaten religion. A lot are quite compatible with, even happy with, the idea that extraterrestrial life exists. There are only some religions that seem worried.
So, if aliens land in Times Square tomorrow, which ones are in trouble?
Let me step back for a moment and say that what I was writing about was not aliens in flying saucers making contact. What astronomers are doing is detecting chemical signatures in the atmosphere that says life is out there, which is very different from aliens climbing out of flying saucers and saying, "We're here." But the ones that would have problems are the most conservative forms of Christianity.
They put the most literal weight on the creation of humanity through God creating Adam and Eve—that the Garden of Eden was a literal place on the physical Earth, and that's how intelligent beings were created. If there are intelligent beings from another place, that would threaten the idea that evolution doesn't occur. Because either life somehow gets started in other places and evolves to become intelligent, or God made a decision to create intelligent life in some other place, and that would seem puzzling if we're supposed to be the favored creatures.
What religions would be cool with it?
Judaism could care less. That has nothing to do with other intelligent beings. If God wants to creates other beings, why should we care? Mormons seem to believe quite strongly there are intelligent beings elsewhere. Within the scriptural writings of Islam, there seem to be strong assertions of intelligent beings elsewhere. The same goes for Hindus and Buddhists. There doesn't seem to be any contradictions for religions that believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation can happen anywhere in the universe, so why wouldn't there be life elsewhere? There might be something special about being reincarnated in human form on Earth, a special opportunity for shedding bad karma or generating good karma, but in terms of simply the opportunity, reincarnation doesn't preclude it from happening anywhere else in the universe.
In the book, you go through the possibility of angels being aliens...
I felt I had to address the question. Because if you believe in angels, they are not human, and they're sort of from beyond the Earth. They come from heaven, right? But most religions don't seem to think of angels as we would think of extraterrestrials, because they're not made of anything. They're not corporeal, you can't touch them. Other than a few unusual folks who identify angels with the devil, angels are not thought of in the same way as we think of ET, or Klingons, or Spock, or whatever.
You break down the negative or nonchalant responses from religions. But are there any religions where this would be positive news?
There are a number I stayed away from [in the book] that would say, Yes, that proves it! There are a lot of 20th-century religions, sometimes referred to as "UFO religions," that very strongly believe in UFOs. They believe that aliens have visited the Earth. I didn't deal with those.
What about older religions?
I'm not sure. The Seventh Day Adventists, for example, believe in extraterrestrials, but that humans are the only sinful beings. This is the belief that Adam and Eve are real, and we're directly descended, and so if you're not directly descended from Adam and Eve you can't suffer from sin. They believe extraterrestrials exist, but they're not sinful—but if we actually met them and shook their hands, we would be able to learn whether or not this is true. For some religions, the meeting with the extraterrestrials would teach them something. That holds true for Roman Catholics, who are wrestling with how to deal with the idea of sin throughout the universe. They're gradually moving [away] from the literal Adam and Eve, but the idea of original sin still exists as a concept. Exactly what that would mean if life existed beyond the Earth is not something they have quite figured out.
Pope Francis said last May that he'd baptize the aliens.
The important question is whether the extraterrestrials merit conversion. You only want to convert if they suffer original sin, if they need to be saved. I think Roman Catholics ultimately will decide that, Yes indeed, in ways we don't quite understand, extraterrestrials have suffered original sin and therefore need to be converted. I think the history of Roman Catholicism shows they're ready to convert. The question is, does Christianity, through Jesus's redemption on Earth, apply to them? Or do they need their own savior on their own planet?
Would there be a jailbreak by other religions to convert aliens?
Most religions would not convert. Judaism's not in the business of proselytizing. Islam, as best as I can tell, wouldn't. Those within the Islamic community seem to understand that Islam was brought to Earth by the prophet Muhammad, and it seems to be a religion for humans. Other intelligent beings on other planets would have their own prophet and prophetically revealed religion, so they don't need to export Islam. Mormons might want to do the conversion. A lot of other Christian denominations would. Eastern Orthodox churches might. More conservative Protestants might. The Evangelicals might. Unitarians, Quakers, Hindus, and Buddhists wouldn't.
When did the question of alien life first enter the thoughts of theologians?
Most major religions go back a couple thousand years. If we go back to that time, I don't think anyone spent a lot of time thinking about this. But certainly the Greek philosophers spent time thinking and writing about it, and that inheritance is a mixed bag. Because Aristotle was pretty dominant in his opinion that the Earth is the center of the universe, so there can't be life anywhere else. There were those who disagreed with him, and they usually lost the argument, but the ideas were nevertheless in the intellectual sphere. Soon after Aristotle, Christianity became the dominant religion, and the early ideas were pretty Earth-centered. But the idea that God couldn't make other worlds was seen to be limiting God's power. So in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued against Aristotle's ideas. He said, You know, if God wants to make other worlds, God could have made other worlds. However, it's evident God chose not to. That was the major intellectual thread within Christianity for most of its history. But in other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Judaism, I don't think there was a lot of thought expended on the issue. What little thought was invested was either, it's impossible and who cares, or it's definitely out there and who cares. It wasn't a big deal.
Have religions tweaked their philosophy in the past century as technology made it possible for new planets to be discovered?
Part of what motivated me was that there hasn't been a lot written or said. I think it's very possible that in the next century, within my children's lifetime, we will discover life in the universe. Isn't it time we actually started thinking seriously about this? Two hundred years ago, Thomas Paine put forth an argument that said you can't be a Christian and believe in extraterrestrial life. You can pick one or the other. When he said that, a number of Christians tried to wrestle with his arguments, but they basically swept it under the rug. Perhaps it's time to take it back from under the rug and wrestle with it again. I don't think it's impossible to believe in extraterrestrial life and be a Christian, but if we find life, people are going to have some problems to deal with. They ought to start wrestling with those issues sooner rather than later.
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