Asteroids, Extinction, and Other Religious Issues

crossposted with No Unsacred Place

According to a story on Space.com, a “bus-size asteroid” came within 96,000 miles of Earth early on Sunday morning. It posed no threat – even if it had collided with Earth it would have burned up in the atmosphere.

That’s usually the case with asteroids that come near Earth – but not always. Some asteroids are big enough to alter the course of life. Scientific celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson (and that’s not an insult – I’m happy science has a celebrity ordinary people will recognize) posted this essay on Wired.com titled “We Can Survive Killer Asteroids — But It Won’t Be Easy.”

I won’t attempt to summarize it. It’s not long, and as with most of Dr. Tyson’s writing, you don’t have to be an astrophysicist to read it. Instead, I want to explore some of the religious implications of a major asteroid strike.

Once in about a hundred million years Earth is visited by an impactor capable of annihilating all life-forms bigger than a carry-on suitcase – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our oldest and strongest evolutionary instinct is for survival – for ourselves, for our relatives, and for our species. If we have adequate warning (and according to Dr. Tyson, we probably will) we can destroy, deflect or redirect a killer asteroid. We have technology the dinosaurs did not – presumably we will use it.

Unfortunately, another very old and very strong evolutionary instinct tells us to live for today because the future is uncertain. Eat all you can, because you never know when food will be available again… even if you live in a society where food is overly abundant. Reproduce as many times as you can as soon as you can, because your offspring may die and you may not around to reproduce later… even if you live in a society with low infant mortality or a society that can’t support more children.

Even if we have clear evidence of the approach of an extinction-causing impactor, many will choose to ignore it. Some will actively deny it, claiming any probability less than 100% means “they don’t know” and that attempts to prevent an impact are a “waste of money” or an “assault on freedom.” Others will find extinction doesn’t agree with their religious doctrines and will confidently proclaim “God would never permit it!”

Should that time come, it will be our job to out-debate, out-organize, and out-vote those who can’t overcome their evolutionary instincts to live only for their immediate desires.

There are those who think the extinction of humans would be a good thing. We’ve trashed the planet and continue to abuse our fellow creatures – the world would be a better place if we disappeared and made room for a new species to evolve. But any new species would be produced by the same evolutionary processes that produced us. A new species would share our instincts for survival, for living for today with no thought of tomorrow, and of favoring ourselves and those like us over those who are different. The elimination of humans would not be “a fresh start” so much as “restarting the clock.”

The best chance this planet has of evolving highly intelligent, self-aware and compassionate creatures is for us to grow up.

But even if we avoid or divert all killer asteroids, one day the Earth will die. At some point (I’ve seen estimates from 1 billion to 7 billion years in the future) our Sun will run out of fuel and expand into a red giant. It will engulf Mercury and Venus and even if it doesn’t swallow Earth, it will raise temperatures to a point that no life can remain.

Hopefully by then we will have developed the technology – and the willpower – for interplanetary travel. While the speed of light looks to be an inviolable limit, it should be possible to construct self-contained biospheres that will allow travel over many years, or if necessary, over many generations.

But this is not just a question of technology – there are also religious questions. When our planet dies, what will happen to the Otherworld, the realm of the gods and ancestors? Does it exist on its own, or is it inseparably intertwined with this world and one cannot exist without the other? Will rebirth cease to be a possibility, leaving union with The All our only option – whether we are ready for it or not?

Will our gods and goddesses, our ancestors and the spirits of this world travel with us to new worlds? Do they already transcend this planet? Will the label “Earth-centered” be replaced by “Galaxy-centered” or “Universe-centered”?

What land spirits will we find on other planets? If we find a planet with human-like life, will those people recognize deities similar to ours?

The thought of the death of our planet, the extinction of our species and of traveling to other worlds raises many religious questions. The only answer to most of these questions is “I don’t know.”

But I do have faith.

As a Pagan, I have faith that Nature is even bigger and stronger and wiser than what we see and experience on this planet. As a Universalist, I have faith that whatever becomes of our world will work out OK for all, eventually if not immediately. And as a Druid, whatever form Nature takes, I will study it, I will honor it, and I will tell its stories and sing its songs.

Blessed be Nature. Blessed be Life. Blessed be the Universe.

the galaxy NGC598, more commonly known as M33 – NASA/JPL-Caltech

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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