Non-Human Theology

The Peanuts cartoon in yesterday’s paper featured Lucy expressing the view that “the theology is the same” for dogs as it is for humans. I’m less interested in the dog-related question at the moment as I am in other non-humans. Is theology the same for extraterrestrial sentient beings? For artificially intelligent machines? These are the kinds of topics my students and I have been talking about in my class on religion and science fiction. But apparently not only sci-fi, but also Charles Schultz’s famous comic strip, can get at the question of whether human theology is too anthropocentric, and whether, if it is, that is inevitable since there is no way that human beings can experience what it is like to be some other form of life.

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  • Robert Fisher

    Religion is about understanding the divine. But if we step back a bit, what that really means is understanding the difference between ourselves and the divine. If an alien species and alien culture are different from the divine in ways different than we are, then that will be reflected in their religion.

    And really, we can observe this already. Compare different cultures and you will find hints of such differences. Perhaps, though, it is clearest when studying history. The past is a foreign country, and one that we can’t directly visit.

    In your examinations of Abraham and child sacrifice, you’ve tried to understand an alien (Abraham) from (figuratively) another planet and tried to understand his theology and that of his culture and how that might apply to you and I in our culture.

    • Nick Gotts

      Religion is about understanding the divine.

      That’s a very culture-bound idea of what religion is. There are religions (Jainism, some forms of Buddhism) that deny or take no interest in the divine. There are religions that focus on ritual practice (some varieties of Judaism), or on social order (Confucianism), or on a patron-client relationship with a specific deity.

      • Jakeithus

        A better way to explain it might be to say that rather than religion, theology is about understanding the divine (it pretty much literally means the study of gods, after all). One can do religion without theology, which is the point you are making I believe.

        • Nick Gotts

          Well, I’d be inclined to say theology is arguing about the properties of figments of the imagination, but yes, you got my main point!

  • Pseudonym

    On the LOLcat Bible project, we faced the problem that most modes of human baptism (dunking, pouring, and sprinkling) would be considered highly offensive in cat culture. Clearly cats would baptise by licking.

  • “…that is inevitable since there is no way that human beings can experience what it is like to be some other form of life.”

    One fall morning I was out alone in the cool Nevada desert tossing some carrot slices towards a curious group of wild, cotton tail rabbits. While most of the group kept its distance from me, one of the more curious rabbits hopped up within ten feet and I swear I heard in my head, a soft diminutive female voice asking, “Are you a God?” I politely answered, “No,” and the rabbit hopped away to join her pack. The animal left me, after I spoke to it. That behavior alone was incomprehensible. If my subconscious mind dreamed up the question posed by the rabbit, then it wanted me to impart the Charles Schultz non-human theology on the critter. But what if the animal did communicate through telepathy? I think I’ll steer clear of cattle since I like eating hamburger.

  • Nick Gotts

    There seems to be an unjustified assumption here that the category “theology” would make sense to aliens: they might have no religion at all, and never have had any – it could be a peculiarity of human beings. In fact, “theology” is a relatively recent category in human culture: while most if not all cultures we know of have had beliefs and practices we would class as religious, they mostly haven’t theorised about them at all.

  • Considering the likely existence of very advanced aliens in our universe or in parallel ones should have a deep impact on our theology.

    This shows us that God MUST be infinitely greater that the tribal deities of the past, including the one of the ancient Hebrew.

    However this is not apriori incompatible with the idea that ancient people had true experiences with God. The real problem is divine hiddeness, why did He not teach us things very early on which would have alleviated a lot of suffering?

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • Nick Gotts

      Considering the likely existence of very advanced aliens in our universe or in parallel ones should have a deep impact on our theology.

      Why do you consider it likely?

      The real problem is divine hiddeness, why did He not teach us things very early on which would have alleviated a lot of suffering?

      The answer’s obvious: either “He” is not there, or “He” doesn’t care about our suffering.

    • Robert Fisher

      It isn’t hiddeness. It is our inability to understand.

      What’s worse, once we do begin to grasp something, we canonize it and refuse to acknowledge that our understanding is still imperfect. It takes centuries before we manage to move forward again.

  • David Evans

    If machines speculated about what (if anything) had created them, would that count as theology?

    (idea stolen from several SF stories none of which I can identify)

    • Perhaps “Reason” in Asimov’s I, Robot is one that you were thinking of?

      • David Evans

        Yes, that was one. I have dim memories of a story in which an entire civilisation of machines had forgotten its origins, and split into factions over the question. Some held that no animal could be intelligent enough to create them.

        Somewhat related is “They’re made out of meat”, here

  • arcseconds

    What do you mean by ‘Is theology the same for them?’

    And is it the same for us? In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not as though there’s exactly a consensus about theology here on Earth amongst humans…

    • Good point! I suppose I meant how different might it be for non-humans, and how much more different might it be for non-biological or non-terrestrial intelligences.

      • arcseconds

        I’m still not certain what ‘it’ is. Do you mean ‘will they have the same theological ideas as us’, or do you mean something more like ‘are the right theological ideas for them to have the same as the right theological ideas for us to have?’

        I mean, I think we can pretty confidently state that intelligent life on other planets will not have the same theological ideas as, say, you do, because right here on this planet there are plenty of intelligent beings that don’t have the same theological ideas as you!

        If ‘we’ means ‘humanity’, then I’m not sure how to read ‘the theology is the same’ even if that’s to mean ‘their theological ideas are the same’. One possibility is that the intelligent beings have all the theological ideas that humans have, so there would be pre-millenial dispensationalist aliens, Vaishnavist aliens, neo-pagan aliens that wortship Odin, etc.

        That seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?

      • arcseconds

        One way of approaching the question as to what theological
        ideas extraterrestrials might have is to look at what theological ideas
        humans have that arose more than once more-or-less independently of one another. This doesn’t of course show that extraterrestrials would necessarily have these ideas, but it might give us some notion of what concepts are not entirely parochial.

        So for example, notions of an afterlife are fairly common (albeit not universal) so we can put that on the list of possibilities. Some kind of monotheism is also possible, and perhaps even somewhat likely (Greek philosophy seemed to have an ‘ultimate principle’ trope even before Plato, India has brahman, then there’s Near East monotheism, all three being largely independent developments, I think).

        It’s possible that gods (or god) will be seen as having different aspects which are often treated as separate beings, as that happens in several places (Christianity, Hinduism and Celtic mythology to name three).

        Materialism is also a possibility, as that arose at least twice prior to the modern period (ancient Greek atomism and the Cārvāka school in India), although I guess this is more metaphysics than theology…

        There might be some notion of salvation and sacrifice, as those are multiply attested to, too. And some kind of eschatology.

        I would be highly surprised to find a post-millenial dispensationalist theology involving a three-in-one god (one aspect of which became incarnate and was killed), a dualistic opposite number, a rapture, and seas of blood, though.

        • I was speculating what their theology might be like, and indeed whether they would have one. It is imagination, but sometimes thinking about alien theology seems to help people relate better to the diversity of terrestrial thought.

  • Chris Eyre

    Have you come across “Calculating God” by Robert Sawyer? It centres on this issue.