If it could be proven that non-human aliens actually exist somewhere in the universe, how would that threaten the core assumptions of divine religions?
It’s a fascinating question that floated to the surface of American consciousness after June 25, when an unclassified version of a comprehensive U.S. Defense Department report on UFOs (i.e., unidentified flying objects) was formally released to Congress.
A June 3 New York Times article reported that in the military study:
“American intelligence officials have found no evidence that aerial phenomena witnessed by Navy pilots in recent years are alien spacecraft, but they still cannot explain the unusual movements that have mystified scientists and the military, according to senior administration officials briefed on the findings of a highly anticipated government report.”
As such, the military report also could not confirm the existence of extraterrestrials in general.
Soon after the military’s UFO report was made public, Pew Research Center released a then-new survey report titled “Religious Americans less likely to believe intelligent life exists on other planets.”
Clearly, there is a fraught connection in true believers’ minds between the concepts of non-divine alien beings and divine ones. And it echoes other rational ideas believers are irrationally deeply wary of because of their perceived conflicts with biblical dogma.
While many religious traditions teach that “extraterrestrial” beings are possible, not all do, and more-conservative believers are most skeptical, notes David Weintraub, a Vanderbilt University professor of astronomy and author of the book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?
“The idea of intelligent life could be threatening to some conservative Christians’ interpretation of the Bible and how they teach a literal creation of the universe, …” Weintraub told the Washington Post. “It’s not about the existence of extraterrestrial life. It’s about what the piece of information does to the power structure of a particular church.”
Referencing the work of David Wilkinson, a Durham University astrophysicist cum theologian in the United Kingdom, the Post explained why some Christians would find the concept of aliens disorienting:
“Many people believe in a literal six-day creation as described in the Bible, where aliens are not mentioned. Some people are worried that if there are other beings, God would not have a special relationship with human beings,” Post writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey explained in her article. “It raises theological questions for people, including whether redemption through Jesus’ death and resurrection can be extended to other life-forms. And if there are little green people, would God have appeared in their likeness, just as he came in the flesh as a human being?”
Keep in mind that well into the Middle Ages the centrality of Earth and humankind in the cosmos and in God’s esteem was unquestioned — as was the false conceit that the sun and planets revolve around our own divinely anointed orb. Then science began to show that, no, it was actually the other way around; everything in our solar system orbited the Sun.
The Catholic Church, monolithic in its control of Europe at the time, did the logical thing with this new disturbing, potentially destabilizing information: they dismissed it as nonsense and shamed and silenced its practitioners, like Galileo and his subversively powerful new telescopes that debunked biblical “truth” about the “heavens.”
The same kind of dismissals are still going on today. When “pro-life” activists condemn abortion (yet have murdered legal abortion doctors) because the practice is not biblically validated. When anti-vaxxers reject provably life-saving coronavirus vaccines because only God can effect who lives and who dies, not scientists. And when homophobes decry same-sex romantic couplings as “abominations” because that’s what scripture tells them to do.
When we look to ancient writings as unassailable gospel, we short-circuit our human capacity to reason, to employ material logic today to solve real-word problems and expand personal happiness and fulfillment.
A scribe in first-century Galilee, for instance, would have had zero knowledge useful in dealing with modern issues in the 21st century that hadn’t even been thought of yet in the first century.
So, the results of the Pew study released earlier this year was mostly unsurprising.
Pew found that the “best guess” of 80 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans is that extraterrestrial aliens likely exist somewhere in the universe, while only 57 percent of Christian citizens are on board with that possibility. According to Pew data, adherents of all U.S. religions are significantly more skeptical of alien life forms than more-secular Americans, with degree of skepticism proportionate to degree of conservativism and religious devotion.
Weintraub believes that, in particular, Christian theology in the U.S. will become more embattled over time as science better understands reality.
“Our knowledge about the likelihood of [possible extraterrestrials] is going to explode,” he said of scientific research about potential life elsewhere in the universe. “If we suddenly have that information, if that’s a threat theologically, then maybe now is the right time to be talking about it so you’re ready for the answer.”
However, I’m deeply skeptical that the same people who dismiss the slam-dunk safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and who claim mandated vaccines and even masks are an usurpation of their God-given liberty will ever be ready to accept that they’re not the only cosmic beings “made in God’s image” — even if proven true.
We can always hope their kids or maybe great-grandkids will be ready, though.