Aristotle said life didn’t exist outside of earth because our planet was the center of the universe.* Natch. Thomas Aquinas agreed, but was careful to state that this didn’t mean that God couldn’t create life on other planets if he so desired.
Personally, if I had created a world that turned out like earth, I would want to try again. Of course, the question of extraterrestrial life is far from foolish..and very much still with us.
But the Church didn’t truck with the idea of applying reason to theological subjects. No surprise there. In the Condemnations of 1277, the Church condemned the proposition that God couldn’t create other worlds (and with its implication that life might exist elsewhere), even though that wasn’t what Aquinas was saying. In doing so, however, the Church officially sanctioned the idea of extraterrestrial life. Before that, most Christian theologians rejected the notion as pagan.
For theorists and theologians alike, that automatically brought up the question of whether creatures on other planets would be covered by the redemption. Or, would the aliens need to be redeemed separately, with Jesus hitchhiking the galaxy to be crucified over and over again, perhaps with Vogon poetry taking the place of Roman crucifixion?
The consensus among both theologians and natural philosophers of the 18th century was that extraterrestrial life was likely to exist. Natural theologians of the 19th century seized on the idea as bringing even greater glory to God. The consensus among natural theologian was that Christ’s sacrifice was enough to cover beings on other worlds. Sort of the family redemption plan, I suppose.
Then came Thomas Paine in his Age of Reason (1793), which was a royal paine in the ass to those invested in what he called the conceit of Christianity. As Paine snarkily out it,
…the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple.”
He further mocked the idea by asking if we should imagine God traipsing from one planet to the next in order to die. He told these Christian that they either had to give up believing in Christ’s universal redemption or the idea of extraterrestrial life.
By this time, we knew earth wasn’t the center of the universe, of course. In fact, we were known to reside on a nothing more than a backwater planet in an expansive solar system. And Paine pointed out that Christianity was even more insignificant in the vastness of the universe.
Still, most theologians held fast to their position. Thomas Chalmers–breakaway Scottish evangelical leader and proponent of the God of the gaps–said in Discourses on the Christian revelation viewed in connection with the modern astronomy (1851), “To argue on the plan (Christ’s redemption) being instituted for the benefit of…the species to which we belong, is a mere presumption of the infidel himself.”Thomas Dick, in his less-than-pithily titled, Celestial scenery, or, the wonders of the planetary system displayed: illustrating the perfections of deity and a plurality of worlds (1851), calculated how many redeemed aliens this would’ve entailed, including every inhabited asteroid, moon, and the rings of Saturn.
According to Dick (no, not Phillip K…and wipe that smirk off your face), Mercury had 8,968,000 inhabitants. This puts the Drake equation’s assumptions to shame.
But soon after 1850, attitudes began to change. Dialogue on the Plurality of Worlds (1853), was published anonymously in England. It argued that there could be only one savior, which was the consensus view. But it went onto say,
The Savior coming as a man to men is so essential to the [redemption] scheme…that to endeavour to transfer it to other worlds and to imagine there something analogous as existing is more repugnant to our feeling than to imagine those other worlds not to have provided any divine scheme of salvation at all.”
He was arguing that there couldn’t be life on other planets, basically agreeing with Paine that it was a conceit, but came at it from a Christian perspective.
A reviewer exposing the author said,
We scarcely expected that in the middle of the nineteenth century, a serious attempt would be made to restore the exploded idea of man’s supremacy over other creatures in the universe; and still less that such an attempt would have been made by one whose mind was stored with scientific truths. Nevertheless a champion has appeared, who boldly dares combat against all the rational inhabitants of other spheres; and though as yet he wears his visor down his dominant bearing, and the peculiar dexterity and power with which he wields his arms indicate that this knight errant of nursery notions can be no other than the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
That was William Whewell, the man who coined the term scientist. I love the huffy indignation of this Victorian takedown. The majority of published opinion opposed Whewell’s thesis, but in the religious press it was split 50/50.
There the debate stood until Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered the supposed canals of Mars in 1877, sending forth a freshly gushing stream of interest in extraterrestrial life. Sadly, the emerging science of spectroscopy soon dammed the surging enthusiasm. Mars proved to be an inhospitable environment for complex life, Marvin notwithstanding.
Mars, it appears, was one less stop on Jesus’ planet-hopping tour of death. But I have to wonder if Jesus’ redemption covered the entire Federation of Planets.
Even the Klingons?
*History and quotes drawn from the excellent Teaching Company lecture series, The History of Science: 1700-1900. Highly recommended.