Religion and Life on Mars (Again)

Religion and Life on Mars (Again) November 27, 2019

First, the news that an entomologist claims to have spotted insects on Mars. Take a look at the images and judge for yourselves.

Now, for a recent IO9 article:

What about implications for religions? Would finding alien life cause a mass crisis of faith?

“Unfortunately, I’ve spent years working through these questions,” said Weintraub. “My 2014 book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life, is devoted entirely to how religions of the world would react. The short answer is that some already believe in ET (e.g., Mormonism, Bahá’í ), some simply assume such life likely (Hinduism, Buddhism), some think that ET is God’s business, not ours (Judaism), and some (mostly conservative Christian denominations) would have big problems.”

Since certain religious groups already deny the veracity of dinosaur fossils, however, it’s not a stretch to imagine that they would also refute any evidence of alien life.

What would your reaction be? That of your religious community if you have one? I think there will be denial of such a discovery, and it may not all come from religions. I also expect the denial to overlap largely with other forms of science denial, in particular young-earth creationism. Proponents of Intelligent Design might point to it as evidence in support of their own stance – just as they also cite the lack of evidence of life elsewhere as purportedly proof that life cannot begin or evolve significantly through natural processes and thus requires a Designer/Tinkerer. Viewpoints that cannot be falsified will incorporate new information in some way, but whether in this particular instance they will deny the validity of the discovery (as they do with some science) or accept it and point to it as proof they are right (as they do with other science) is anyone’s guess.

Again, what do you think will happen in various groups if conclusive evidence of the existence of life elsewhere in the universe is discovered? What possible responses can you imagine that might buck preconceptions and stereotypes about those groups?

These are not new questions but they are worth asking again (and again) as the study of exoplanets progresses, and as we further explore Mars (looking in new places that may preserve evidence of life, and making new discoveries whose current mysteries will eventually lead to new understanding), as well as efforts to giver closer study to other planets within our own solar system.


Religion and Aliens: How Extraterrestrial Life Might Affect Religious Beliefs

The website for NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover

Also of related interest, I am struck by the use of a screenshot from the movie Knowing in this blog post about aliens and angels, with apparently no awareness that the movie includes a famous depiction of Ezekiel’s vision, indicating the influence of the thought of writers like Erich von Daniken and the ancient aliens phenomenon on the movie. See also:

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  • John MacDonald

    I think if extraterrestrial life was found, this would bolster the theological position. As it stands, the universe looks like it is optimally constituted to generate black holes and is hostile to life, just as you would expect if there was no divine guiding hand.

    • Gary

      If found, even just bacteria, I think it means life is common, given the right circumstances. But I think both secular and theological arguments can be made to justify its commonality. So not a positive or negative for either.

      • John MacDonald

        Apparently the entomologist mentioned above by James didn’t read that self-professed expert in everything Richard Carrier ran the math and concluded:

        “I think it’s extremely improbable we’ll find life on Mars … [and that such hopes are] naive enthusiasm.” see:

        Of course, the other possibility is that Carrier is so methodologically deluded by his interpretation and application of Bayes that he is groundlessly inferring probabilities like he does in “On The Historicity of Jesus” …

        • Gary

          “Why Life Must Be Complex,
          (and Thus Won’t Be On Mars)”…
          I think he never actually gets around to answering his own question. Perhaps he just picked the wrong title. Or I am taking the text of his title too literally. He should rename the title something like “Probabilities of Simple, Complex, and Advanced Life”. And ditch the secular/theological implications. But I don’t bother reading him anyway, except when you reference his articles. I think I need to get a life 🙂

          • John MacDonald

            Gary said “I think I need to get a life.”

            I’m sure you have a life!

            We all have different ‘pastimes,’ “pass the time” in different ways. I find it interesting that we need to pass the time at all. I don’t think there’s a right way to do it. Nietzsche said:

            “Against boredom even gods struggle in vain.” (The Anti Christ, Chapter 48)

            “It is common to scare away boredom by every means, just as it is common to work without pleasure. (The Gay Science : First Book, 42. Work and Boredom).”

            Nietzsche said this stretching out of time in boredom (which the German word for boredom conveys) lies hidden at the core of who we are, but can be coaxed to the surface in separation from novelty, like the “withdrawal symptoms” produced in a child’s fidgety Time Out, or Cabin Fever. Being-human can be interpreted as a kind of being-addicted to beings (something that ‘is’ in some way or other) and novelty. But it all depends on whether we interpret this phenomenon as restlessness, or rather as a joyous surplus of energy. Nietzsche comments that:

            (1) “Only the highest and most active animals are capable of being bored. The boredom of God on the seventh day of Creation would be a subject for a great poet. (Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human : The Wanderer and His Shadow, 56. INTELLECT AND BOREDOM.”

            (2) “He who fortifies himself completely against boredom fortifies himself against himself too. He will never drink the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring. (Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human : The Wanderer and His Shadow, 200. THE SOLITARY SPEAKS).” In a letter to Overbeck, Nietzsche commented that:

            (3) “terrible rain the last several days, everyone’s suffering cabin fever – that is the way it is in this isolated place. Only I don’t share it since I am busy thinking about and finishing my new work [the third Untimely Meditation]. Engaged in that, one lives in a different place where one doesn’t have anything to do with rain any more.” KGB 11.3 382

            A great Sci Fi example of this is the Star Trek Voyager episode where the Q continuum Philosopher Quinn (a god-like being) wants to commit suicide because he has been devastated by the boredom of having been everything and done everything countless times.

            We can see this, what Nietzsche calls Eternal Recurrence where we encounter beings “as though” we have encountered them countless times before, and hence lost their luster (luster being what the Greeks understood as presence), such as when the once passionate relation to a love fades, or like we can demonstrate by playing a favorite song over and over again until it becomes annoying.

          • Gary

            Older generation syndrome. Guilty wasting time blogging (viewed as a junior high school age activity), instead of spending productive time actually reading a book (with actual paper pages, not damn electronic displays, software driven).

  • I’ve never really gotten why ET life would be a (theological) threat to Christianity. Maybe to particularly virulent forms of the doctrine of original sin.

  • What would your reaction be? That of your religious community if you have one?

    That depends largely on the kind of alien life discovered. I don’t think non-intelligent life would have much effect on my religious beliefs. If we found intelligent life that we could communicate with, much would depend on what the aliens said and how it relates to religion. We can imagine (1) intelligent aliens sharing religious beliefs with humans, (2) intelligent aliens having religious beliefs that are different than humans, or (3) intelligent aliens with no religious beliefs at all.

    I think there will be denial of such a discovery, and it may not all come from religions.

    Let’s keep in mind that evidence for alien life may be of varying quality. Someone denying the evidence for insects on Mars linked to above is not on par with someone denying the evidence for the roundness of the earth.

    Proponents of Intelligent Design might point to it as evidence in support of their own stance – just as they also cite the lack of evidence of life elsewhere as purportedly proof that life cannot begin or evolve significantly through natural processes and thus requires a Designer/Tinkerer.

    What predictions do proponents of intelligent design make about alien life (if it exists)? What predictions do proponents of naturalistic evolution make about alien life (if it exists)? I suspect neither party has hard predictions that they believe would falsify their position if proven incorrect. I don’t hold that against them because I don’t think we know enough about natural history to make definite predictions.

  • fractal

    The way humans treat animals gives us an indication of how we would deal with aliens.