Editor's Note: Below is an edited transcript of the Veritas Riff podcast. The podcast is embedded below, and the transcript follows. For more information on the series, and for other installments, go to veritasriff.org.
The Veritas Riff is a group of friends who combine deep faith with world-class expertise in subjects ranging from politics, science, culture, business, medicine, and more. They offer their informal take on the big questions facing us all. I'm the host of the Veritas Riff, Curtis Chang.
For centuries, humans have asked whether life exists on other planets. In the last decade or so, astrophysicists have made actual progress in answering that question. As more exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—are discovered, the chances of locating extraterrestrial life rises. But how would the discovery of extraterrestrial life impact religion, and particularly Christianity?
Today we're talking to an expert uniquely suited to address this topic. Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer and expert on star and planet formation tackles these and other questions. She's also the director of the Dialogue of Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association of the Advancement of Science.
Jennifer, where are we headed with this current pace of discovery? Is science on track to discover the presence of extraterrestrial life any time soon?
My personal opinion is that if we get the support we need in the next twenty years to build more sophisticated telescopes, we'll find several planets that are earth-sized, perhaps in our neighborhood of stars, that support atmospheres similar to earth's atmosphere. I don't think that's enough time to do what we would like to do, which is actually to find incontrovertible biomarkers, as we call them. A biomarker is a chemical signature in a planet's atmosphere that is a telltale sign of life. I think there will be so much ambiguity at first that we won't be able to say such a thing.
Now, if you ask me about fifty years instead of twenty, then I would say at that point we should have a great inventory, including all the spectroscopic studies, of hundreds of neighboring stars, including a detailed study of their atmospheres, and we should be able to say whether or not there's at least simple life on those planets. And now I'm getting into my true speculation, but I really believe there's a chance we'll find a signature of simple, single-cellular-type life somewhere out there. If Earth is as abundantly full of life as we think it is, then I have to think that other planets could be the same.
Take off your astronomer hat for a moment and speak to me as a scientist who happens to be a Christian. If we got the news flash that there is intelligent life out there, how do you imagine that would impact Christian thought?
I imagine two steps in the Christian response. The first has to do with the idea that creation is good. That's set forth clearly for both Jews and Christians in scripture. Creation is a good thing, and God has created abundant life. Now, "created" could include evolutionary processes, but the point is that since God is the author of all of it, whatever is there is good.
So, with that theology when we see the abundance of life flourishing on this planet, we could simply broaden our view of God to include life elsewhere. If God is the author of life on countless other worlds, it increases our sense of wonder and appreciation.
The second step is this. In Christian thought, humans have a problem in their personal relationships with God. We're separated from God by our own sin, we need restoration of that personal relationship, and that restoration has been provided by God becoming human. God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and walked the surface of the earth, guided us, and then died and rose again. That restored our relationship with God.