How Would Religion Respond to Extraterrestrials? A Thought Experiment

It has now been almost two weeks since the press conference in Guizhou, China announcing that a recurring radio broadcast which appeared to be coming from NGC 6809 (a globular cluster located in the night sky near the constellation Sagittarius) is not a natural phenomenon.

We now know there is intelligence that is not human in the far reaches of our galaxy. You could swear that dusk over the massive dome of St. Peter’s is somehow different, but it still looks the same as on any other sweltering, humid December day in Rome.

The pulse—a continuous “beeping” out of a sequence of prime numbers (1,3,5,7,11,13….)—was first detected back in November at the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (or FAST), and then independently by other observatories worldwide

And now we find ourselves marking the opening of the so-called “Vatican IV” —an unprecedented ecumenical gathering of religious leaders invited to Rome by Pope Francis III. The rumor is that the pope will release one of the most hastily written and yet most significant papal encyclicals in the history of the Church, “Of Extraterrestrial Life.”

Observers note the arrival in Rome of everyone from Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese-picked leader of Tibetan Buddhism to the Grand Dastoor of the Persian Zoroastrian Republic, as well as representatives from the World Council of Churches. There are even rumors that “anti”-Pope Pius XV of the American Catholic Church may arrive later this week from Rio de Janeiro, fueling speculation of a rapprochement after decades of schism. 

The U.S. Ecumenical Church has remained cautious, issuing platitudes about how the discovery magnifies our understanding of creation. Citizens of the Christian Republic of Texas have taken the broadcast as a sign of the long-overdue apocalypse. Meanwhile, the Head Dawkins of the English Secular Atheist Community has announced that the “…discovery of alien life once-and-for-all disproves the idea of a creator god.”

But Christians are left wondering whether the papal encyclical will explain how the crucifixion of Christ redeemed the Sagittarians, or whether they had need of their own “alien Christ.”

For the next few days at least the Vatican remains silent while that corner of the night sky near NGC 6809 is still pulsing out prime numbers.

–Rome, December, 2055


The article that may one day be written about religious responses to E.T. will of course bear little resemblance to the fiction above. But, religion aside, the possibility of confirming alien life is less remote than you might think.

On May 21, 2014, Dan Werthimer, scientific director of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Life) at UC Berkeley testified before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that “the universe is likely to be teeming with primitive life,” something substantiated by NASA’s announcement on September 28 that Mars has liquid water.

As exciting as that possibility may be, Werthimer went on to note that SETI is not in the business of finding primitive life, but rather in using radio telescopes to try and discover evidence of advanced alien civilizations. Noting the existence of billions of stars in our galaxy, with billions of galaxies within the universe, he explained the overwhelming statistical likelihood of alien life existing somewhere.

The past few years have seen scientists discover hundreds of exoplanets outside of our solar system, several of which may have conditions not dissimilar to those on Earth. With continuing improvements in technology Werthimer said that “if there are signals from other civilizations, Earthlings will eventually be capable of detecting them.”

Werthimer’s SETI colleague Seth Shostak is even more certain about humanity’s chances of confirming the existence of alien life, stating that “we’ll find E.T. within two dozen years.”

We can only imagine the theological paradigm shift this kind of discovery would demand. Think of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system, or Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. The confirmation that alien life evolved elsewhere—especially if it is conscious and intelligent life—would pose certain an enormous challenge to any theology that emphasizes the special nature of humanity.

Recently, Chris Bodenner hypothesized in The Atlantic that unusual light detected from the star KIC 8462852 (which has so far been unexplained by astronomers) may be the result of a “Dyson sphere,” a hypothetical massive dome which a super-advanced alien civilization could construct around a sun to harness all of its energy.

If you believe commentators in some of the more esoteric corners of the internet, KIC 8462852 may indicate we’re about to confirm alien life’s existence rather soon. What makes this case different is some scientists have cautiously implied the same thing. What Hamlet said to Horatio is true—it does seem that there are more things in heaven than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Or as the royal astronomer Sir Martin Rees has offered: “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive.”

How then can we conceive of the changes such radical discoveries might manifest in religion?

I’m going to bet that religion is not going to disappear. If anything, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence might look a bit like the sixteenth century, when Europeans first began to grapple with the fact that the western hemisphere contained two massive continents with millions of inhabitants.

But, as to specifics: how could Christians maintain the special election of humanity or the singular sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a universe with innumerable alien intelligences? How could Judaism hold to the covenantal uniqueness of the Jews? How would Islam explain why the Qu’ran was entrusted only to humans?

For help thinking these and other questions, I reached out to Dr. Owen Gingerich, emeritus professor of Astronomy and the History of Science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (self-described as from a “very long Mennonite tradition”). In an email he emphasized that “there would be a real cacophony of voices from atheists to evangelists to popes weighing in on this, with lots of fresh ideas that would cause a lot of rethinking—note that these would be local, human responses….”

Among specifically theological topics that would need re-thinking: soteriology (the understanding of salvation), eschatology (the study of the end of the world) and the status of revealed scripture.

Fr. George Coyne S.J., the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy and the former director of the Vatican Observatory’s research group based in Tucson writes: “’original sin’ is an essential element in the theologians view of the relationship of humans to God. Did our extra-terrestrials sin in this way? God freely chose to redeem human beings from their sin. Did he do this also for extra-terrestrials?”

And Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, the emeritus director of the Vatican Observatory asks, rhetorically: “Is there a sort of ‘cosmic Adam’ predating even life on Earth? Is Jesus Christ’s redemptive sacrifice sufficient for the whole Universe? Would there be a parallel history of salvation on other planets?… Would ET planets be seen as mission territories? Would you baptize an alien? For that matter … would you ordain an alien?”

Via email, Farouk El-Baz, Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and the NASA geologist who selected the landing sites for the Apollo missions, as well as Anwar Sadat’s former science adviser, told me that “the reaction of Muslim communities would be just like that of any others. I would assume that it would be a mixture of astonishment, bewilderment and fascination…. what we might discover ‘out there’ would only be an addition to the wondrous life on the Earth.”

While many religious thinkers would embrace the challenge and excitement of such an event, others would likely double-down and reject the scientific evidence—as with the persistence of creationism, for example.

It’s possible that some would argue that aliens are demons, or some sort of supernatural phenomenon. We might see an increase in membership in so-called “UFO cults” which may view the aliens (especially if they are technologically superior) as figures of veneration. Groups such as the Raelians (founded by a French race car driver who once opened an “Alien Embassy” in Israel) might see an uptick. There might be an influx of converts to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and so on—which could be seen to have a metaphysics and cosmology more congruent with the new world than the Abrahamic faiths.

But perhaps the best thought experiments about religion-after-first-contact come from literature.

Science-fiction authors have long been interested in the implications for both belief and the believer in a universe that is less empty than it first seems.

Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow recounts the horrific journey of Fr. Emilio Sandoz in the year 2019 to the planet Rakhat, and the United Nations inquest which follows his return in 2059. As Sandoz tragically discovers his mission is based on a very human and very flawed misinterpretation of the extraterrestrial culture.

Dutch novelist Michael Faber takes a similar subject in his 2014 work The Book of Strange New Things which follows a British missionary who travels to the planet Oasis. The missionary quickly discovers the impossibility of translating the metaphorical and allegorical nature of religious faith to alien beings who have never seen, for example, a fish.

One of the most moving stories about religion and science is Arthur C. Clarke’s“The Star,” published in 1956. The protagonist is Jesuit priest who is also a scientist, on an interstellar expedition which discovers the remnants of a civilization destroyed millennia before in a supernova. Clarke recounts the priest’s deep faith, his interactions with the atheistic crew of the ship, and also his profound trust in science. They discover that before the alien culture’s annihilation, they created an ark which contained the totality of their society—a supremely peaceful and artistically creative civilization. But when calculating the date of the star’s explosion, the Jesuit makes a terrible discovery.

In despair the priest cries out: “God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”

Whether this story is an atheist parable, or a meditation on the vulnerability of faith, it brings the question of religion’s encounter with extraterrestrials into sharp focus. Like those religious thinkers who have addressed the possibility of alien intelligence, Clarke here seems to suggest that the questions can be as important as the answers. And it is in these questions that we embrace both mystery and wonder—the awe that religion and science share.