What Happens to Religion When We Find Aliens?
A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Christian theologian on what life in space could mean for the spiritual
When Galileo first placed his eye to the cold metal of his telescope, he had no idea of the significance of the worlds he would discover: In a divinely orchestrated ballet, four points of light moved around the planet Jupiter. The discovery of Jupiter’s four moons meant that celestial bodies don’t solely revolve around Earth. It provided further support for the proposal that Earth was not — as many believed — the center of our universe. The discovery was so disturbing to the Christian church that Galileo was subjected to an inquisition and forced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
More than four centuries have passed since 1610, when Galileo first spotted the four moons, and our understanding of the cosmos is unprecedented by comparison. Today, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered nearly 4,000 planets orbiting around other stars. After almost 60 years of exploring — including up-close imagery by multiple spacecrafts — we now know there is water throughout the solar system. And where there is water, so might there be life.
It’s easy to imagine that a discovery of life in another world might cause an uproar among people of faith. Did God also create that life? What does it mean if the organism is not carbon-based like we are?
“This idea, that we are the main thing going on and everything revolves around us, has shaped a lot of attitudes in the monotheistic religions,” says Dr. Richard Mouw, an evangelical Christian and theologian at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Mouw is one of three religious leaders I spoke to for this column.
“The idea of life on other worlds or other planets would simply be affirmation of what Christians and Jews have always believed,” says Mouw, arguing that panic over extraterrestrial life is unwarranted. “He (God) created galaxies and all the rest of it—none of that should be shocking to us.”
“I think it would expand our appreciation of God’s universe.”
Cosmic Pluralism—the belief that many worlds, planets, moons, and even the sun could contain life—is a centuries-old philosophical belief that appeared heavily in Islam in the medieval era. The belief system is still relevant in modern Islam, says Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, an Imam and director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. “I personally don’t see any problem with life finding life on other words,” he says. “In Islam, the belief is that God created the whole universe and has taken care of everything, and every being that might exist.”
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, says Judaism also agrees with this concept. “The appreciation of God should be even greater given that we are now finding other planets, let alone all the other galaxies,” he says. “If there happens to be life on one of those other planets, then it would simply affirm God’s role in creating the universe.”
Scripture from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity say similar things about the beginning of our planet: God created the heavens and Earth in six days. And while this interpretation varies depending on the faith, all three scholars I spoke to believe this timeline is meant to serve as a metaphor. These are not human days that last 24 hours, but divine days that can range from 1,000 human days to millennia. Interpreting the texts non-literally allows room for the expansion of the universe, the birth and death of stars, planetary formation, and evolution on Earth; it also makes room for life to exist on another planetary body.
Intelligent life, however, might pose a different issue altogether.
“I think the idea of intelligent life is the real challenge because we consider ourselves fallen human beings,” says Mouw. “Jesus came to save the human beings, but what about creatures on other planets?”
Dr. Siddiqi says Islam finds no issue with intelligent life existing anywhere in the universe, except in human form. “Human beings are on Earth, and God created human beings for Earth,” he says. “So nobody [believes] that there are human beings on other planets, but other creatures or bacterial life, yes.” The Quran specifically states that humans are designed as we exist now, and created solely for Earth, says Dr. Siddiqi. This is why, he says, many Muslim people don’t accept evolution. Intelligent life, generally, could very well exist in Islam: “We know very little of the creation of God, but there is a vast kingdom,” says Siddiqi.
Rabbi Elliot says that if we are ever contacted, “I think it would expand our appreciation of God’s universe.”
“We ought to be thinking about how to educate people of faith for the very real possibility that we will discover life.”
When 84 percent of the world’s population believes in God and subscribes to a religious belief, it’s important to anticipate what people’s reactions to extraterrestrial life might look like. NASA has taken this question seriously. In 2016 the agency awarded a million dollar grant to the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, N.J. Several theologians were tasked with thinking about how finding life could affect the ways that a majority of believers, particularly Christians, will think about God. The announcement of the grant caused controversy, with critics fearing that NASA was siding with Christian beliefs and not taking into account other faiths’ views. (NASA and the Center of Theological Inquiry did not respond to my requests for an update.)
Science and religion are two parties that need to be talking, says Dr. Mouw. “We ought to be thinking about how to educate people of faith for the very real possibility that we will discover life,” he says. “We need to do the spiritual and theological and scientific education of the faith communities to get ready for that. Otherwise we’re going to end up with very vocal people in our community who are either in denial or feel somehow that their faith has been deeply threatened. Both of those are the wrong responses.”
All three major faiths have scripture to back up the possible discovery of life, intelligent or not. Maybe the secular world will have more to contend with if evidence of life is ever discovered. Or, perhaps such a discovery will answer some of humanity’s biggest questions. After all, who among us has not wondered whether we are alone in the universe?
Carl Sagan once wrote that “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” While answers remain unknown, Dr. Mouw agrees with Sagan that there is much that science and faith share. “We should not pit ourselves against the Carl Sagans of the world,” he says. “Instead, we ought to take delight in the fact that even if we disagree about the ultimate nature of reality, we share this profound sense of mystery and awe of the cosmos in which we find ourselves.”