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.”