VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Galaxy-gazing scientists surely wonder about what kind of impact finding life or intelligent beings on another planet would have on the world.
But what sort of effect would it have on Catholic beliefs? Would Christian theology be rocked to the core if science someday found a distant orb teeming with little green men, women or other intelligent forms of alien life? Would the church send missionaries to spread the Gospel to aliens? Could aliens even be baptized? Or would they have had their own version of Jesus and have already experienced his universal or galactic plan of salvation?
So does E.T. have a soul?
And if we encounter aliens, what does that say about humanity, our place in the universe, our relationship with God? Will aliens have their own religions? Do human believers have the same duty to share their religious beliefs with aliens as they do with fellow humans?
Those are the kinds of questions that Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer and member of staff of the Vatican Observatory, wanted to address when he recently authored a 48-page booklet on the religious implications of discovering extraterrestrial life. Entitled Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, the booklet deals with the questions that Brother Consolmagno often encounters when talking to Catholic groups about his work with the observatory.
A man whose job title includes the words "Vatican" and "astronomer" can only expect to have such questions thrown at him. But should the day ever come that we actually do encounter an extraterrestrial civilization, these questions will take on a significance that far transcends the occasional post-lecture bull session amongst a few catholic astronomy buffs. Suddenly, everyone will be asking them.
There are those who would argue that the first and most important questions we should ask an alien civilization are:
Do you believe in God?
What do you believe about God?
Others might argue that our first questions to the extraterrestrials should be about science rather than theology. Or maybe the questions should be even more practical than that: Are you friendly? Do you mean to kill us or enslave us? Did we mention that we have nukes?
But irrespective of the order, it's clear that inquiries into the spiritual lives of our friends from the stars will be of universal interest. What might we expect to learn about them, and from them?
To begin with, the question of whether aliens have souls is a non-starter. If they are intelligent, sentient beings, they get the same presumptive metaphysical accoutrements as we. In other words, if you tend to think that humans have souls, chances are you'll extend that to aliens. If you think that we don't, then you'll almost certainly think that they don't, either. Yes, a few fundamentalists will insist that we have souls and they don't, and a few total flakes will insist that they do and we don't -- but the overall debate about the existence of the soul will be largely unaltered.
If and when we encounter aliens, we will likely find that they have several religions, as well as competing non-religious and anti-religious modes of thought. The science fiction commonplace of mono-cultural alien races -- like the geographically homogenous desert, swamp, and ice planets these beings hail from -- seem improbable. Alien civilizations are likely to enjoy (or endure) the same intra-species diversity of cultural expression as we do, including religion. Some of their religions may look strikingly similar to some of ours, at least at first glance, while others will look completely unlike anything ever believed or practiced on Earth. In any case, it's doubtful that we will find an exact match between any two.
Those who want to find confirmation of their religion via alien religions will find it; those who want to find a refutation of all religion through the differences will find that. Very likely some new interplanetary variety of syncretism will emerge -- Whom we call Zipxonfyr-Abtl, you call Buddha -- that sort of thing.
From reading their history, we will discover that they count certain religious leaders among the most influential members of their species and contributors to their civilization. Religion itself will have had a long and spotty history: nurturing the loftiest of ideals in one place and time and sanctioning atrocities in another. One day a tool of oppression plied by tyrants and scoundrels, the next day a tool of liberation used to smash the oppressors' chains. Here the friend of learning, there it's enemy.
In other words, meeting aliens will teach us exactly nothing about religion or about ourselves; nothing, that is, that we shouldn't already know.