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Alien Religion

Via Geekpress, Catholic scholars are tossing around some interesting questions:

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?

and

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.

buddha.jpg a2.jpgIf 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.

Comments

I, for one, will be quite disturbed if we encounter other intelligent races in the cosmos. As a believer in a revelational religion (Christian to be precise) I would have expected scripture to have provided some kind of warning prior to such a world shattering, or at least, world-view shattering event. While not denying the possibility of ET, I just think that we will never meet them even if they exist.

Tob

"Some of their religions may look strikingly similar to some of ours"

I'm reminded of this scene from "Enemy Mine:"

Davidge: "If one receives evil from another, let one not do evil in return. Rather, let him extend love to the enemy, that love might unite them." I've heard all this before... in the human Taalmaan.

Jeriba Shigan 'Jerry' (Drac): Of course you have. Truth is truth.

I wouldn't be surprised if there was a redemption-based religion much like Christianity within (or within the history of) an alien civilization.

We have only one model of sentient self-aware people to extrapolate from, so of course this is just a guess. But it just seems obvious that an intelligent race would be able to visualise the ideal, note how they are deficient from that ideal, and then seek redemption through some form of sacrifice. Religions like that were found all over the world in ancient times.

The once-for-all-time sacrifice of a messiah figure is the logical progression of that.

We could expect the details to be different. Things like the virgin birth, miracles, second comings, and even the existance of an after-life might all be quite different.

Something like Buddhism, with or without some of the details of reincarnation, would also seem to me to be an obvious path for the religious evolution of a spiritual civilization.

There might also be some rather uncomfortable hybrids.

If we were to come into contact with an alien civilizatin I'm sure there would be people in every religion stretching to find some commonality with alien religions.

I, for one, will be quite disturbed if we encounter other intelligent races in the cosmos. As a believer in a revelational religion (Christian to be precise) I would have expected scripture to have provided some kind of warning prior to such a world shattering, or at least, world-view shattering event. While not denying the possibility of ET, I just think that we will never meet them even if they exist.

Why? My take is that if we had a sensitive enough receiver, pointed in the right direction, we would already know of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, perhaps even in our galaxy. Ie, why only one intelligent race in a bowl, 13 billion light years across? Besides, I imagine that it won't be hard to find evidence for ETs after the fact. The scriptures are easy to reinterprete.

Second, I'm not confident that an alien species will or won't be multicultural. After all, look at the massive decline in the diversity of languages in the past century alone. Most of the human race can speak at least one of a few very prevalent languages. A very few cultures dominate huge portions of the human population.

My take is that this process might eliminate most human culture over a few millenia unless something (ie, space travel) occurs to create new diversity again.

Even if I'm completely wrong, it is possible that most cultures will never leave Earth. So we might end up with an extremely diverse homeworld and a space-faring civilization that is far less diverse in culture.

Phil Bowermaster said:
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.

I enjoy these speculative conversations as much as anyone, but, with all due respect, to predict anything about what "we will likely find" regarding the philosophical and religious feelings of any intelligent extraterrestrial organisms is to assume a whole lot.

I guess it seems a little bit like us wondering what an alien species' favorite color will be. Idiots might guess that aliens will like blue, or red, or black or whatever. With a little more thought, it occurs to one that they should have a diversity of opinions about colors, just as we do. In fact, we don't have any reason to think that they percieve color AT ALL. And I don't mean "our colors." I mean, even *if* they percieve some bandwidths of light in some way, their way of interacting with the world may not involve "vision." Even if we could communicate verbally, we might have an extremely difficult time explaining just what "color" is or why anyone might have a favorite.

The reality is that, even when you understand that real aliens almost certainly won't look like humans (with cranial ridges), you're not done deparochializing your viewpoint.

Let alone God/Spirit/Divine Magic/Creatorism, we don't even know if they are capable of belief in things like:

- heirarchy

- reality/unreality

- personal pain or desire

- the future

- morality

- decision

- us

To put it bluntly, we don't know if our hypothetical aliens believe . . . at all.

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