Extraterrestrial evangelism?

Extraterrestrial life is a fact. Aliens do exist. You heard it here.

Well, okay, let me qualify that: we’re virtually certain they exist.

This week, BBC had an article describing eight new planets which might harbor life: in fact, they’ve dubbed one of them the “most Earth-like alien world” yet.

Actually, this isn’t really news: astronomers have guestimated there are trillions of planets in the universe which could support life: half a billion in our own galaxy alone. This latest announcement just moves some of them from the hypothetical column to the actual column, and volleys one of them to the top of the list as a candidate for us to start exchanging emails with.

The reasoning goes like this. Life as we know it can only exist on a planet orbiting within a very narrow range of distances from a star, which they call the ‘habitable zone’. For example, Mars is just a little too far from the sun and is borderline too cold, while Venus is just a little too close and therefore too hot. Earth, on the other hand, is just the right distance from the sun to support life like ours.

Our many telescopes, satellites and space probes have shown us that there are at least a gajillion stars out there. We would suspect that some of those could have one or more planets, and as time goes on, we’re collecting the evidence needed to put check marks beside some of them. If only a small percentage of those planets are in the habitable zone, then, well, one percent of a gajillion is still quite a lot. Hey, we’re among friends: let’s call it trillions.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account forms of life completely different from our own … ones not based on carbon molecules, or not needing solar energy or warmth, or possibly not even having material / physical bodies.

But none of that means those planets necessarily have life on them. It only sets the stage for the possibility of life. Actually, many stages. What exactly is the probability? So far, we only have “an n of one“. (that’s what scientists say when they mean “we threw the dice once and came up with lucky seven!“) The first and only planet we know to be found in a habitable zone … Earth … has life on it. Anecdotal evidence.

But adherents of evolutionary theory will maintain that if the conditions are right, there is some statistical possibility that inert chemicals on any planet can assemble into some kind of primitive life form. And once you have that, the sky’s the limit. Anything’s possible.

This is where fact and faith encounter each other. I’ve blogged previously and wrote a whole chapter in my book explaining why atheists might be exercising just as much faith as theists. As a case in point, let me quote from George Wald, winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: “Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the ‘impossible’ becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.” The first time I read that, I had to pick myself off the floor after a laughing fit. Who says atheists don’t have faith? Richard Dawkins is noted for many similar faith statements.

So there we have it: we can now be “virtually certain” that life exists out there.

Not that we have any reason to be too worried about any encounter of the third kind. Those stars with their orbiting planets are light years away. If aliens from that leading candidate I referred to above in the BBC article were intelligent enough to build a rocket that could reach the speed of light, it would still take almost 500 years to get here. On the other hand, if their space travel was only as good as the best we can do … the Helios space probe which reached 240,000 km/h (Rosetta, the probe we heard a lot about last year, only reached 30,000 km/h) … it would still take over two million years to get to us.

And that’s assuming that the alien life became intelligent enough to develop that kind of technology in the first place. In the past 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history, how many of our own life forms have developed that kind of technology? One. Out of an estimated 8.7 million species currently accounted for, not including those that went extinct or that haven’t yet been discovered. So another highly unlikely event.

A few months ago, CBC interviewed the emeritus Harvard professor Andrew O. Wilson about his thoughts on “ET”. He gave many scientific reasons to justify his predictions of what they would look like, their physiology, and what they might do (and not do). It’s a fun read if you like the idea of applying hard-core science to a very hypothetical topic. You might be reassured by one thing he felt strongly about: they wouldn’t colonize Earth (read the article to get his explanation).

So, how would you respond if you found out Klingons or ET were indeed known, verifiable facts?

Would it stir up the kind of hysteria generated by Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (perhaps you only know of Hollywood’s 2005 version of this story, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning). Rumors had it that people chose suicide, or at least that some prevented attempted suicides. None of those rumors were substantiated, but no one can deny there was mass panic and fear.

Or are you more like Mel Gibson’s daughter in Signs, when she says to her father after being woken up by an alien invader in her bedroom: “Dad, there’s a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?

Or do you embrace this possibility the same way Jodie Foster’s character did in Contact? (for me, one of the best movies to address the faith versus science debate, and in it they deal with all kinds of theological issues on this subject).

A while ago I came across an article which talked about how various world religions might deal with the existence of ET. It’s a very short and interesting read, although I felt their comments about Evangelical Christianity were far from flattering. Not at all representative of my own Christian views, nor those of many other of my fellow believers. But apparently those comments did resonate with at least one other reader of that article, who commented that aliens, if they exist, would all be going to hell because they would have been born in original sin (“everything is tainted by the sin of Adam“) but being aliens, they wouldn’t have access to the Gospel.


The article also claimed that Evangelicals could not tolerate the existence of aliens because “humans … are the singular focus of God’s creative attention …“. (That same kind of egocentric arrogance gave us the belief that the solar system revolves around the Earth, and that humans are the pinnacle species of evolution [according to some atheists] or the crown of creation [according to some theists]). My own view is the same as that of Jodie Foster’s character in Contact: “The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space.

Would aliens out there have their own religion? I blogged last week about how religion is a thoroughly intrinsic characteristic of humans, like language and tool making. Or would we end up bringing that to them, the way Europeans did to other races when they explored Earth’s continents? Did you know we have a Bible for Klingons? I kid you not.

Finally, a few paragraphs up I mentioned Andrew O. Wilson and his very carefully reasoned thoughts on ET. One other thing he said caught my attention: he felt certain they would be moral creatures. Referring to the forces of natural selection, group competition and altruism, he predicted they would be more akin to angels than to demons. Interesting.

The fact remains that if there were some kind of alien life form that had developed to the point of being able to traverse the distances across our galaxy, it would be far, far, far more advanced than ourselves. Compared to them, we would appear like amoeba. Or looking at it from the other end of the telescope: compared to us, they would seem like gods.

It makes me wonder, then, why some atheists can be so convinced there is no God, and yet be so comfortable with the idea of alien life which might some day interact with our own. Why/how can they say something like: “I believe in the letter ‘a’, and the letter ‘b’, and the letter ‘c’, and … all the way up to the letter ‘y’. But I just can’t or won’t believe the letter ‘z’“?



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5 thoughts on “Extraterrestrial evangelism?

  1. I think many atheists find alien life easy to accept because it follows from natural law as we know it. Supernatural beings do not. So it’s not a matter of believing in a b and c but not in z. It’s a matter of believing in a b and c but not in blue. It’s something completely and categorically different.


    • I hear what you’re saying. But here’s the thing. Let’s compare the images of aliens that many atheists can accept with the images of God that many theists can accept, but first do some filtering.

      First, let’s “paint a picture” of God after removing a lot of the cultural baggage (yes, theists will want to push the description further in all kinds of ways, but let’s keep it in the center). Can operate in multiple dimensions. Exceeds the limits of time. Love. Moral. Wants to interact with us. Vast intelligence. Powers beyond our understanding. Et cetera. These are things that all theists, not just Christians, can agree on. (again, they’ll have to fight the temptation to say “yes, but he’s more than that” … that’s a discussion for a different day).

      Next, let’s paint a picture of the kinds of aliens that were capable of stopping in on earth. Here, I’m going to filter out those images in which the aliens came to invade, capture, kill, destroy … once you’ve read Andrew O Wilson’s interview and thought about it, I think you’ll agree that beings capable of interstellar travel have no need for any of that. These would operate in multiple dimensions. Do incredibly powerful and amazing things. Vast intelligence. Inquisitive, and would want to interact with life forms like Homo sapiens. One can debate how/whether to use words like love and morality, but learned atheists like Andrew Wilson and Hollywood interpretations like “Contact” and “Star Wars” (“… use the force, Luke …”) certainly push the picture in those directions.

      Do those two pictures really look all that different? If anything, you’ve got the picture of ‘y’ and the picture of ‘z’, right?

      I just wish we all could resist the temptation to distort those pictures by overemphasizing hell, sin and destruction on the one hand, and invasion, capture, and destruction on the other hand.

      Terms like “supernatural” are misleading because they too bring in baggage. The term doesn’t have to mean “the JudeoChristian image of Yahweh”. It really only means “beyond our normal understanding” … beyond the natural laws of science as we currently understand them. In that sense, people flying through the air was supernatural until we understood aerodynamics. Communicating with people on the other side of the world was supernatural until we built radios. I could keep going, but I think you’ll get my idea.


      • I do get what you’re saying, but I suppose it depends on how you define “god”. I think most atheists really have a problem with god being incorporeal, immortal, conscious, and able to break the laws of physics at will. If your conception of god does not involve any of those things, but simply a highly advanced physical being, then I don’t think most atheists would find that hard to conceive. However, I do not know a single Christian who conceives of god as a physical creature with a beginning and end. That’s more the ancient greek conception of gods. If you view god as incorporeal, immortal, and able to alter natural law at will (even ignoring such things as hell or sin) then we have a problem. On the other hand, if we are referring to advanced mortal, physical life and civilization, then we have no reason to invoke the loaded term “gods”. We can simply call it “life”, even if it is very advanced, much like we consider both ourselves and cockroaches “life”… just different and more advanced manifestations of the same thing.

        The issue is that, if advanced extraterrestrial life exists, then we already know the basic laws that would permit its development. Certainly, we do not know exactly how such life would arise and evolve, but the basics are there. On the other hand, we have no such way of explaining the existence of a non-corporeal, immortal, conscious, law-breaking being. This, of course, does not mean such a thing does not exist. But it does mean that an atheist would have no reason to accept such a hypothesis, while the hypothesis of physical, mortal, physical-law-abiding life forming on other planets is much more plausible. I don’t think they can really be compared. Does that make sense?


  2. Just to be clear, my concept of God isn’t limited to the first ‘picture’ referred to in my first response above. I do believe much more, including the attributes you mentioned (non-corporeal, immortal, conscious, law-breaking). I was just emphasizing there that the basic descriptions that all theists and atheists could agree to are not all that far apart from each other (just like ‘z’ is just a little bit further than ‘y’), and asking what stops atheists from taking it one step further.

    As for these attributes which some find difficult (“impossible”?) to comprehend and/or accept, I’d like to copy/paste a short section from my book … “Flatland” is a hypothetical world of only two spatial dimensions: forward-backward and left-right. The third spatial dimension … up-down … has been squashed down to insignificance. The only way to move around in Flatland is to go left or right or forward or backward, but always within the 2-dimensional plane. But along comes Luke Janssen, a being that operates in three spatial dimensions, including the up-down axis. Imagine I extend my finger down ‘out of the heaven’ into Flatland: all of a sudden my finger appears in Flatland like a little circle that grows in circumference as I extend my finger deeper through their plane of reality. Out of thin air, I just suddenly appear to them, albeit only in the form of an expanding circle. And when I pull my finger back, I become a shrinking circle and then just as suddenly disappear (from their perspective). Next I re-extend all four fingers and my thumb into Flatland, and from their perspective, I suddenly re-appear, but now there are five of me that suddenly appear out of thin air in Flatland! And though they appear as five distinct and completely separate manifestations of me, they know somehow that all five are the same person. Five persons in one — a “quintity”? I could belabor this analogy, but I hope by now you get the point. From my three spatial dimension experience, I can do things that Flatlanders can’t comprehend. Think of the possibilities if there were a Being who could operate in all the dimensions of the universe, when physicists tell us there are at least 10 dimensions (six of which have been squashed down to insignificance).


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