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The Astrobiological Delusion Regarding the Future of Religion

Returning to the ETI myth within astrobiology, we note how it includes a prediction about the demise of terrestrial religion, especially Christianity. The conventional wisdom among those who look at terrestrial religion from the outside is this: if we gain conclusive knowledge that we are not alone in the universe, this will shatter all current religious belief systems. Ancient beliefs in the God of Israel and other beliefs in personal gods will be crushed under the weight of new cosmic knowledge. Why does it appear that our religious traditions are so fragile? Because, allegedly, our inherited religious traditions are terrestrial, earthbound, parochial, narrow, and atavistic. This is quite a set of assumptions, but we find them at work within the worldview of many astrobiologists.

The prevailing logic seems to go like this: once we speculate about life on other planets, then the Christian faith looks ridiculous. Once we make contact, the Christian faith will collapse. This is the logic of SETI scientist, Jill Tarter, for example, who constructs an entire scenario based upon the Drake equation. Although to date no contact of any sort with extraterrestrial intelligent life has occurred, Tarter can imagine myriads of planets teeming with living beings. All will have evolved. And, if some got a start earlier than we on earth, they will have evolved further. Their technology will have progressed; and they may even have a technology sufficiently advanced to communicate with us. Further, she imagines that these extraterrestrial societies will have achieved a high degree of social harmony so as to support this advanced technology. And, still further, if they have developed their own religion, it too will be more advanced than the religions we have on earth. Or, more likely, the “long-lived extraterrestrials either never had, or have outgrown, organized religion” (Tarter, 2000, p.146). We can forecast, then, that contact between earth and ETIL will necessitate either the end of our inherited religious traditions or a new incorporation of a more universal worldview.

Steven Dick makes the same evolutionary assumptions and foresees virtually the same scenario. Earth’s ancient beliefs in a supernatural personal god just must go by the wayside. To take its place will be belief in a new God, a naturalist’s God, built right into the universe. Dick welcomes the arrival of “the concept of a natural God - a God in the universe rather than outside it” (Dick, 2000, p.202).

Now, in my judgment, such alleged conventional wisdom regarding the predicted demise of religion is misleading and unfounded. It is misleading because it commits the fallacy of false alternatives: either believe in the ancient God of Israel or believe the speculative facts about ETIL. This is a false set of alternatives, because theologians both Christian and Jewish could easily absorb new knowledge regarding extraterrestrial life. Both Christians and Jews have debated the theological implications of many worlds since the middle ages, with increased interest during the post-Reformation and post-Copernican periods. Among major contemporary theologians, only a few address the issue of ETIL, but those who do are quite comfortable at integrating possible new knowledge on the subject.Rational debate over the existence and relevance of extraterrestrial beings has imbued Christian theology since the middle ages; and it continued right down into the modern era of astronomy. "The...

These forecasts about the demise of terrestrial religion are unfounded. No evidence exists to support them. In fact, evidence to the contrary does exist. Victoria Alexander conducted a survey of U.S. clergy regarding their religious responses to extraterrestrial life. She provided clergy from Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations with a set of questions such as, would you agree that “official confirmation of the discovery of an advanced, technologically superior extraterrestrial civilization would have servere negative effects on the country’s moral, social, and religious foundations”? She tabulated her data and concluded: “In sharp contrast to the ‘conventional wisdom’ that religion would collapse, ministers surveyed do not feel their faith and the faith of their congregation would be threatened” (Alexander, 2003, p.360). The speculations by astrobiologists regarding the demise of terrestrial religion are a product of their myth, not their science.

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