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This essay has been an exploration in exotheology, a speculation on the theological implications of possible contact with ETNL or ETIL. We have found that theological speculation regarding possible contact with extraterrestrial life forms requires a critical stance regarding the science of astrobiology.

It is necessary to distinguished between the raw core of astrobiology’s search for a second genesis, on the one hand, and the cultural overlays of the ETI myth, on the other. What we find in the ETI myth is a complex speculation that projects a repeat of earth’s evolutionary history stretched out by the doctrine of progress so that ETs are imagined as beings more highly evolved than we, more advanced, and superior not only in science but in morality. These projections are most satisfying to terrestrial scientists because they paint a picture of science as our world’s savior, revealing the hidden religious dimensions built into scientific speculation. The self-congratulatory self-image of the scientist is projected onto the screen of outer space; so that the scientists’ image of themselves returns from the heavens to earth to save us. Astrobiologists have a vested interest in propagating this myth, because under the guise of inquirers they slip into the role of saviors. My theological recommendation is that we avoid believing this myth, at least with a high level of confidence, even if it is touted by some of the most respected scientists in our society.

It is my judgment that the ETI myth does not warrant confident belief for three reasons. First, the history of science on earth has been ambiguous. Even though science has brought us modern medicine which saves lives, it has brought us the atomic bomb and the terror of the nuclear arms race. No precedent exists that science on its own can heal itself and become benign let alone salvific. Second, the theory of evolution as currently employed by biologists resists the doctrine of progress. There is no built-in principle of advance. At most, one can find reason to affirm growth in complexity within biological evolution, but definitely not something we might wish to call “advance.” The idea of progress over time is an ideological import into the theory. So, to paint a picture of ETIL as more advanced in science and morality is to speculate well beyond the limits of even what the theory of evolution would permit. Third, as of yet no empirical evidence for the existence of ETIL exists. Yes, that evidence may appear in the future. At that future moment when we actually encounter ETIL, however, we may be in for some surprises. ETIL might be quite different than we expect. All this leads us to treat the ETI myth with caution, not rejecting it out of hand but recognizing that its plausibility hands on a very thin thread.

When it comes to the centuries old debate within Christian theology regarding life on other worlds, we need to address the question of whether Christian theology could absorb new knowledge regarding neighbors living in other star systems. Those who contend that the Christian worldview is too brittle or too fragile to adapt to this new knowledge underestimate the degree of adaptation that has already taken place. The theory that the Christian religion would collapse when shocked by ETIL has insufficient evidence to support it. What Christian theology can absorb is authentic scientific knowledge regarding what may or may not be the case regarding ETNL or ETIL. What theologians need to interpret is the ETI myth; and they need to interpret this myth without mistakenly thinking that myth is science.

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