View by:  Subject  Theme  Question  Term  Person  Event

Theological Reflections on ETNL

As we just said, exobiology focuses on the discovery of microbial or biologically simple forms of life, extraterrestrial unintelligent life or ETNL. Astro ethicists are concerned about exobiological contamination, actually two directional contamination. Forward contamination would consist of earth intrusion into the ecosphere of another world. By landing either a robotic probe or our own astronauts on Mars or a moon orbiting Saturn or Jupiter, the context which supports whatever life form exists might be subject to alteration, perhaps deleterious alteration. Back contamination could result from bringing life samples back to earth, altering earth’s ecosphere and perhaps poisoning some of us. Astro ethicists are busy devising preparatory principles to rely upon when the first news of ETNL breaks.

What might be the theological implications of ETNL? Margaret Race at SETI opens up this question. “If we find evidence for past or present Earth-like life on Mars, it would be extremely interesting scientifically, but less so theologically or philosophically because it could be explained as the result of dispersal between neighboring bodies; the panspermia idea would then be a strong hypothesis. If, however, Martian life were found to use a completely different biochemistry, it would be suggestive of an independent origin of life, with significant philosophical and theological implications” (Race, 2007, p. 493). Now, just what is the logic of Race’s suggestion here?

If ETNL on Mars or another neighbor within our solar system is found to be earthlike, then it would support the panspermia hypothesis. The idea of panspermia suggests that the planet earth as well as Mars was seeded with a primitive life form coming from a common source in space. The source in space is unidentified; but the hypothesis includes the assumption that all life forms both on earth and elsewhere in our solar neighborhood are kin to one another. Life on earth would be part and parcel of extraterrestrial life.

Race is hinting that continuity in life would be less challenging to traditional Western theology than discontinuity - that is, a second genesis elsewhere might be more upsetting to traditional religion than a single genesis which we earthlings share with our space neighbors. So, perhaps we should ask: if life originated independently on earth and elsewhere, would this mean a loss of significance for life on earth? Does our theology presuppose earth-centeredness and earth-life-centeredness? And would it be upset if life - even ETNL - would begin to grow without earth’s influence?

Theologian of science Robert John Russell formulates the question Race is hinting at. “If life were nowhere to be found in the universe except on earth, would this increase its significance (as with the parable of the coin) or decrease its significance (as though it were a curious anomaly)? (Russell, 2008, p.280).

It appears to me that the answer to such questions would be: finding a second genesis of ETNL or (or even ETIL) would not marginalize the significance of terrestrial life. Our confidence in God’s love for life on earth would not be compromised, just as a parent’s love for a child is not compromised because that child has a brother or sister. God could love both.

In addition, belief in a unique genesis of life restricted to earth does not seem to be implied by biblical accounts of creation. The worldview of the ancient Hebrews at the time the Bible was written certainly assumed that earth is the center and that the stars in our sky look down upon us. This worldview has changed, of course. Our modern image of the cosmos with billions of possible worlds is a recent development; yet, our modern word, cosmos, was still the word used in the Bible to describe God’s creation. “For God so loved the world (κοσμος ,cosmos),” says John 3:16, “that God gave his only begotten son...” Perhaps the biblical image of the cosmos was smaller than ours, yet the word still referred to the totality of created reality for the Bible just as it does for us today. Biblical theology was never a strictly earth-bound theology.

Oh, yes, Thomas Aquinas argued that the concept of perfection implied that there could be one and only one world, our earth. Nevertheless, many other medieval theologians could speculate about the existence of other worlds among the stars where life would be flourishing. God would have been the author of such life there just as God is the author of life here. John Buridan (1295-1358), for example, held “from faith that just as God made this world, so he could make another or several worlds” (Cited by Dick, 2000, p.29). And, relevant to our discussion of exobiology, these other worlds might have different elements and could obey different laws of nature; and they could produce different results. With the advent of Copernican heliocentrism, many theologians along with scientists began to speculate about life among the stars. In my own study of this matter, I could find both acceptance and rejection of the extraterrestrial hypothesis in the history of theological thought, with the preponderance of speculative opinion favoring the existence of separate worlds among the stars.

Even though the sharp distinction between ETNL and ETIL is necessary for the pursuit of astrobiology, it would seem to me that previous theological acceptance of ETIL should suffice to cover what might happen should we discover ETNL. In sum, I do not forecast much in the way of theological upset over a discovery of ETNL, at least within the Christian tradition.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Ted Peters

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.