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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.

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Theological Reflections on ETNL

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms
Contact Optimists vs. Unique Earthers
The Speculations of the Contact Optimists
The Place of Evolution in the ETI Myth
How a Theologian Interprets Myth
The Astrobiological Delusion Regarding the Future of Religion


Ted Peters
Dr. Ted Peters

See also:

Will ET End Religion?
Are We Alone?
Evangelical Atheism Today: A Response to Richard Dawkins
Theistic Evolution: A Christian alternative to atheism, creationism and intelligent design
Does God Exist?
The Relation of Science & Religion