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Are Extraterrestrials Religious?

This brings us, however, to a fourth and perhaps more interesting question for religious thought as it hypothetically prepares for contact. Would the "Others" (I prefer this designation to that of "aliens") be able to make any sense at all of our own religious life and thought? And should we expect that other intelligent beings would practice anything like what we call religion, and which might in this respect make them similar to us? Let us put aside once again the sobering probability that, because of the enormous distances they would have to traverse, any messages flowing back and forth at the speed of light would not add up to many exchanges in the course of a single human lifetime, nor would they extend very far beyond our own cosmic neighborhood. Instead let us suppose that we shall eventually be given the opportunity of prolonged conversation with other beings that impress us as being both alive and intelligent. What must their own kind of life and intelligence be like in order to allow us to share with them in a meaningful way our own deepest hopes, including ideas about "God" or "salvation"? What are some of the marks that any other conceivable instances of intelligent life in this universe would have to possess in order for us to be able to converse with them about our own religious beliefs, and that might also open us up to an understanding of theirs, if they have any?

In contemplating such questions we are reminded of just how much, in the way of both content and expression, our earthly religions borrow from the unique features of this planet, and therefore how any religions on other worlds would be idiosyncratically shaped by theirs as well. Our own persistent religious metaphors are inseparable from the experience of Earth's own characteristics: rotation from day to night, of the exposure to sun and moon; its deserts, oceans, rivers and streams, clouds, rain, storms and whirlwinds, grass and trees, blood and breath, soil and sexuality, maternity, paternity, sisterhood and brotherhood. Think of how prominently our experience of trees, for example, shapes religious imagery: the tree of life, the tree of " knowledge of good and evil," the Bodhi tree, the tree of the cross, the cedars of Lebanon, etc. Likewise, we should note that the very earthy occurrence of fertility, say, of inert seeds miraculously sprouting to life out of Earth's topsoil, has given us the highly significant religious metaphor of "resurrection." And the notion of "spirit," now ironically employed to refer to what is unearthly, comes from the Latin spiritus (in Hebrew ruach, and in Greek pneuma) a notion that originally meant the "breath of life" and which, as we now realize, requires the existence of Earth's enlivening atmosphere as its physical basis. Imagine what our religions would be like, Thomas Berry asks, if we lived on something like a lunar landscape.This question has been often raised by Thomas Berry. See his book Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books), p. 11. Would not extraterrestrial ecologies breed other extraordinary blendings of land, life and religious longing? And wouldn't we have a very difficult time connecting with them?

Difficult, perhaps, though not impossible. But in order to conceive of how we might be able to engage in anything like theological conversation with cosmic Others we need first to clarify our terms. What exactly do we mean by life, by intelligence, and by religion?

First, life. What allows us to identify living beings as "alive" at all, and thus to distinguish them from nonliving things or processes, is that they share with us humans the trait of striving to achieve some goal, and therefore the possibility of failing or succeeding.See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1958), pp. 327, 344.If an entity were not recognizable as a kind of striving, or of struggling against limits of some kind, and therefore as capable of succeeding or failing in the effort, we would not properly call it living. The great Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas remarks that even the most primitive instances of metabolism are in some rudimentary way constantly "striving" against the threat of being dissolved into their inanimate surroundings.Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press), p. 60.

Michael Polanyi argues that we recognize the distinctive features of life primarily through a personal knowledge, one shaped by what he calls "the logic of achievement."Polanyi, p. 327.Living beings are capable of "achieving" in a way that does not apply to purely chemical reactions. I would suggest, then, that human persons are interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe in great measure because we sense that we share something special with all other striving, struggling beings. We feel a kind of connatural relatedness to all other striving beings, a connection that we do not have with inanimate things. For we spontaneously realize that all modes of life, ours included, can in many ways either "succeed" or "fail, " in a way that merely physical and chemical processes cannot.

And so, if we ever encountered life on other worlds we would call it alive (regardless of its chemical make-up) only if we recognized - through what Polanyi calls a "personal" rather than objectifying knowledge - that it participates with us in a kind of striving that risks the possibility of failure. Of course, in our search for life elsewhere we would also be on the lookout for such qualities as the transgenerational sharing of information that we find in the genetic flow of life here on Earth. We would look for open, self-organizing systems that pump energy out of their environment and so maintain themselves at a high level of complexity. But we would also look for instances of exquisite organismic fragility, beings that need to "exert" themselves in some degree even to maintain their organic identity against the constant threat of being dissolved into their inanimate surroundings. Life elsewhere as well as here, in other words, could be identified as such only if it conforms in some way to the logic of achievement. How this understanding of life bears upon the question of whether ET's are religious will become clear shortly.

Next, though, what do we mean by intelligent life, the special set of features for which SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) professes to be looking, and which we confidently think we could identify if we ever stumbled across it. First of all, if we find intelligent life, then it must be manifested in some sort of striving; and, second, if it is intelligent life, it must be the kind of striving that we associate in ourselves with a desire to know. If the desire to know is absent then there may be life - sentient and even conscious life - but not intelligent life. Any being that is not somehow striving to achieve some goal, even if this goal is simply that of surviving, is not alive; and any being whose striving does not include the search for insight and knowledge is not intelligent, at least in the sense that we humans minimally understand the term. SETI already tacitly assumes such a notion of "intelligence" when it searches the heavens for electromagnetic signals which only a technologically sophisticated, and similarly insight-seeking and truth-desiring source is sending out.

Finally, what do we mean by religion? Let us understand by "religion" a specific kind of striving also. Before religion is anything else it is a manifestation of life, a specific kind of human life, striving toward a goal. Underneath all of its extravagant symbolic, ritualistic, doctrinal, ethical and institutional foliage religion is an expression of life, of intelligent life--striving, exploring, hoping life. Religion, I would suggest, is intelligent life at perhaps its most intense level of striving.

The whole terrestrial religious endeavor may be thought of as a kind of "route-finding," a quest for pathways that promise to carry us through the most intractable limits on life. John Bowker, Is Anybody Out There? (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, Inc., 1988), pp. 9-18; 112-43.Even from our perch here on Earth, therefore, can we not identify at least some of the most severe limits that all other forms of intelligent life would inevitably have to face along with us? And in identifying these limits would we not be placing ourselves and the Others within a common (hermeneutical) circle, one that would allow conversation with them in spite of broad ecological differences?

I think that if they possess anything like what we call intelligent life we can reasonably expect to discover that extraterrestrials at least have the capacity for a religious mode of venturing. Since any possible Others we shall ever encounter will be inhabitants of the same Big Bang universe that we belong to, the general features of this cosmos as made known to us by our terrestrial science will presumably also apply to them. We must expect to find, then, that any living, sentient and intelligent beings will be subject to the transience and perishability characteristic of all things positioned on the slopes of entropy. They would be subject to the physical forces that break orderly or complex arrangements down into disordered and simple ones. They too would be subject to transience and eventual perishing. They, like us, would be subject to the threat of failure, and eventually nonbeing , that every living finite being has to confront.

We may conclude, then, that since all living and intelligent beings would experience the same basic physical limits on life that we do, a meaningful exchange about religious route-finding through these limits could conceivably occur. For these Others, if they are truly striving centers, would also be in search of ways to transcend the limits on their particular forms of life. And if they are truly intelligent they would have an awareness of their possible nonbeing. They might even have, in other words, what Paul Tillich calls "existential anxiety." Anxiety, the awareness of finitude, drives intelligent life to find a courage that can conquer the threat of nonbeing. In our human experience it is the quest for courage in the face of nonbeing that leads many of us to seek the foundational support of religious faith, and in some cases to an understanding of "God" as the source of courage to continue life's striving in the face of fate, death, guilt and meaninglessness.Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 40-45.If any Others "out there" are alive and intelligent, it would not be surprising that they too need courage. If so, they would be no less potentially religious than we are.

Contributed by: Dr. Jack Haught

Cosmic Questions

Are We Alone? Topic Index
Theology After Contact: Religion and Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life

Are Extraterrestrials Religious?

What Would Happen to the Idea of God?
The Question of Human Importance
The Question of Religious Particularity
Does SETI Have Implications for the Question of “Cosmic Purpose?”
Available Frameworks for a "Theology after Contact"


Jack Haught

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