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Analysis of Responses to Questions 6-10

Questions six through ten deal with a number of tacit and overt beliefs regarding ETI that presently exist in the scientific community as well as the wider culture. These questions seek to refine the images religious and non-religious persons have of ETI and its potential impact on our life on earth.

The reason for including this question in the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey is due to a widely held position among scientists which affirms the following: evolution is progressive; evolutionary progress leads to increased intelligence; intelligence leads to science and technology; science and technology lead to democracy, an end to war, and eventually peace; and, finally, world peace is the destiny toward which evolution is aimed. It follows from this assumption that, if an ETI civilization has evolved longer than ours on earth, then it will have achieved advances in health, ecology, politics, and morality; and, further, ETI will even have replaced religion with science. More highly evolved ETI, accordingly, will treat earth with benevolence, bringing to earth the equivalent of technological salvation. This assumption is dubious for two reasons: (1) specialists in evolutionary biology frequently deny that evolution is progressive, either on earth or on any other planet where a second genesis of life might occur: and (2) this assumption seems to be naïve about the relationship of the concomitant growth of science and morality among intelligent beings. Human nature would seem to refute such an assumption regarding co-growth, regardless of how widespread it is. “Contact optimists often assume that more advanced extraterrestrials will treat us benignly,” writes Michael Michaud. “Technologically superior aliens, many argue, will have evolved past the warlike behavior we have seen in our own species....The human example provides no support for such optimistic statements” (Michaud, 304). With this as background, the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey poses questions to ferret out such a constellation of assumptions.

Because of the significant number of respondents in the Neither agree nor disagree category, and due to additional respondent comments, it appears that many are reluctant to combine advance in science with advance in politics and morality. An advance in intelligence or in science does not necessarily imply a higher level of moral commitment nor a move in the direction of peace. “I’m not sure advances in politics and technology necessarily go hand-in-hand with advances in morality, or vice versa,” comments a mainline Protestant. “The simple fact of technology says nothing about advanced morality,” iterates a Roman Catholic; “when non-terrestrial beings show up on the horizon they may just be thugs.” A Buddhist wrote, “I believe they [ETI] will be more advanced in technology, possibly politics, but not morality - hence the neutral answer.” Another respondent criticizes the “epistemological bias” of Question 6, adding “one must look back no further than the World Wars of the 20th century to understand how discongruent technological progress and moral progress can be.” We conclude that both those who disagree and those who are in the neither category are allied in opposition to the widespread assumption regarding progressive evolution.

Of astounding significance is that we find more than 50% agreement among those who self-identify as non-religious. This suggests that more non-religious than religious individuals make the progressive evolution assumption. Even so, one non-religious respondent comments: “it’s likely that they [ETI] will be more technologically advanced than us...but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be morally advanced. I think their morality will likely be alien to us (no pun intended).”

The reason for asking Question 7 is that included in the assumption regarding progressive evolution mentioned above is that science surpasses religion, that allegedly a more highly evolved civilization would be non-religious. The Disagree/Strongly disagree received well above 50% among those self-identifying as Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Orthodox Christian, and Mormon. Jewish, Buddhist, and Non-Religious tended to cluster in the Neither agree nor disagree range. Of note in the Agree/Strongly agree range we find 25% of those self-identifying as Non-Religious, the only group to score this high.

As already mentioned, the Non-Religious category includes a variety of outlooks. Perhaps some (but not all) within this category share belief in the evolutionary superiority of science over religion. Respondent comments point in this direction. “Religious superstition is likely the hallmark of a youthful sentient species. As an intelligent sapient species evolves, science and materialism regularly trump the unfounded, undemonstrated, and untested beliefs of religion,” wrote one who self-identified as Non-Religious. Another wrote, “I believe that we will evolve into an atheistic system in the far future. I also think that any advanced race will also be atheistic.”

If the responses we received from Question 7 provide worthwhile data, they would indicate that a minority of Non-Religious persons hold to the view of progressive evolution, even though it does not dominate.

If it is the case that earth’s religious traditions would suffer a crisis or collapse upon hearing of an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization, we might want to inquire: why? What is it about ETI that would precipitate such a crisis? A number of reasons have surfaced. Two are of particular interest. One such reason is that contact with ETI would allegedly de-center or de-anthropomorphize our terrestrial consciousness. The reasoning here presupposes that earth’s religions are earth-centric and anthropocentric. Upon hearing of sentient beings in outer space who are our equals or perhaps even our superiors, then allegedly our fragile or brittle self-centeredness would collapse.

A second reason we might forecast a religious crisis follows a different logic. What is projected here is a conflict of beliefs, a conflict between the established belief systems of terrestrial religions and a competing set of religious our counter-religious ETI beliefs. If ETI turn out to be superior to us, then their beliefs would be sufficiently superior as to persuade us to give up our previous perspectives and adopt the new one. Earth’s religions would disappear as earthlings convert to the ETI perspective on reality.

Might either or both of these two patterns of reasoning be at work among respondents to Question 8? Not according to the comments. On anthropocentrism, “Sorry to sound so negative,” wrote one Orthodox respondent; “Q 6,7,&8 and the others are too anthropocentric.” Evidently this Christian accepts the above logic as a theological perspective and not as a counter-theological perspective.

Religious respondents show no indication of fearing a conflict of religious doctrine between themselves and ETI theologians. One evangelical Protestant wrote: “I think that extraterrestrial religious beliefs and traditions will differ, perhaps greatly in some ways...However, they live in

the same universe with the same God, and a similar array of religious responses and developments would likely have developed on their world....There would probably be noticeable similarities between points of their theology and Christian theology.” Another argued that “truth is universal. It does not change from planet to planet, life form to life form.” One Roman Catholic might disagree, expecting without apparent anxiety differences between earth perspectives and ETI perspectives: “I would welcome such discoveries of extraterrestrials but I would not expect them to share my points of view.”

What might we learn from the responses to Question 8? The clustering in the Neither Agree/disagree middle with a near comparable clustering in the Disagree/Strongly disagree range makes interpretation a bit difficult. It is not clear to us what conclusions might be drawn. We note the singular strength of disagreement among Mormons, perhaps due to the existing incorporation of ETI into Mormon theology. Otherwise, however, no clear trend seems discernable to us here.

This question teases out assumptions we make regarding the character of ETI. Might there exist among us a hope that evolutionarily more advanced ETI would be benevolent and want to share with Earth its solutions to human problems? Certainly this is what some scientists hope for. Avid SETI supporters such as Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, for example, have predicted that contact with extraterrestrials “would inevitably enrich mankind beyond imagination” (Sagan and Drake). Drake believes that advanced ETI civilizations live in a medical utopia, free of disease; and ETIs are even capable of producing immortality. Drake proceeds to speculate that the technologically advanced ETI are also benevolent; and space aliens could bring to earth the benefits of their ecological science, advanced medicine, and their ability to prevent war. “Everything we know says there are other civilizations out there to be found. The discovery of such civilizations would enrich our civilization with valuable information about science, technology, and sociology. This information could directly improve our abilities to conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example. Cheap energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in medicine” (Richards).

It is important to note how in the mind of Sagan, Drake, and other SETI scientists that the benefits of contact with ETI will come through a sharing of information, not through visitation. Interstellar space travel is too expensive and too difficult for us to expect it to happen. The impact on earth of ETI’s advanced knowledge will come to us via radio communication, it is assumed here. These astrobiologists do not look to the skies for saviors on fiery chariots; rather, they listen to the skies for ETI information that could be transformatory of life on earth.

Such a set of beliefs indicates a thirst, a thirst for redemption or salvation to come to earth from ETI life forms. Even though it is cast in scientific language, this is a religious thirst. With empathetic understanding, Michaud writes, “the frustrations and limitations of human life on Earth, the overhanging threat of disastrous conflict, the lack of moral anchors, our isolation amid the vastness of an unfeeling universe, our apparent helplessness against uncaring entropy, all have driven many humans to hope for intervention from above” (Michaud, 230). SETI critics such as Edward Regis show less empathy but make the same point, namely, what we see here is a secular hope for “salvation from the Stars” (Regis, 243). What comes packaged in scientific language is a myth, a myth of salvation for earth to be delivered by what at this point is only an imaginary civilization of extraterrestrial intelligent beings.

We posed Question 9 to ask whether religious people might believe this myth of ETI salvation. Would such a belief be unique to astrobiologists, or might the average religious person also pin hopes for salvation on benevolent ETI? The clustering majority of responses in the Neither agree/disagree middle suggests that the ETI salvation myth is not a strong force in religious consciousness. However, it would be too much to say that religious believers outrightly reject the myth. This is because they might not have given it much consideration one way or the other. This survey falls short of precision at this point.

Might respondent comments help us discern a direction of thought? One mainline Protestant flatly rejected the myth: “I strongly disagree that they [ETI] could actually come to help us.” A Buddhist complained that the “survey does not address the possibility that they [ETI] may not be benevolent.” An evangelical Protestant held out for ambiguity: “They may come to help, but they may come to exploit and plunder.” One non-religious person said curtly: “SETI sucks.” In short, the survey did not provide evidence for widespread belief in this secularized hope for earth’s salvation to come from intelligences among the stars.

Parenthetically, we the survey researchers do not concur that “SETI sucks.” We heartily endorse the mission of SETI and share excitement over the possible discoveries of the astrobiologists currently at work. The concern of this survey is limited to one and only one matter, namely, testing the hypothesis that terrestrial religions are subject to crisis or collapse.

Question 10 is a straightforward request for a prognostication, a prediction. By asking to speculate about the possibility of contact with ETI either via SETI or UFO visitation, answers might entail belief in the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrials. The low number of Agree/Strongly agree respondents suggest a dearth of contact optimists among religious people.

When we turn to the comments, many reported that they simply lacked the knowledge to make a forecast regarding contact. One self-identified Buddhist in the Neither agree/nor disagree category said, “my comments mostly reflect a Zen “don’t know” mind.”

Other comments were more forceful. An Orthodox Christian supported the rare earth position for theological reasons: “I strongly disbelieve in the possibility of other intelligent life other than on earth. I think Christ came to release us from our sins on this planet and that is exclusive.” One evangelical Protestant enunciated the same rare earth commitment but for non-theological reasons: “advanced life, especially intelligent life, is so rare that Earth is probably its only location.” We note the logic of this response. Affirming the low probability of making contact with ETI is done so as a scientific judgment - namely, intelligent life is “rare” - rather than a theological judgment. Rejection of the probability of ETI contact is not the result of a religious belief, in this case.

A curiously convoluted argument against our making contact with ETI was articulated by a North American Lutheran: “I am convinced that extraterrestrial life does not exist...My theological reasoning is as follows: God created the universe and then man in his own image. This creation then rebelled against God and necessitated judgment. God then worked through history to fulfill that judgment by taking the punishment on Himself in the person of Jesus...It is quite possible that there are other universes where extraterrestrials exist, and those people did or did not rebel, but they would not visit our planet (since they are not part of our universe).”

Contact optimists also made their position known. A mainline Protestant asserted, “Honestly, I think extraterrestrial life probably exists somewhere else.” And an evangelical forecasted: “I do believe the inhabitants of the UFOs will make contact with us within the next 30 years.”

One mainline Protestant surmised: “I think they will be out there, but it may be ages before we meet them.” A comment such as this suggests the following: it appears that we ought not divide these religious respondents simply into the two categories of rare earthers and contact optimists. This is because religious people tend to be open the possibility of the existence of ETI but not necessarily optimistic regarding near future contact. One non-religious respondent made this point: “it is likely we will identify a planet that shows signs of habitation. However, contact is unlikely given the vast distances.”

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

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