Mike Wall just got back from the SETICon II conference where he attended a panel discussion titled, "Would Discovering ET Destroy Earth's Religions?" The panel was comprised of SETI wonks Doug Vakoch and Seth Shostak, along with award-winning Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.
Not surprisingly, they collectively agreed that contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence wouldn't do much to change people's religious beliefs -– and that we already have historical examples to prove it.
The connection between religious beliefs and the existence of aliens is an interesting one. It's rooted in a pair of traditional Judeo-Christian tenets: namely, the suggestions that humans are God's one-and-only at the center of all things, and that Creationism offers the most credible explanation for our existence. And as the SETICon panelists admit, both of these convictions have been steadily withering away as our scientific knowledge increases.
The Bible, Koran and other sacred texts of the world's major religions stress God's special concern for humanity and for Earth. So the discovery of aliens — microbes on Mars, say, or signals from an intelligent civilization in another solar system — might seem threatening, by implying that we and our planet aren't all that special.
But our species has had plenty of time to get used to this idea. Nicolaus Copernicus made perhaps the first powerful case for it in 1543, when his seminal work "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres" showed that Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around.
"We haven't been the center of the universe for a while now — four centuries," said panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.
Moreover, given all the recent discoveries of potentially habitable exoplanets, religious notions of human primacy continue to take a beating.
And as Wall correctly notes, even if we do make contact with extraterrestrials, religious folks are unlikely to flinch. Take the false discovery of canals on Mars in the early part of the 20th century, or the possible discovery of microbial life on Mars back in the 1990s. While these weren't proven, they still showed that religious values are entrenched in such a way that massive scientific discoveries will be either ignored outright by the faithful, or somehow made to fit existing beliefs.
Another potent example is Darwin's discovery of natural selection. Darwin's idea was particularly devastating to religions, because it offered a complete explanation for the origin of life. God is completely unnecessary for evolution to work -– that's what makes it such a powerful idea. Yet, over 150 years later, religions are still flourishing, a sign that it's going to take a lot more than a monumental discovery to quash religious sentiment. As Wall notes, "So rather than being shaken to its foundations by the confirmation of life on another planet or moon, organized religion may accept the news, adapt and move on."
Indeed, as Vakoch noted, Baptist theologian Dr. Ostrander would be prepared to make the mental switch:
Dr. Ostrander is adamantly opposed to evolution, and yet he has no problem with the idea of there being extraterrestrials. He says it's as if a couple has one child, and then they decide to have a second child. Is that second child any less special? So too if God decides to have life on our planet, and then another planet, and another planet. It doesn't make us less special.
Be sure to read Wall's entire account of the panel, where he also reflects on the opinions of Seth Shostak and Robert Sawyer.
Image via Top50SciFi.