Are Religious Beliefs Going To Screw Up First Contact?

Are humans really prepared to meet an extraterrestrial civilization in this century? A new study suggests we're psychologically ill-prepared for this monumental event — and that the prominence of religious beliefs has a lot to do with it.

Despite the eerie Great Silence, there's good reason to suspect we'll eventually make contact with aliens. Our galaxy is absolutely littered with terrestrial planets, forcing us to continually update our odds of meeting an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). What's more, we're coming up with a slew of new ways to detect signs of alien life. Unquestioningly, first contact with an ETI would represent one of the most monumental things to ever happen to our civilization. Just the simple knowledge that they're out there has the potential to dramatically alter the course of history. And indeed, governments have established protocols for such an eventuality.

At the same time, however, and as clinical neuropsychologist Gabriel G. de la Torre now argues, we're not quite ready to make contact just yet. The problem, he says, is that most of us haven't come to grips with our place in the universe.

Towards a New 'Cosmic Consciousness'

He calls this the "cosmic consciousness" — a term that Canadian psychologist Richard Bucke defined as "a new evolutionary step beyond self-consciousness." Now while this sounds a bit new-agey, there's some substance to this idea. As Torre writes,

More than one hundred years ago, Bucke went further and described a new concept of cosmic consciousness as a new evolution [sic] step beyond self-consciousness. According to Bucke, by virtue of self-consciousness, man is not only conscious of trees, rocks, bodies of water, and his own limbs and body, but he also becomes conscious of himself as a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe. Further, by means of self-consciousness, man becomes capable of treating his own mental states as objects of consciousness. The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is, as its name implies, a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe.

It could be argued that many of us, particularly those who read io9 regularly, have a well-developed cosmic consciousness, or "space awareness," as Torre puts it. But after conducting a survey, he came the realization that it's a sentiment or feeling that's certainly not shared across the board.

Are We Ready?

Prior to this pilot study, Torre participated in such as projects as Mars 500 and an ESA initiative designed to assess whether or not we should engage in Active SETI — a proposed effort to broadcast our presence to any ETIs who may be listening. Looking to learn more, he sent a questionnaire to 116 American, Italian, and Spanish university students. The survey was comprised of five different sections:

  • Religious beliefs
  • Environment and general opinion
  • Astronomy
  • Contact
  • Attention and perception

Among other things, the students were asked if God created the universe, or if they believe contact with ETIs is likely.

Low Levels of Space Awareness, High Levels of Religious Beliefs

Results showed that, as a species, humanity is still not ready to make contact.

The reason, says Torre, is that people (for the most part) lack the required knowledge and are thus psychologically ill-prepared. More specifically, he found that many of the students — and by virtue the rest of society — lack awareness on many astronomical aspects. He also learned that the majority of people assess these subjects according to their religious beliefs.

"It is interesting to note that the current global communications era does not seem to affect global or cosmic consciousness," he writes in the ensuing paper. "On the basis of the results of our study, most transcendent factors for existential concerns continue to be related to religion instead of ecology or cosmology. It is strongly recommended that we try to develop a roadmap for contact that includes education as the most important factor." [emphasis added]

To fix the problem, he says that education should be geared towards increasing awareness of space related topics and our relationship to the cosmos.

Read the entire study at Acta Astronautica: "Toward a new cosmic consciousness: Psychoeducational aspects of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations."

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