The Science of Aliens, Part 6: Would They Be Religious?

Belief in a higher power is widespread on Earth, but what about the rest of the galaxy?

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The alien in E.T. seemed spiritual enough. Might we have something in common?

Last weekend, at a symposium titled Astrobiology, Planetary Sustainability, and Theology, organized by the Lutheran City Academy in Bochum, Germany, I gave a talk about the search for Earth 2.0 in our galaxy. The discussions got me thinking: How likely is it that intelligent aliens would be religious?

All major cultures on our planet believe in some kind of god or multiple gods—even cultures that have very little contact with the outside world. This may be a way to explain things that can’t be explained otherwise, which is consistent with the finding that religious belief seems to decrease in more technologically advanced societies. Nevertheless, according to a 2015 survey, only three percent of Americans said they were atheists, and only four percent were agnostic. A huge majority, at least in the United States, claim to be believers, which appears to indicate that there is something intrinsic within humanity to believe in a higher being.

How do the major religions see the possibility of extraterrestrial life? Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit as well as an accomplished astronomer, addressed at a 2014 meeting at the Library of Congress the question of whether he would baptize an alien. He later expanded on the topic in a book. His short answer was yes—if the alien wanted to. And that suggests that he expects aliens to be religious in the first place.

Michael Waltemathe, another speaker at last week’s meeting in Bochum, told me something interesting: There is a fatwa—a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority—making it clear that you cannot escape Allah’s judgement by a one-way trip to Mars. It’s more evidence that at least some religious authorities have given consideration to the possible discovery of extraterrestrials and how it might affect Earth’s religions.

Science fiction writers have taken up the question, too, in novels like Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things and the classic 1980 movie Enemy Mine, where the alien, who starts out as an enemy but becomes a friend, has a strong belief in a higher being.

How would we even begin to guess whether extraterrestrials might be religious? Let’s invoke the Copernican Principle and assume we Earthlings are average. If so, at least some advanced alien civilizations could be expected to be religious. Would their god be the same as ours? Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, thinks so. If he is correct, we could imagine the omnipotent being existing outside of space and time, or perhaps as a “unification” of all life in the Universe. Here we could make an analogy with our own bodies. Each cell is alive by itself, yet it acts as part of a much higher-level being with abilities far beyond those of a single cell. Maybe the now largely refuted idea of vitalism, or the Star Wars idea of The Force, were not completely on the wrong track? Is it really that outrageous to believe that all life, everywhere, might be connected in some way?

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