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Are the world’s religions ready for E.T.?

by | Sep. 29, 2014, 10:00 AM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »

In 1930, Albert Einstein was asked for his opinion about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. “Other beings, perhaps, but not men,” he answered. Then he was asked whether science and religion conflict. “Not really, though it depends, of course, on your religious views.”

Over the past 10 years, astronomers’ new ability to detect planets orbiting other stars has taken this question out of the realm of philosophy, as it was for Einstein, and transformed it into something that scientists might soon be able to answer.

Religions and Extraterrestrial Life book coverRealization that the nature of the debate about life on other worlds is about to fundamentally change led Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy David Weintraub to begin thinking seriously about the question of how people will react to the discovery of life on other planets. He realized, as Einstein had observed, that people’s reactions will be heavily influenced by their religious beliefs. So he decided to find out what the world’s major religions have to say about the matter. The result is a book titled “Religions and Extraterrestrial Life” (Springer International Publishing) published this month.

“When I did a library search, I found only half a dozen books and they were all written about the question of extraterrestrial life and Christianity, and mostly about Roman Catholicism, so I decided to take a broader look,” the astronomer said. As a result, his book describes what religious leaders and theologians have to say about extraterrestrial life in more than two dozen major religions, including Judaism, Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, several mainline Protestant sects, the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Seventh Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Islam and several major Asian religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith.

Discovery of planets

The remarkable progress that astronomers have made at detecting exoplanets gives the issue of extraterrestrial life a new sense of immediacy. In 2000, astronomers had detected 50 planets orbiting other stars. Today, the number has grown to more than 1,000. If the rate of discovery keeps up its current pace, astronomers will have identified more than a million exoplanets by the year 2045.

“If even one exoplanet shows signs of biological activity – and those signs should not be hard to detect, if living things are present – then we will know Earth is not the only place in the universe where life exists,” Weintraub points out. “Although it is impossible to prove a negative, if we have not found any signs of life after a million exoplanets have been studied, then we will know that life in the universe is, at best, exceedingly rare.”

Public opinion polling indicates that about one fifth to one third of the American public believes that extraterrestrials exist, Weintraub reports. However, this varies considerably with religious affiliation.

Belief in extraterrestrials varies by religion

  • 55 percent of Atheists
  • 44 percent of Muslims
  • 37 percent of Jews
  • 36 percent of Hindus
  • 32 percent of Christians

Of the Christians, more than one third of the Eastern Orthodox faithful (41 percent), Roman Catholics (37 percent), Methodists (37 percent), and Lutherans (35 percent) professed belief in extraterrestrial life. Only the Baptists (29 percent) fell below the one-third threshold.

David Weintraub lecturing

Author David Weintraub (Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt)

Asian religions would have the least difficulty in accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Weintraub concluded. Some Hindu thinkers have speculated that humans may be reincarnated as aliens, and vice versa, while Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.

Weintraub quotes passages in the Qur’an that appear to support the idea that spiritual beings exist on other planets, but notes that these beings may not practice Islam as it is practiced on Earth. “Islam, like other faiths, has fundamentalist and conservative traditions. All Muslims, however, likely would agree that the prophetically revealed religion of Islam is a set of practices designed only for humans on earth,” Weintraub wrote.

Weintraub found very little in Judaic scriptures or rabbinical writings that bear on the question. The few Talmudic and Kabbalistic commentaries on the subject do assert that space is infinite and contains a potentially infinite number of worlds and that nothing can deny the existence of extraterrestrial life. At the same time, Jews don’t believe the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would have much effect on them. He quotes a Jewish anthropologist and scholar who has addressed this issue and concluded that the relationship beween Jews and God would not be affected in the slightest by “the existence of other life forms, newly discovered scientific realities or pan-human behavioral changes.”

Christian debate

Among Christian religions, the Roman Catholics have done the most thinking about the possibility of life on other worlds, the astronomer discovered. In fact, they have had an on-again, off-again theological debate that has gone on for a thousand years. The crux of the matter is original sin. If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin? Do they need to be saved? If they do, then did Christ visit them and was he crucified and resurrected on other planets? “From a Roman Catholic perspective, if sentient extraterrestrials exist some but perhaps not all such species may suffer original sin and will require redemption,” Weintraub summarizes.

The inherent diversity of Protestant denominations, where individuals are encouraged to interpret scripture independently, has led to many conflicting approaches to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence. Weintraub determined that the views of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich appear to represent a viable consensus. Tillich argued that the need for salvation is universal and the “saving power” of God must be everywhere. At the same time, he maintained that God’s plan for human life need not be the same as his plan for aliens.

Evangelical and fundamental Christians are most likely to have difficulty accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the astronomer’s research indicates. “…most evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders argue quite forcefully that the Bible makes clear that extraterrestrial life does not exist. From this perspective, the only living, God-worshipping beings in the entire universe are humans, created by God, who live on Earth.” Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham was a prominent exception who stated that he firmly believes “there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God.”

Weintraub also identified two religions – Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism – whose theology embraces extraterrestrials. In Mormonism, God helps exalt lesser souls so they can achieve immortality and live as gods on other worlds. And, Ellen White, who co-founded Seventh-Day Adventism, wrote that Got had given her a view of other worlds where the people are “noble, majestic and lovely” because they live in strict obedience to God’s commandments.

Are we ready?

In answer to the question “Are we ready?” Weintraub concludes, “While some of us claim to be ready, a great many of us probably are not… very few among us have spent much time thinking hard about what actual knowledge about extraterrestrial life, whether viruses or single-celled creatures or bipeds piloting intergalactic spaceships, might mean for our personal beliefs [and] our relationships with the divine.”

Media Inquiries:
David Salisbury, (615) 322-NEWS
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu


  • Arduenn

    Either something exists or it doesn’t. Things won’t come into existence when you believe hard enough in them. It’s all about considering something possible or not. Some people choose to consider something impossible, or it would shatter their view of the universe. It all boils down to the willingness or ability to change your ‘world’ views. In other words: it depends on how conservative you are.

  • Nestorian

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. After many decades of the most diligent possible search for extra-terrestrial life, none has been found.

    Moreover, evolutionists who accept the fundamental randomness of all events must grudgingly grant, at the end of the day, that the random probability of whatever events supposedly led to the first life form on earth are vanishingly, incomprehensibly, small – essentially zero, in fact. That applies not just here on earth, but anywhere else in the universe as well.

    As such, the accumulated preponderance of scientific evidence suggests very strongly to this observer that religious believers will never have to grapple with trying to integrate the existence of extra-terrestrials into their religious worldviews.

    • Craig

      First off, Evolution does not address the origin of life. The theory only concerns how existing life evolves. So as an ‘evolutionist’ I simply accept that we don’t know how life began yet.

      Secondly, your statement, ‘After many decades of the most diligent possible search for extra-terrestrial life, none has been found.’ is a loaded statement. Our current technologies for searching for extraterrestrial life are pitiful. SETI only uses radio frequencies. Other life may not use radio, or has long since abandoned it for technologies beyond our detection. Twenty years of using radio scopes is hardly diligent. It’s closer to looking for a needle in a haystack.

    • Craig

      First off, Evolution does not address the origin of life. The theory only concerns how existing life evolves. So as an ‘evolutionist’ I simply accept that we don’t know how life began yet.

      Secondly, your statement, ‘After many decades of the most diligent possible search for extra-terrestrial life, none has been found.’ is a loaded statement. Our current technologies for searching for extraterrestrial life are pitiful. SETI only uses radio frequencies. Other life may not use radio, or has long since abandoned it for technologies beyond our detection. Twenty years of using radio scopes is hardly diligent. It’s closer to looking for a needle in a haystack.

      • VenetianPanorama

        It’s nice to hear an evolutionist accept that evolution doesn’t explain how life began. In my experience, that view is contrary to the pop culture understanding of what “evolution” means.

        Any thoughts on the Cambrian explosion?

        • Mulla

          So “I don’t know, therefore god” is a better explanation?

      • Matt Zyskowski

        More accurately, looking for a needle in the ocean

    • VenetianPanorama

      Agree in full.

  • saxon

    Almost every religion believes in the existence of Angels. Clearly, they are not men. Whatever may be posited with aliens may be extrapolated from the way a religions theology deals with Angels. The issue of non-humans and their relationship with both us and God has already been settled and it has no more theological value than the discussion as to whether Adam had a bellybutton. It’s a straw man set up to illustrate how unscientific religious people are. The bigger question is why do you assume that more planets equals more life? Does it? There’s one planet with life on it that we know. One planet is far too small a sample to say anything. There is no reason to expect the universe is teeming with life. So how does a scientist come to follow dogma?

  • VenetianPanorama

    As a practicing Latter-day Saint (Mormon), I personally believe that our entire universe was created by God, not just the earth. In that respect, my beliefs are similar to the views of Dr. Hugh Ross, a non-Mormon Christian, and founder of Reasons to Believe (dot org). I see the Big Bang as a plausible explanation for the mechanism by which God created the universe. The extraordinary fine-tuning required of so many physical constants in order for us to exist at all, is part of the mountain of evidence that creation was a deliberate event, in harmony with Genesis and, for Mormons, the additional writings of Moses and Abraham found in the book of scripture we call the Pearl of Great Price.

    While I consider extraterrestrial life to be a certainty, I think it is extremely unlikely that ET exists in our universe (created, as it was, specifically for mankind). However, reality is what it is and Mormons accept all truth, regardless of its source. If and when ET shows up, we will include that additional truth in our worldview.

    • Moses 1:33 And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.

      By ET do you mean a non-human alien species?

  • GatorDaddy

    Seriously, we’re going to debate about something else that no one on earth knows anything about? We’ve done creationism vs evolution and science vs religion and how we are going to talk about humans Savior vs Aliems Savior?
    My God has “many houses” and I’m sure he has a different relationship with each child. The forshadowing of the birth of Jesus would not apply to another planet because 1) the lineage would not be the same or 2) maybe they never were disobedient in the first place or 3) maybe if they were disobedient he related to the in a different way. I can’t help but think that we were so stupid and so stubborn that the ONLY way to save us was to do it himself via Jesus. Maybe aliens are just better people!!!!

  • GatorDaddy

    Seriously, we’re going to debate about something else that no one on earth knows anything about? We’ve done creationism vs evolution and science vs religion and how we are going to talk about humans Savior vs Aliems Savior?
    My God has “many houses” and I’m sure he has a different relationship with each child. The forshadowing of the birth of Jesus would not apply to another planet because 1) the lineage would not be the same or 2) maybe they never were disobedient in the first place or 3) maybe if they were disobedient he related to the in a different way. I can’t help but think that we were so stupid and so stubborn that the ONLY way to save us was to do it himself via Jesus. Maybe aliens are just better people!!!!

  • Joe Cogan

    “If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin? Do they need to be saved? If they do, then did Christ visit them and was he crucified and resurrected on other planets? “From a Roman Catholic perspective, if sentient extraterrestrials exist some but perhaps not all such species may suffer original sin and will require redemption,” Weintraub summarizes.”

    Very few Catholic theologians these days believe in a literal Adam and Eve.

    • John 10:16
      Other sheep I have that are not of this fold . . .

      Mormon’s don’t believe in original sin. For the other questions about Christ, Mormons believe the answer is yes. Christ visits others and his sacrifice extends to save for all Gods children on the worlds without number he created.

      • Joe Cogan

        I’m sure that’s nice, but what does it have to do with what I posted?

      • VenetianPanorama

        Sorry, you’re saying that Mormons believe Christ was crucified and resurrected on other planets?

        I’ve never read that in LDS scriptures. Reference please?

        • Ha, ha. I misread that part of the question as “was he crucified and resurrected FOR other planets?” The original poster clearly wrote ON not FOR. That is a huge difference.

          So that part of the question is a NO. His death and resurrection, that occurred here on Earth, has the same “saving/resurrecting” affect for all of God’s children on all planets. It is an eternal sacrifice.

    • John 10:16
      Other sheep I have that are not of this fold . . .

      Mormon’s don’t believe in original sin. For the other questions about Christ, Mormons believe the answer is yes. Christ visits others and his sacrifice extends to save for all Gods children on the worlds without number he created.

  • VenetianPanorama

    Well that’s one way of looking at it, but not the only way. In some ways, modern science does place us at the center of the universe, figuratively speaking. Had the universe (and subatomic constants) not been “just so,” our existence would have been impossible. In order to believe that we exist as a result of random chance, it is necessary to believe that, out of an extraordinarily large number of universes, our is indeed “special.” Our universe, our laws of physics, our galaxy, and our planet won the cosmological lottery.

    It is a much greater leap of faith to believe we are here by chance than by design.

  • bepoved

    God is an extraterrestrial, angels and demons are aliens, and Jesus Christ was an alien human hybrid.

  • elete

  • Steven Black

    When ET arrives both Mormon and SDA numbers will exponentially increase.