Close encounters of the religious kind

The Post had an article this morning on a conference being sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences on religious implications of the possible discovery of extra-terrestrial life.

In principle, I’m not sure most the challenges posed by such a discovery would be all that different from ones we’re already used to. We’re already having to come to terms with the idea that human beings aren’t the center of the cosmos. Why should it be threatening to Christians to think that God, in his overflowing goodness, would want to create other creatures throughout this unimaginably vast universe?

Similarly, the question of salvation and Christian uniqueness with respect to aliens doesn’t necessarily seem to be tremendously different from the question of Christianity’s relationship to other religions on Earth. The basic options would seem to be (1) that the one incarnation in Jesus is salvifically sufficient for all creatures, (2) that there could be multiple incarnations, or other suitable ways of relating to the divine, for each race of beings, or (3) that alien races aren’t in need of salvation, or at least not in the same way that humans are (C.S. Lewis depicted such an “unfallen” alien race in his Space Trilogy). Interestingly, Lewis proposed that the more likely scenario would be one of humans trying to exploit alien races and that it would be better for all parties concerned if we never came into contact with them.

Maybe the most challenging scenario would be to encounter races of intelligent aliens who had no religion whatsoever. Christians have been inclined to think that the development of a certain level of intelligence necessarily brings with it the potential for relating to God. But suppose there were aliens who simply lacked this sense or capability, but were otherwise just as intelligent as us (or more intelligent). Would that count as evidence against God’s existence?

UPDATE: See Caelius Spinator’s thoughts on this at the Monastery of the Remarkable English Martyrs here.

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5 thoughts on “Close encounters of the religious kind

  1. A few years ago a friend told me about a branch of fan fiction involving Christian missionaries in the Star Trek universe, and though I never actually saw any of it, I started toying with the idea of how I would write that. As I remember it, I settled upon the idea that life forms who responded to the Gospel were called “imagos,” as in imago dei, and those who did not were considered not to be imago dei no matter how smart or how humanoid they were. As you have pointed out elsewhere, there’s no particular reason being created in the image of God refers to intelligence; it’s really not clear from the Bible just what it means.

  2. Brandon, I’ve actually read Blish’s book but forgot about it till just now. As I recall, there’s a suggestion that the aliens are “children of the devil.”

    Camassia, I think the imago issue is an interesting one: the idea that there could be intelligent, rational, humanoid creatures who were nevertheless “imago-less” is intriguing. Does that make it an ineffable something-I-know-not-what without any visible manifestations? (A similar point could be made about intelligent machines, I guess. Does Data bear the imago dei? I seem to recall a Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard had to defend Data’s right to self-determination in court because someone wanted to take him apart for research.)

  3. There was such an episode, although of course it wasn’t cast in religious terms; as I recall, Picard’s argument was more or less “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” As you may recall from my own blog, however, I don’t really believe in sentient machines even in sci-fi, so the question doesn’t exercise me that much. And in fact the same objection can be made regarding aliens. Star Trek always made its aliens way more human than any reasonable evolutionary probability would allow — in fact, I think there was another TNG episode that retroactively explained this by positing a common origin for all the humanoids. Really alien aliens would not be just like people, only with the religion removed. They would be different in a lot of ways. Meeting them would still be educational, but it’s virtually impossible to predict how.

  4. Hi, Lee,

    Yes, the Jesuit in the book comes to the conclusion that the aliens are invented by the devil precisely because they are, in their society, so thoroughly rational and decent without any religion; so he ends up exorcising it. I never thought that was a particularly interesting part of the book; the part of the story I found interesting was when one of the aliens was raised among us.

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