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Essay

On God and aliens

How the extraterrestrial question affects us all

Martin Griffiths & Carlos Oliveira 5 April 2009

www.lablit.com/article/487

Out there: the idea of alien life has exercised religious scholars as much as scientists

From a scientific point of view, the discovery of extraterrestrial life will alter our perceptions of ourselves

The relationship between the belief in intelligent life in the cosmos and the belief in God is a complex, multi-faceted one. Theologians have relied upon faith, debate and argument to promote the existence of a God whose creative magnificence encompasses the entire universe rather than being confined to one planet in our solar system. Scientists rely upon the extrapolation of chemistry, astronomy and biology to infer the existence of life elsewhere. With as yet no proof for either camp, it comes as no surprise that these two subjects often appear together and their relationships debated.

In May 2008, the Reverend José Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, stated in an interview to the Vatican’s newspaper L’ Osservatore Romano that extraterrestrial beings, however they may appear, and wherever they may be, are also God’s creation, and therefore modern Christianity can readily accept the existence of forms of life outside Earth, including intelligent ones. In the opinion of Reverend Funes, to deny the existence of extraterrestrials would be to limit God’s power.

Immediately, television stations and news broadcasting corporations like MSNBC, BBC and others, gave this news to the public; a blog was created with the entire interview; and even the satirical newspaper The Onion mentioned the subject. But what was lost was the opportunity to engage the public. The stance of the church was not news to astrobiologists, but it does present the prospect to air the subject and review the relationship between the idea of extraterrestrial life and the Christian church.

The Church and Extraterrestrial Life

Arguably, the ideology regarding intelligent beings outside Earth started several millennia ago with creation myths distilled by the Egyptian and Babylonians and borrowed by Moses for inclusion in the book of Genesis. This form of extraterrestrial being was all-powerful, created life on Earth, and influenced the daily life of humans. The idea of God as an alien gained cultural and social, but not scientific, credence in the 20th century through the work of Erich von Daniken, whose tome Chariots of the Gods reflected (rather inaccurately admittedly) the idea of our biblical Gods as aliens.

Historically, the idea that extraterrestrial life owes its existence to a creator actually predates the founding of Christianity in the first century AD. Most of the concepts that have found their way into Christian theology, such as the immortality of the soul, the trinity and even the “divine right of kings” came from ancient Babylon and Greece. It was the synthesis of these mystic ideas into a more secular and scientific approach via Pythagoras and his brotherhood in the 6th century BC that led to the founding of an entire geocentric cosmos and its order under the formative hand of Plato and Aristotle. In the Aristotelian system, all things moved by divine accord and that if there is only one God (“Prime Mover”) then there should also be only one heaven, and only one world. Unfortunately for the extraterrestrial hypothesis, uniqueness meant order, and order meant perfection. Thus, under this view of a closed cosmos with the earth as its centre, other worlds and their inhabitants are not possible. Philosophers such as Metrodorus attempted to argue against this simplistic interpretation: "To consider the Earth the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet only one grain will grow(Sagan & Shklovskii 1966:3)".

But the power and vision of Plato and Aristotle eventually made headway against these attempts at balance and inquiry. This anti-alien view was reinforced in the following centuries by the Christian scholars Hippolytus of Rome and Augustine of Hippo, both of whom ignored observation as a method to knowledge, and justified all knowledge as coming from the Holy Scriptures. Due to this literal interpretation, they completely rejected the idea of plurality of worlds, and thus rejected the notion of extraterrestrial beings. By the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas declared that the teachings of the church were in total accordance with the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, and went as far as to adopt the geocentric view of the universe for Christianity.

Nevertheless, theologians like the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, decided in 1277 to condemn those who would say that God could only make one world, because that would be limiting God’s power. Therefore, starting in 1277, the Church began a clear debate regarding other worlds and other beings on those worlds and their possibilities under the Christian framework. The lack of evidence either way, apart from spirited argument, led to either an impasse or the acceptance of a middle ground. Church scholars such as Jean Buridan, in his critique of Aristotle’s De Caelo, stated that God could make this or other worlds. William of Ockham introduced the idea of “universals”, elements that all of creation would share; therefore God could make many worlds by utilizing the same materials as were present in the Aristotlian cosmology. For this almost heretical thought, Ockham was denied his Master of Theology degree by Oxford university! Nicholas Oresme put forward the suggestion that God did not create other worlds and other beings (although he considered that God could have done so, if He wanted). Nicholas of Cusa went further in his De Docta Ignorantia (1440), arguing that in every heavenly region there were inhabitants that differed in nature owing to their origin with God. These church fathers proposed the idea of pluralism as a possibility, but were not quite ready to advance it as a doctrine.

The Renaissance brought new lands on Earth, new people on Earth, and new ideas concerning the Universe. Natural philosophers such as Galileo Galilei and religious figures such as Bruno tried to reconcile pluralism and the Holy Scriptures, mostly wavering between opposing viewpoints with little success. From now on, it was an open argument that the Bible allowed for the existence of “extraterrestrial humans”, and the discussion shifted to concerns about the sacrifice of Christ.

If God’s omnipotence created many worlds and many beings on these worlds, did they have the original sin? Did they descend from Adam and Eve? Did Christ redeem them? How? Was Christ also incarnate in those worlds? Was Earth going to lose its special place at the eyes of the Creator? The great majority of the scholars decided to keep Earth as a unique place, where Christ became incarnated – some authors said that by doing so, Christ saved all the inhabitants in the Universe, others said that aliens were without original sin and thus they didn’t need a savior, while still others mentioned that aliens would need the Word of God, because they were sinful and Christ didn’t save them. Despite these differences, people mainly agreed that there could be beings residing in other worlds.

One of the common myths about the Church leaders not accepting the idea of extraterrestrial beings is the case of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. But Bruno didn’t die for his extraterrestrial beliefs. In fact, he believed in “countless suns” and in an “infinity of worlds” because, he thought, that would prove God’s glory and infinite power. His sin was being a supporter of Hermetism (an occult sect based on alleged ancient Egyptian texts), denying Christianity and Christ’s divinity. However, the very subjective nature of pluralism was brought into sharp relief by his martyrdom.

The Dominican monk Tommaso Campanella attempted to connect Galileo’s work on Copernican astronomy with the pluralist tradition in his widely read and influential book Apologia pro Galileo (1622). By the middle of the 17th century, scholars such as the Reverend John Wilkins, and later the Reverend Richard Bentley defended Galileo’s observations, Kepler’s ideas of planetary movement, the Copernican system, and the principle of plenitude. All these, for them, were in agreement with the Bible. Aliens existed due to God’s power; all the inhabitants of all the worlds were created to glorify Him. This became a common stance for almost two centuries thereafter.

The Enlightenment

The principles of pluralism were not specific to religious men from this point on. There was, for example, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, whose work Entretiens sur la Pluralite des Mondes (1687) made him a key figure in the dissemination of pluralist ideas throughout the population. There was also the mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Thomas Wright of Durham, Immanuel Kant, Johann Lambert, Jérôme Lalande, Johann Schröter, Johann Bode and many others, proclaiming that the plurality of worlds proved the glory and omnipotence of God; the existence of different aliens in different worlds was an expression of God’s power and generosity.

In the eighteenth century, the Hutchinsonians (after their religious founder John Hutchinson 1674-1737) attempted to put a cautionary and temporary brake on this pluralist euphoria by rejecting science and embracing the “only truths” of the Bible. They did this to reclaim Earth’s central position in the Universe. However, influential writers such as Thomas Paine maintained the balance of cultural and scientific discussion with the message that God proves his omnipotence and generosity in the plurality of inhabited worlds, though this was a part of his larger ideas on religious tolerance.

Against this rather subjective background William Whewell, who also had concerns about pluralism, wrote Of the Plurality of Worlds: an Essay (1853), assuming that God would create only one planet with rational beings: Earth. He felt that in a vast Universe, where God could take care of all created beings, humanity would lose the personal relationship with God. Since Whewell advocated a special a special place for us in Creation and in the eyes of God, his reasoning was that God would create lower animals in other planets, but rational ones only on Earth. Sir David Brewster strongly opposed this view, and even used passages from the Bible to prove that the Holy Scripture allows for intelligent aliens elsewhere. For him, God would not create other worlds in vain; they had to be inhabited with rational beings that could praise God. The Reverand Robert Knight also involved himself by defending the traditional viewpoint of church scholars from Tempier to Wilkins with his influential by rather mystic work The Plurality of Worlds: the Positive Argument from Scripture (1855), pointing out that astronomers may one day find extraterrestrials that may not be “palpable” to human sight.

With no evidence one way or another, the arguments continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Men knowledgeable in both science and religion, like Thomas Chalmers and Thomas Dick, used the extraterrestrial motif in their sermons as a form of marketing; it excited people into thinking that all beings in the Universe were created by God to praise Him. Much can be learned from their approach.

Conclusion

A careful reading reveals an acceptance of the idea of extraterrestrials within the history of the Church and attempts to rationalize it with science and the scriptures as proof of God’s omnipotence and benevolence. Both scientists and theologians of these periods agreed with that stance. Although there were dissenting voices, the potential of extraterrestrial life continued to be widely accepted and popular; Christianity just had to adapt itself to it. As we have seen in this brief overview, since 1277 the Church in its Catholic and Protestant forms are willing to accept the existence of extraterrestrial life and their adaptation has not been sudden or forced upon it by the revelations of science. The words of Reverend Funes are not a novelty; they are just the latest of a long line of similar statements. From a scientific point of view, the discovery of extraterrestrial life will alter our perceptions of ourselves, our importance, our philosophies and our place in the cosmos. Will it do the same for people of faith?

References

BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7399661.stm
Basalla, G. (2006), Civilized Life in the Universe: scientists on intelligent extraterrestrials. New York: Oxford University Press
Crowe, M. J. (1999), The Extraterrestrial Debate 1750–1900, New York: Dover
Dick, S. J. (1982), Plurality of Worlds: the origins of the extraterrestrial life debate, from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Hennessey R. A. S. (1999) Worlds Without End – The Historic Search for Extraterrestrial Life (Tempus Gloucester)
L’ Osservatore Romano 13th May 2008
Shostak, S. et al. (2003), Life in the Universe (San Francisco: Addison Wesley)
The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/content/amvo/vatican_okays_space_aliens
White, M. (2006) The Pope and the Heretic (Abacus Publishing London)