religion, now with aliens

The Catholic Church is telling believers that any discovery of alien life fits firmly in their dogmas.

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In May of last year, Father Gabriel Funes attracted a few sideways glances after he said that not only could intelligent aliens exist on other worlds but they would be free from original sin since there’s nothing in the Bible about aliens eating the forbidden fruit. It wasn’t just a random statement of a rank and file priest. Funes is an astronomer and the director of the Vatican’s observatory, so when he stated his opinion in a Vatican newspaper, the BBC and other European media outlets took notice and printed a short summary.

Though reported as a novel oddity, Funes’ thoughts on alien life and their relation to the Bible are an important indication that sooner or later, the world’s religions will have to address the concept of alien life. Even a few decades ago, organized religions could get away with absolute silence on the subject. It all seemed so speculative, so far away and so improbable. But things have changed in this millennium. The idea of finding aliens any day now is exploding from the headlines and whether a planet or a moon is a good candidate for an alien habitat is invariably being asked with each new exoplanet and each pass through the outer solar system.

When the search for alien life is making daily headlines, it seems like a good time for religious institutions to start delivering some opinions on aliens and how they fit into all the dogmas and doctrines. It’s an important preemptive act because the discovery of an actual Martian microbe, for example, could make many of the world’s faithful start wondering why their holy books say nothing about life on Mars or on any other planet. That’s especially true in the West, where the Vatican feels that it has to embark on campaigns discouraging secularism and large groups of fundamentalists are trying to get more and more political control to legislate their ideology on the grounds that too many people disagree with them and are losing touch with their faith.

Another interesting tangent is where the discovery of life on Mars would leave creationists who argue that there’s no way that life could survive in a cold, harsh habitat and needs a caring and advanced deity to care for it and make it more and more complex? As some commenters on PZ Myers’ blog noted, even alien life wouldn’t damper the spirits of hardline creationists. They could point to the fact that for all intents and purposes, life on the red planet couldn’t evolve in complexity which proves that without the hand of a creator, macroevolution is impossible. No need to note that the environment wouldn’t allow more complex creatures to survive and that’s the best Martian life can do. That brings up that pesky natural selection thing which creationists like to attribute to terrible historical events and thus reject it on ideological grounds alone.

They could claim that germs from our spacecraft contaminated the surface of the planet and it really isn’t the discovery of life as much as proof of divinely ordained panspermia. It’s possible but the harsh UV rays and bitter cold that sterilize the top few inches of Martian soil where our robots operate, would kill pretty much anything from Earth. Even if a few microbes did survive, they wouldn’t have time to grow fast enough to establish a planet-wide methane cycle. If you’re thinking of how the discovery of aliens on our planetary neighbor would cool the jets of ardent creationists, you might want to adjust your expectations accordingly. Same goes for icy moons of gas giants. The harsher the environment, the slower the evolution and the louder the cries of protest.

# astrobiology // alien life / faith / religion


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