greetings, we are here to convert you?
Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that you’re living in the far future in which travel to other stars is not a mundane task per se, but something that does happen on a fairly regular basis and you were offered to work on a vessel departing for a habitable planet in another solar system, a planet we know is inhabited because over the years, we’ve figured out how to communicate with the intelligent beings who live there. After years of travel, you reach that planet, disembark from your craft, greet the aliens, and then, one of your fellow explorers starts a conversation about their souls and how they really should get to know their deity so they don’t end up in the fiery pits of Hell for all eternity. And funny enough, your colleague may have been inspired by a Vatican-endorsed lecture do that since the Pope’s chief astronomer has been pondering these questions aloud for a few years at this point, even mentioning that aliens may have been born without original sin. Of course the real issue at hand here is whether brining religion into SETI programs might just backfire spectacularly…
Obviously, dedicated believers who think they’ve encountered their deity of choice and due to that belief have a completely irrefutable set of truths about the universe residing in their heads, will gasp at the notion that using formal opportunities to get to know someone better is not an appropriate time to talk about their religion. Then again, dedicated believers tend to be very self-absorbed and easily offended, confident that their noble goal of bringing everyone closer to their deity was rebuffed by rude simpletons who haven’t yet received “the truth” in a telepathic package, a truth which somehow tends to end up right in line with their personal opinions on how a world should be run. So imagine that you’re finally sitting down face to face with an intelligent alien and you’ve now been forced into a very awkward and uncomfortable conversation, and depending on the full extent of your fellow astronaut’s situational unawareness, perhaps even an argument about who is right about the universe, his dogmas or the beliefs of others. Well that promising little meeting went downhill very quickly, wouldn’t you say? And it could be even worse if the aliens in question have their own very fervent beliefs and really, really do not like what they’re hearing from your rather impolite and insistent colleague.
The situation above is how wars have started on our own world many times, a breakdown in communication during which both parties felt deeply insulted. What if the aliens in question have a very similar mindset to an average Medieval religious institution which responded to the expression of different beliefs with violence? If you start slighting the extraterrestrials’ beliefs, you may find yourself not only exiled from their world but as one of the first victims in an interstellar holy war. Then you can forget all the issues with alien invasions meant to boost the invaders’ resources and the notion of galactic resource predators because this one will be very, very personal and the sheer hatred of the human heathens is going to set the aliens’ weapons towards Earth and those who live on it. Forget negotiations. Has a negotiation with a bloodthirsty fundamentalist ever been successful without both sides incurring losses so heavy they just had to stop fighting for a while? To restrain potentially bloody interstellar torrents of irrational fury, maybe it’s a bad idea to try and convert aliens to human religions, and even better yet, extend the same approach to religious conversation to our thinking on Earth? It really is quite bizarre for a person to think that they’ve been telepathically granted the keys to the universe and that anyone who opposes them should be slaughtered or at least subjugated.
Really, allowing one’s religious beliefs utterly consume someone’s thinking is a concept we encouraged out of obstinate momentum and it’s given us the Crusades, the destruction of great libraries of antiquity, rape and pillage over millennia, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the modern asymmetrical wars being fought across a large swath of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. And maybe, just maybe, after considering what we should and shouldn’t say to an alien creature about religion and why, we can turn the same kind of thought process back to our world and note how well it applies to us. This is just another way studying space is really a way to study ourselves by allowing us to frame our own questions and problems in a light unencumbered by our preexisting biases and traditions. And maybe what we really need for a more peaceful world.