how not to shift the theological goalposts for hypothetical aliens

When confronted with aliens that could challenge a faith that hasn’t changed for over a thousand years, theologians stand ready and willing… to rationalize away the facts and nuances of their own religion.

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While the news keep calling Kepler-452b another Earth before somewhere in the depth of most breathless articles noting that all we know about it is that it’s rocky, similar in size to us, and it’s orbiting its parent sun exactly where it should to have liquid water, but we have no idea if it can actually support life or if its atmosphere actually allows liquid water to remain liquid. After all, we thought for many centuries that Venus must be a tropical rain forest underneath its clouds. As a candidate for a second Earth it was perfect on paper. Same size, the right orbit to allow for vast oceans of liquid water, thick atmosphere; it all looked so promising. And then the Soviets ruined everything by landing a probe on its surface to confirm it was a planet sized kiln, and the clouds were actually a miasma of noxious poisons. Kepler-452b could easily turn out to be suffering an eerily similar fate. Of course, it would be amazing if we could take direct snapshots of it and see massive oceans and clouds of water vapor, but until then, we should hold the champagne.

Regardless of what we learn about Kepler-452 however, theologian Mark Lindsay is ready with an opening salvo against the unbelievers who would use another Earth as an argument against the religious tenet that humanity was specially created by a deity and destined to play a big role in the fate of the cosmos. Just like every high minded theologian, he adopts a toned down view expressed by Bruno that the magnificence and wisdom of God could not be constrained just by one planet but that the Bible allows for many planets and many beings on those planets that all happen to be God’s children. Therefore, he says, should we find intelligent Keplarians, they will be another confirmation of the vast reach of the divine powers of creation rather than proof that our world’s religions aren’t up to snuff when we look to the stars with some knowledge of what’s out there and what we’re doing. It sounds like the comforting, borderline-deist verbal ointments voiced before when the scientific search for alien life got underway. But it also glosses over the important and immutable parts of faith academic theologians like Lindsay so often avoid.

Remember the opinion voiced by Bruno that Earth isn’t the only inhabited planet watched by an almighty creator liberally borrowed by Lindsay? Do you also happen to remember how it ended for him? Rather than being praised for his insight and his ability to harmonize science with faith, he was burned on a pyre as a heretic. Many believers hold that their faith is special and the text they call sacred is literal and inerrant. Should you question it or reject any of it, they are justified in retaliating against you, be it shunning you until you’re a social outcast, or murdering you with machetes for the glory of their god. Nowhere do many religious texts speak of other worlds, and those that do refer to them as places where gods dwell rather than just other Earths. Just tell a cleric who preaches his faith in ISIS territories that Earth may not be the only world where Allah watches what happens and see how that works for you. Or try asking Evangelical Christians for an opinion of evolution on alien worlds and try to have an open-minded discussion. Ivory tower theologians seem to forget how literally the faithful take their holy texts and how big of an issue that becomes when they’re taken out of their comfort zone. It’s a debate-changing omission.

Also, how many religious texts hold that certain people are picked over others to play a bigger, or defining role in universal affairs? How many chosen people are there? What about aliens on other worlds intelligent enough to try and interact with us? What’s their role in the universe and which holy text says that? Do the ones that do contradict each other and if they clash, which of these inerrant, literal, irrefutable texts is the right one? These aren’t trivial questions by the way, but very real problems posed by introducing an intelligent species into ancient religions. If they are also God’s children, where in the family tree do they fit? There definitely have been many a sincere attempt to look for alien-friendly metaphors in Torahs, Bibles, and Qu’rans, but none of them have been accepted by mainstream theologians, much less mainstream believers as the faith’s canon. As far as today’s gamut of belief runs, there seem to be only two places for aliens to occupy. They’re either irrelevant to God’s plan and shouldn’t even be mentioned, or they are actually angels or demigods in their own right sent by a deity to warn, teach, or punish us.

Of course the latter possibility only applies to highly advanced alien civilizations that understand interstellar travel and can communicate with us, and only in the context of highly educated, and wealthy nations where fundamentalism tends to be more subdued on average. What if they are not that far ahead of humans as far as science and technology goes? What rules apply to them out of the holy texts? If there are things humans do that displease God, surely there must be an equally important list of prohibitions for the aliens. We’re told that here on Earth, premarital sex is a sin. If the alien species in question don’t have the concept of marriage, are they all sinners, or are they exempt from the universal law of morality ordained by God? If homosexual pairings anger God who made all things male and female, do hermaphroditic aliens violate the law or do they have to follow a different set of rules? If they have their own set of divine rules to follow, is this list handed down to them and if so, in what form? Are they, like humans, apparently meant to follow some of the laws but not others citing some grand religiously historical effect?

All these questions might seem positively asinine in context, especially when talking about alien species we know nothing about and which may not even exist. But at the same time, when you take to a public podium and proclaim that your faith is ready for alien life without demonstrating how exactly it would work in light of the new discovery and how you intend to get today’s faithful to follow your lead, these are the kind of questions that go unanswered. Simply throwing out an extremely confident assertion that your religion can withstand whatever your throw at it without actually throwing anything at it to demonstrate means that you’ve just dodged the question you wanted to address. When citing a scientist’s argument about aliens being bad news for God as his jump-off point, Lindsay scoffs that his verbal target has no experience or knowledge how to properly analyze a religious text. He then hypocritically spends the rest of his argument parsing conveniently sourced semantics that aren’t even from the Bible. And this is why it’s hard to take a theologian espousing the powers of his faith in light of new science seriously. Instead of really asking what new discoveries means for their faith, they craft reflexive, soothing word salads.

# space // alien life / faith / fundamentalism / religion

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