Merill Miller asks, “What would it mean for belief – or non-belief – if we discovered the existence of extraterrestrial life?”
This question is central to the premise of a new book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal with It? by David Weintraub, an astronomy professor at Vanderbilt University. The book examines the stances, if any, of the world’s major religions in regards to the possibility of life beyond our own planet. Wintraub reports that one-fifth to one-third of Americans believe that alien life exists, and with the exponential increase in the discovery of new planets, finding one that would harbor living beings seems more and more likely.
However, not all Americans are quick to embrace the idea of extraterrestrials. While Weintraub found that 55 percent of atheists felt that the existence of aliens was possible, his book also states that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are the least likely of any religious group in the United States to embrace the thought that life may exist beyond Earth. An article on Futurity examines this reticence of fundamentalists Christians to believe in aliens in terms of salvation – Christian concepts of original sin and the need for atonement through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross would be complicated by the existence of otherworldly beings who may or may not require the same redemption.
But as Megan Gannon notes, “some Christians who interpret the Bible quite literally might actually have an easier time incorporating the existence of aliens into their spiritual cosmology”:
Many Seventh-day Adventists, for example, are creationists who believe the Earth was literally created by God in six days some 6,000 years ago and that humans descended — and inherited original sin — from Adam and Eve. In that line of thinking, life could exist on other planets, but beings that didn’t descend from Adam and Eve on Earth wouldn’t be inherently sinful, and effectively, they wouldn’t need Christianity to be saved, Weintraub told Live Science.
Seventh-day Adventism’s flexibility with regard to aliens might be a product of the time in which the religion was founded (the 19th century). During the 1700s and 1800s, there was a strong popular belief in extraterrestrial life, Weintraub said. The telescope (a relatively recent invention) finally allowed astronomers to peek at other planets and moons in our solar system, but scientists didn’t yet fully understand that these celestial bodies were barren. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the religions that began at that time — Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baha’i Faith — all have a strong belief in extraterrestrial life, Weintraub said. In contrast, the notion of extraterrestrial life was for the most part irrelevant to religions that began thousands of years ago.
But more ancient religious traditions might be coming around. Last month, the head of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, Guy Consolmagno, declared the discovery of alien life basically inevitable.