© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen
Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck. Thomas Jefferson
Upon his arrival in San Diego in 1930, Albert Einstein was asked, “Were there men living elsewhere in the universe?” “Other beings, perhaps, but not men,” he answered. “Did science and religion conflict?” “Not really,” he said, “though it depends, of course, on your religious views.” Walter Isaacson, Einstein
Not only are we in the Universe, the Universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. Robin Wall Kimmerer
Humans are curious creatures. We want to know things. And among the things we want to know are answers to questions such as, “Why are we here?” “How did life begin?” “What is the meaning of life?” And, “Are we alone in the universe?” Ever since humans began walking the earth, religion and science have tried to answer these questions.
Each discipline tries to make sense of life and the world we experience, and each have informed the other. The reality they describe, whether alike or different, informs human behavior. If we believe the world is flat, we would not likely take a round-the-world cruise. If we believe humankind is the epitome of God’s creation and lesser creatures exist only to meet human need, then our behavior towards animals would be different than if we thought of animals as our relations. If we believe vaccines cause autism, we’re less likely to get vaccinated. My personal understanding of reality allows me to trust that gravity will not fail, the moon will continue to rotate around earth, and I won’t drift off into the starry heavens. Our ideas about reality matter.
In ancient days, reality was different. More accurately, reality wasn’t different, people’s perceptions of it were different. During Ptolemy’s time, Earth was at the center of the planetary system. In 150 ACE, this mathematician-astronomer observed, “In brief, all the observed order … would be thrown into utter confusion if the earth were not in the middle.” For generations, Ptolemy, followed by Aristotle, were the unquestioned authorities on planetary motion. As Christianity developed over the centuries, church leaders affirmed this earth-centric belief because it aligned with their understanding of Biblical truth.
Nicolaus Copernicus challenged this reality in 1543 by showing that earth moved around the sun. To avoid church anger, he said this was only a possibility. His ideas were met with mixed reviews. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1632, Galileo published a Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Galileo’s calculations improved upon Copernicus’ work, and angered Roman Catholic leaders. For correctly describing a reality that refuted church doctrine, Galileo was accused of heresy, put on trial, and threatened with torture unless he recanted. Under duress, Galileo said, “I abandon the false opinion which maintains that the Sun is the center and immovable.” Placed under house arrest, but still able to work, he died ten years later. Only in 1992, did Pope John Paul II formally agree that Galileo was right.
Despite the church, a mere twenty years after Galileo’s death, the sun-centric view was accepted by most scientists. Displacing earth from the center of God’s creation caused a paradigm shift as they adjusted to this new reality.
Charles Darwin caused the next paradigm shift by suggesting that humans evolved from the great apes. He decentered humans from God’s creation by linking us to other creatures. Many religious fundamentalists, or creationists, refuse to acknowledge evolution because their version of Biblical truth doesn’t allow for it.
As Unitarian Universalism’s 5th Source indicates, we accept the findings of science, even when it rocks our understanding of the world. We’re likely to experience another paradigm shift when we definitively answer the question, “Are we alone?”
In recent years, astronomers have detected numerous planets orbiting stars, roughly 4,000 so far [https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/], several are potentially earth-like [The Guardian]. It seems only a short matter of time before we detect some form of life existing on an extra-terrestrial planet. E.T. just might be out there, waiting for us to phone.
The current Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, Seth Shostak, guesses we’ll hear from E.T. within 20 years. [www.syfy.com/syfywire/how-seti-plans-find-alien-life-2037] SETI is the acronym for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
If we heard from or met some intelligent life from outer space, our understanding of reality would need to accommodate the fact that we’re not alone. For many who believe humans are created in God’s image, would a creature with wildly different anatomy also be in God’s image? To answer how this discovery might impact religion, some are developing an exo-theology ahead of that meeting, a way to understand alien life within their religious tradition.
Fitting aliens into our liberal religion won’t be difficult, though it will still be mind-blowing. Would we fear aliens among us, or welcome them? Would they be like us? Would we understand their needs, hopes, or ways of being? How would we share resources and power? These questions are hard to imagine, much less answer.
You may wonder why we should even consider these questions, given what feels like a remote possibility of hearing from E.T. But as technology continues to advance, that time will be less and less remote. If the universe is roughly 14 billion years old, and Earth is one-quarter as old, a planet beyond our solar system could easily be older. That added age gives life a longer time to develop intelligence, technology, and space travel. Even if we’re not ready to go boldly as no one has gone before, it doesn’t mean E.T. isn’t. Considering that eventual meeting in advance should help us be prepared.
Besides helping us manage that future event, I think the question “Are we alone?”, might help us rethink how we behave towards one another on Earth now. If we assume the existence of an extra-terrestrial species, might it encourage us to notice human differences less? Racial, religious, political, class, and other divides might look pretty small by comparison. If aliens were hostile, we’d need to work together for our survival. Even if they were peaceful, we’d need to work together for the common good. I’d like to think we could change the way we treat one another on earth now, before E.T. dials our number.
If we learned that no other life exists in the universe, intelligent or not, how intelligent is it to continue being so divisive, violent, and ready to go to war? If life on Earth truly is unique and a miracle, whether by God or a perfect set of circumstances, then shouldn’t we want to protect the incredible diversity of life and care for our home planet better than we do? It seems very human to care for things that are precious and few. If something is quite common, we tend to value it less. Perhaps we can be encouraged to think less about our individual needs and consider our shared, communal needs more. Since we don’t know if we’re alone, let’s value all life more.
Carl Sagan once said, “In the deepest sense the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.” Both science and religion will help us learn who we are, where we come from, and if we’re alone. Science can provide some answers about reality, but ethics, religion, and philosophy have their place in helping us make meaning of that knowledge, and will inform how we should behave in light of that knowledge.
Let’s be sure they work together, that dogma doesn’t get in the way. As our fifth Unitarian Universalist source suggests, let us heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, while warning us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
May it be so, even as we live within the mystery.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- How do you use science and religion in your search for truth and meaning? Are you encouraged to consider both religious understandings and scientific knowledge?
- Does science demystify and flatten life, or complement your spirituality or sense of awe and wonder?
- How do you explain the source of the universe or all existence? Does the answer affect your life? Share.
- Would you welcome aliens or fear learning that intelligent life exists on other planets? Share your feelings.