Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Elohim and Aliens

Jeez, everyone really knows that this post should be properly entitled "God and ET", as was this somewhat diffidently written article that showed up in The Atlantic a few years ago. I'd like to examine questions raised in this article. Questions and problems surrounding organized religion in the event of discovering extraterrestrial sentience are a bit topical with this news (via Someday I Will):

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican’s chief astronomer says that believing in aliens does not contradict faith in God.

The Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, says that the vastness of the universe means it is possible there could be other forms of life outside Earth, even intelligent ones.

In an interview published today by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Funes says that such a notion "doesn’t contradict our faith" because aliens would still be God’s creatures.

The interview was headlined "The extraterrestrial is my brother." Funes said that ruling out the existence of aliens would be like "putting limits" on God’s creative freedom.

Less cocky was Arthur C Clarke, who opined that extraterrestrial sentient life would be a death knell for organized religion (incidentally, who knew they had an official astronomer? Naturally he's a Jesuit.)

I would like to mention three things up front before looking at some issues:
  • It's not a bad bet that sentient alien life exists. We can debate this point elsewhere, but there are just so many stars (100 billion billion) that I have to think there's self-aware life somewhere, even if we never meet. For the purposes of our discussion, it isn't important that they meet. Check out the famous "Drake Equation" for more.
  • I will be mainly speaking of Christianity, partially because this discussion is sparked by the Vatican's statement, and also because it is the dominant religion in spacefaring nations.
  • The single essential source from which to approach this topic is Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan.

Sagan proceed through many arguments against and for the existence of a god/gods. He doesn't do it quite as clearly or efficiently as, say, Richard Dawkins, but he does a fairly good job.

Where Sagan excels, and something of which the Vatican seems unaware, is looking at the sheer myopia of a faith rooted in a time when only six planets were identified. A time when planets were suspended in crystal spheres. So much of Christian theology -- particularly fundamentalist dogma -- was written in a time where humans were the only conceivable mortal in town.

I see three equally unhappy possibilities facing Christians if sentient life is indeed detected another planet. I keep in mind important stories in "Christian salvation history":
God condemns humankind for eating an apple in the Garden of Eden, God takes a giant eraser to the Earth project in the form of a giant flood, and God invents polyglotism after crashing the Tower of Babel.

  • ET is throughout our spiritual past, constantly lurking out of eyesight. He was in Eden, aided in the construction of the Tower, and had his own Ark during the Flood. He's culpable in human misadventures, and is justly condemned. Jesus died for him as well as us...Jesus just never mentioned it, and never bothered going to their planet.
  • ET had a parallel set of experiences during which God condemned him for being human himself. Maybe Jesus was also killed there to achieve their salvation (so much for that "God's only son" business).
  • ET is hated by the universal God. He didn't screw up like humans did with suffering Original Sin and the killing of the Saviour, but isn't the recipient of God's largesse to the Chosen and Re-Chosen People. ET is ignored by God.

Oh, and they're not even made in God's image! God created ETs world during his down time, tossing it off incidentally in the creation of life, before he'd warmed up to the important act of creating Earth.

Living in Montreal, one was regularly exposed to one attempt to reconcile the Old Testament to the possibility of sentient life off-planet: the idea that the Hebrew word "Elohim" which is usually taken in English to mean "angels" actually means "aliens". A French journalist founded a sect/cult called Raelianism that basically offers aliens to take God's place. Being largely in the French language, it's notable in France, but was a presence in Montreal where somber-faced adherents silently offered a small pamphlet adorned with the classic alien visage.

As a matter of fact, Raelians tell us, aliens are waiting to help us out once we build them a suitable landing pad in the appropriate place -- a city that may just be the most inhospitable in the world for such a project. Want to guess? For a hint, look at the first letter of the initial three words of this post.

1 comment:

alfred said...