William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Writer Says Discovery Of Extraterrestrial Life Would Be Bad News For God. God Says Nope

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The danger of writing about that in which you are ignorant is that you’re bound to look foolish. Let’s see an example.

Jeff Schweitzer, who bills himself as a scientist and “former White House Senior Policy Analyst”, writes that because astronomers recently discovered yet another planet “we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe“. Actually, since astronomers have been telling us for quite some time that planets besides those in our solar system are exceedingly common, we are no closer at all, especially since there have not been any discoveries of extraterrestrial life.

But that let pass: it is a harmless mistake. Schweitzer goes on to make blunders which are far more fantastic. It’s his guess that if life is discovered on some remote planet, it will set the world’s religions on their ears.

I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens.

In a way, you have to admire the brazen conceit of such modern atheists. They consistently believe, in direct contradiction to freely available evidence, that they are the first to have thoughts on many subjects. (Reminds me of a joke I saw on Twitter: An atheist, vegan, and crossfitter walk into a bar…I only know because they told everybody within two minutes.)

In 2009 the Vatican had a conference on SETI (and more details here). Before that, the chief astronomer of the Vatican, Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, gave an interview at which he said extraterrestrial life is no problem for the Church, and that it fits in fine with Catholic theology.

The philosopher David Oderberg has written on the philosophy of rational beings like ourselves, and finds no difficulty (see this paper). There is a branch of religion called exotheology whose purpose is to study how fits into the usual Christian beliefs. C. S. Lewis wrote the novel Perelandra exploring questions of sin and redemption among aliens.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is nothing new or frightening about the idea of rational material beings other than ourselves to Christian theology.

Schweitzer continues:

Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days. So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications.

The man does give some indication that he has glanced through the text, but he managed to miss the point. And angels: he missed angels, too. Angels are, as Peter Kreeft often reminds us, extraterrestrial rational, but not material beings, also made by God.

As I’ve often pointed out, atheists are overly prone to read the Genesis account literally. Let St Augustine have the last word on this topic:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

We’ll also skip over the Galileo business, and think about this from Schweitzer:

None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period. If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight. So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story. How could a convincing story of life’s creation leave out life? Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.

Ignore that Schweitzer uses an expurgated Bible, and focus on Schweitzer’s I-Know-What-God-Would-Do Fallacy, an exceedingly obnoxious and frequent error. Who says God shouldn’t mention other life in the universe? Schweitzer says. And how does Schweitzer know? Schweitzer doesn’t: he made it up.

Schweitzer then uses his self-created belief about God would do to say that because God didn’t do this or that particular thing, therefore God cannot exist.

Sheesh.

Thanks to Sheri for bringing this to our attention.

24 Comments

  1. What would people do without strawmen and fallacies? The publishing industry and mass media would collapse.

  2. “Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense. ”

    Really? Seriously?

    How would it have made sense to have mentioned life elsewhere to the primitive peoples to whom the word was originally given?

    How does this not qualify as a logical and sensible omission of irrelevant information?

    No man is as blind as he who will not see.

  3. I wonder about the psychological motivations of those who yearn for the discovery of alien life. Why are they so eager to discover “we are not alone”? There are about 7 billion candidates closely available for friendship and comforting should it be a monophobia issue. Just what do they think their responsibilities will be when George the Martian (copyright, wmbriggs) is discovered? Paternalism? Sycophancy? Worship? Or is the journey of fantasy the thrill?

    MattS: Yes, the blindness of trying to bend all things to fit one’s limited vision is remarkable.

  4. I have been so waiting for a chance to use this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5mWQFGF7w8

  5. My mother always said there were no aliens because we were God’s children. I reminded her she had four children, why couldn’t God have other children? She said it wasn’t the same thing.

    One must also realize that God is an alien (you can’t build the house you were born in). As noted, the angels also are aliens. Why does the idea of other aliens bothers some? My guess is we aren’t special and unique if there are others. Kind of like spoiled only children who suddenly have a sibling brought home from the hospital. We don’t want to share.

  6. Genesis does not mention the creation of the emu.

    The emu exists.

    Hence, any Christian sect which regards Genesis as allegorical peotry — and any non-Christian religion which regards Genesis as a knock-knock joke — is proven false.

    Q.E.D. I’ll be here all week, try the veal.

  7. RE: “Writer Says Discovery Of Extraterrestrial Life Would Be Bad News For God. God Says Nope”

    QUESTION: Which God?

    “In 2009 the Vatican had a conference on SETI … extraterrestrial life is no problem for the Church, and that it fits in fine with Catholic theology.”

    OK, so the Catholic church’s God is ok with ET.

    But that’s hardly representative – the Catholic church is also ok with evolution, while so many other “Christian” faiths are not. Episcopalians, some at least, are ok with gays, others not…and so it goes…with some of those other religions (all “Christian,” by the way) saying to the discovery of ET not only ‘not ok’ [embellishments aside], but also that that will never happen.

    All those “Christians” citing so many God-given terms & conditions that include and exclude so much of the same things at the same time (e.g. evolution ok for Catholics, not ok for evangelicals; gays ok with some Episcopalians [and other denominations], not ok with others; and so it goes & goes in the public policy area and others as well). And there’s the inconsistencies within any one denomination over time (e.g. Mormon’s prohibition against caffeine…except after that institution bought Coke’s stock, then the prohibition was relaxed to allow consumption of Coke products….).

    Obviously, “Christians” are polytheistic as a bunch overall, though self-segregated to monotheistic worship of similar, but in some ways profoundly different, gods. Not to mention that Islam & Judaism claim the very same exact god of the Catholics (and nevermind about all those non-Christian deities). That, or some are wrong. Given the demographic distribution, “some” (those who are wrong) are the majority of “Christians” (i.e. believing/practicing what is known as “heresy”) who are really heretics. When someone says that they’re a “Christian,” odds are, they’re a heretic.

    The devil is in the details…

    ….hey! can we get a lengthy, detailed, discourse on the nature of Satan like Augustine’s bit on the nature of God?

    Isn’t that just as important as Augustine’s ‘nature of God’ “proof” – knowing what to be on the lookout for / what we’re up against is to be better prepared to evade? Readers of the Bible know that one thing to be alert for is/are “false prophets”… sure looks like those are doing well given hardly anybody seems capable of noticing most are “false.”

  8. Sander van der Wal

    July 30, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    If there are lots of aliens, how many of them have Original Sin? And how many of them have had a Jesus saving them? Would a Hail Mary work for them too?

    This is after all about Christians, a special kind of Theists who believe that without Jesus they will be doomed.

  9. Ken: You’re reading a site inhabited by a Catholic. Why do you ask which God? It’s really quite evident which one is being referred to. Could you not figure that out?

    One supposes there could be a posting on Satan, but you would just lead off with the “Who’s Satan are you writing about “? Some religions don’t believe in Satan, some worship him. Seems it would be a waste of time to write such a post considering who made the request.

    Sander van der Wal: Some aliens may have committed the same sin as did Adam and Eve, assuming they were made in God’s image and given the same instructions as Adam and Eve. It is not required that God use the same disciplinary actions on all beings. People often use different methods of disciplining their children, depending on the child’s personality. It’s unlikely a Hail Mary would work since Mary is part of Earth’s history. Doesn’t translate to other planets.

  10. Ken

    ….Episcopalians hah!

    Using them as an honest example of the Christian faith, funniest thing you’ve ever said in your entire life.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    July 30, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Also relevant, the following. In Augustine’s day the idea of planets orbiting other stars was not on the table, but that doesn’t mean they did not speculate on other intelligent beings. They just figured they lived “far away”:

    It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth: others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:” they say that in some places the woman conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth. So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvelous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee: they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet. Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities. What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men? But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.
    — Augustine of Hippo, The City of God Chap. 16, Book 8.

    Also, it should be noted that while the scientist-writer seems to be a fundamentalist, roughly two-thirds of all Christians are Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, so while all the others might fall away gob-smacked at the discovery of ET, most Christians would carry on.

    Perhaps, like most of those who get their theological understanding from backwoods 19th century America, he may be confusing what people believe with what a Church teaches.

  12. Kudos to Ye Olde Statistician for providing one excellent example. Even more, the question has already come up in practice, when the New World (and its inhabitants) were discovered by Europeans.

    The Catholic Church was clear about the status and identity of the inhabitants of the New World essentially from the beginning. For instance, missionaries accompanied Columbus on his very next voyage to “the Indies.” In 1537 Pope Paul III issued the formal papal document Sublimis Deus to clarify that “The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ.”

    That being said, it is passing strange that in this modern day, so far removed from the disgusting religious barbarities of at least nominally-Catholic sixteenth-century Catholic society, a tree, a clutch of turtle eggs, a lion, may de facto, and even de jure, be treated as more “human” than millions of innocent human beings. The leading yearly cause of death in the United States, by a huge majority, remains, not cancer or heart disease, but abortion.

    On the other hand, I have read at least some of the semi-official or non-official pronouncements of things like the SETI conference, and I am not impressed. Insouciant hand-waving, with little actual argument, let alone any serious theology, is what I think. And ‘philosophers’, so-called exotheology, and Perelandra, you venture?

    None of which take the actual sacraments of the actual Catholic Church with any seriousness. (C.S. Lewis, anti-Romanist to the end, certainly did not). If Jesus — you know, that actual human guy, born of the Virgin, crucified, died, buried, Risen — is Lord, what could ‘exotheology’ even mean? ‘Exo’ of what? The particularity of the Christ, the Lord of History, the Lord of all Creation, has always been a flat scandal. As if ‘exotheologians’ answer why you cannot baptize your dog. It is to laugh.

    I have hinted at the seriousness of the underlying issues above. For pity’s sake, a Trans-Humanist movement is upon us, at least in aspiration; intelligent naifs predict the rapid approach of the AI Singularity; civil law now defines a turtle egg in a Florida cove as possessing more inherent sacredness than a baby in the womb; and on and on.

    The status, classification, and dignity of “human” on this earth is put in question every day now. Dogs have been “baptized,” though according to theological experts, including apparently the present pontiff, actual human beings have no particular cutting need to long for baptism and full reception into the Catholic Church, though it might be nice.

    The very notion of “human” on this planet is /disappearing/being forgotten/being destroyed/ before our eyes. A couple of vacuous remarks at a SETI conference cannot really bear such a weight.

    There are enormous questions involved. Are the actual sacraments of the actual Catholic Church indispensable for the salvation of all human beings universally, and in truth, indispensable for the rescue of the entire Creation, which, though not human, yet “groans”, as St. Paul tells us?

    And there are other, most weighty, theological issues, such as the very nature of the human substance, by which (to turn it around) we are like Jesus, in all ways but sin.

    Not to mention the utter pre-eminence of the human being in Creation. There is, and cannot be, ever, anything or anyone so important as us, who have ineradicable co-shared, covenantal, “Dominion” over, and co-shared, covenantal, moral responsibility for, the whole of Creation, to the last light-year, to the last quark. Not because of our merit, but entirely because Jesus is Lord — and, to the extent that we are truly, fully human, we are like Him, of the same human substance as Him. So thus we simpletons “complete what is lacking in His afflictions,” and have a share in His responsible Lordship over the whole of Creation.

    Hence, a fuller investigation of our humanity, and our fallenness and our redemption, awaits a greater, deeper turn to Him, a turn in part — desperate part — theological, but even more practical and lived.

    Yes, “Contact”-mavens from before Carl Sagan and on haven’t thought much of anything through. But we are being tested daily now, as to the nature of the human substance, and whether the sacraments are real, and whether they are indispensable to human life.

    And we’re not doing that hot on the subject, even on this planet.

  13. Contra Schwitzer,

    In the 500 or so page od Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life makes no mention of life unrelated to terrestrial life, and further Darwin specifically bases his work on the premise that all life is related and comes from a single ancestor. If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight. So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of evolution, and anything that follows from that story. How could a convincing story of life’s creation leave out life? Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.

  14. If you’re going to be skeptical of Biblical texts there are far more serious problems to address than the silliness that Schwitzer mentioned. The existence of many other religions with pedigrees equal to the Christian, or the discovery that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, were far more serious intellectually than current speculations over alien life. Yet all the major religions have survived.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    July 30, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    the discovery that the Earth was not at the center of the universe

    Interstingly, one of the actual theological objections to Copernicus was that it elevated humans into the heavens. In the traditional view, Earth was at the bottom of the world, the most ignoble position save for hell itself (which was thought to be at the center of the Earth and very hot.) But the humanists sought to glorify and elevate the place of humans from fallen beings to exalted beings. That’s why most Copernicans were humanists, while the physicists and even most mathematicians were unconvinced.

    Since then, the humanist perspective has colored everything.

  16. On the subject of CS Lewis, I recall that he wrote an essay “Religion and Rocketry” in 1958, dealing specifically with this issue.

  17. Briggs,

    As you noted, “They consistently believe, in direct contradiction to freely available evidence, that they are the first to have thoughts on many subjects.”

    The subject of extraterrestrial life is an old one. A century ago we were so convinced that there was life on other planets that some people were developing plans to communicate with the Martians via huge fields of lights in the Sahara, and Orson Wells was able to frighten half the Eastern Seaboard with a story about an invasion from Mars. Even as Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were returning from the moon, we still put them into quarantine, just in case there were alien germs on the seemingly lifeless moon.

    With all that conviction that we are not alone — and with the survival of religion throughout that period — we already have proof that God is safe from the ravages of the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

    Somehow, Schweitzer missed that part of history.

    Hmm. Lack of historical education. Maybe that is why so many believe that they are the first to have thoughts on many subjects.

  18. YOS,

    That sounds like nonsense to me and runs counter to everything I’ve studied, but if you’re got a citation to support your claim, I’m happy to acquire knowledge of this aspect of the heliocentric debate.

  19. Ye Olde Statistician

    July 31, 2015 at 12:53 am

    I ran across it on a hist-sci blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus:
    https://thonyc.wordpress.com/
    Though I don’t recall the exact post.

    I included it in an extensive chronology of the hundred-year transition here:
    http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-great-ptolemaic-smackdown-table-of.html

    There is also discussion of the matter on Quodlibeta, here
    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/04/galileo-affair-2-cosmic-promotion.html
    if you scroll down to the point where you read
    “Nor was Aristotle’s system of physics in any way a prop to human arrogance. “

  20. Sander van der Wal

    July 31, 2015 at 3:13 am

    the God of the Greek Philosophers, which is the God of the Roman-Catholic Church, would indeed not have a problem with aliens.

    But the Protestant God has massive problems., because his ideological structure is completely different. Briggs and the other Roman-Catholics are clearly not Calvinists. For the Cavinist, God has replaced the Jewish people with the Calvinists as the Chosen Ones. There is just one People, excluding most humans. The notion that that God could have created aliens and make then Chosen ones too is ludicrous. It would make the idea of a Chosen People completely pointless.

    Whether Calvinists would stop believing, as Schweitzer beliese? Probably not. The ideology has a very usefull safety valve: the Devil. Things that are wrong are all the Devils Fault, and he’s tempting people all the time. And rest assured that all aliens will be seen as the work of the Devil. After all, all heretic Humans, i.e. catholics, are Devil worshippers, it is not ideologically difficult to make non-humans devils-worshippers too.

  21. On the same subject as JohnK, I found this in a comment section on a website:

    “It is said by many scientists that we have already passed the tipping point and in roughly 100-125 years, there will be no humans left on the planet. We aren’t needed, we have nothing offer except harm, death and destruction. The earth doesn’t need us and would clearly be far better off without us. We are the most heinous and most malignant beings to ever happen to our mother.”

    Human beings are being taught to despise themselves. Indeed, more people were upset by a dentist killing a lion (which was wrong behaviour) than people beheaded by ISIS or children killed in drive by shootings. There is a belief being taught that humans are parasitic to this planet and must be irradiated. I suspect those teaching this would be happy if some alien race came and destroyed humans, as long as the lions were allowed to live.

    Sander: As noted in my comment above, my mother refused to even consider there might be life outside of earth. Whether or not she blamed the Devil for putting that idea into people’s heads, I don’t know. She also believed, or said she did, that God put fossils in the ground to test our faith. People can work around anything if they really want to.

    I’m not so sure about aliens being called devil worshippers since an alien may or may not have even been exposed to the Devil, but who knows? It just seems aliens could easily have different rules and no exposure to the Devil.

    On Brigg’s link: I agree. There can be no other Jesus. The one from earth may go to other planets after ascending, but there is only one.

    It’s fascinating that scientists require water to get life. Why? Why must life be carbon based and require water? It is here on earth, but why elsewhere?

  22. I think one can get more insight from science-fiction than from commentators. Here’s a quote, apropos James Blish’s “A Case of Conscience”:
    “If there are many planets inhabited by sentient creatures, as most astronomers (including Jesuits), now suspect, then `each one of such planets (solar or non-solar)’ must fall into one of three categories:

    (a) Inhabited by sentient creatures, but without souls; so to be treated with compassion but extra-evangelically.

    (b) Inhabited by sentient creatures with fallen souls, through an original but not inevitable ancestral sin; so to be evangelized with urgent missionary charity.

    (c) Inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen, who therefore
    (1) inhabit an unfallen, sinless paradisal world;
    (2) who therefore we must contact not to propagandize, but in order that we may learn from them the conditions (about which we can only speculate) of creatures living in perpetual grace, endowed with all the virtues in perfection, and both immortal and in complete happiness for always possessed of and with the knowledge of God.’ ” James Blish, quoting Gerald Heard, from David Ketterer’s ‘Covering ‘A Case of Conscience’ ”
    There’s more including a discussion of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, and why Earth is the home of the Fallen, while Venus and Mars fall into category 1… (Self-promotion!):
    http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-theology-of-science-fiction-ii.html

  23. As I’ve often pointed out, Christians are overly prone to read the Gospel account literally.

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