Would Finding E.T. Destroy Religion? Experts

Leave it to Live Science to ask Would Finding Aliens Shatter Religious Beliefs? Answer hint: maybe yes, maybe no. Experts say so.

The discovery of life beyond Earth would shake up our view of humanity’s place in the universe, but it probably wouldn’t seriously threaten organized religion, experts say.

Ah, experts. Presumably, given the subject matter, these experts have studied other inter-, and quite possibly intra-, galactic species, watched them develop through crude animism, to monotheism, to their first NPR station, to final stage enlightened atheism, and then waited until those species noticed that there were other species who were not their species. They then gauged how the still-religious aliens in the species that discovered there were other sentient species reacted to the discovery that there were other sentient species. The experts cataloged these reactions and then moved onto the next alien species that had not yet discovered there were other alien species. Do you follow?

Even if you don’t, it’s difficult to imagine what an “expert” in this kind of case is. Doug Vakoch, director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI, sure doesn’t seem like one. But he’s the first “researcher” in the story quoted. He said, “I think there are reasons that we might initially think there are going to be some problems. My own hunch is they’re probably not going to be as severe as we might initially think.” Problems? Like Mormons rioting in the street? Hindus queuing up at McDonald’s? Jews clamming on Jones Beach on Saturdays?

The writer of the story, Mike Wall, reveals his biases when he opines

Religious faith remains strong in much of the world despite scientific advances showing that Earth is not the center of the universe, and that our planet’s organisms were not created in their present form but rather evolved over billions of years. So it’s likely that religion would also weather any storms caused by the detection of E.T., researchers say.

The implicit theory is that once a theist is given knowledge that the Earth is not privileged and that newts were once newtosauruses (or whatever), he should wise up and buy a Richard Dawkins t-shirt (to announce to all how much he has grown).

What Wall, and many American non-theists are unaware of, is that the vast majority of theists—most Muslims, most Buddhists, most Christians, etc., etc.—are well in advance of secularists in accepting empirical observations. And they can even show how no empirical observation can be disproof of their religious beliefs.

So it is a wonderment that Wall writes “Nicolaus Copernicus made perhaps the first powerful case for it in 1543, when his seminal work ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ showed that Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around.” Wall might have learned this from astronomer Seth Shostak, who sagely said, “We haven’t been the center of the universe for a while now — four centuries.”

Both Shostak and Wall appear not to have known that Copernicus was a devout Catholic priest (there is also evidence that he might have only took minor orders), that he received a doctorate in Canon Law, and that his theory of the heavens in no way “challenged” his faith. The “experts” also failed to understand that while the Earth was indeed seen as a kind of center in Western life, it was the same kind of center as the hole in the middle of your commode. Instead of a privileged place, Earth was seen as something much lower.

The nearest thing Wall could find to a true expert—and I do not jest—was science-fiction author Robert Sawyer, a man used to thinking of how people would react to the “problematic” news that other sentient beings exist. He said, “If you ask most people whether there is alien life, most people say yes.”

They do, indeed. Even to the extent of believing that they are among us, snatching and probing with merry abandon. And this is for good reason, at least in those countries with movie screens. Alien life surrounds us on screen and in print. I myself have been in a dark room with strangers, many of them surely Christians, and watched as a spaceship full of alien slaves crash land in Los Angeles (that was before all movies had to be made in New York). I can report that absolutely none of those strangers ran amok and recanted their religion.

The real question is how would scientists react were they to discover a different metaphysics. Let he that readth understand.

12 Comments

  1. Alien invasion? A problem not worth worrying about. Given what we are discovering about the history of our planet and solar system, it looks like it takes a special set of circumstances to provide a stable environment for a long time to develop sentient life. For instance, it seems that our moon prevents wobble in the earth’s spin that would really mess up the climate on sort time scales. Our moon’s size and position seems to be rare, at least compared to others in our solar system. I suspect the Drake equation parameter estimates by “experts” are a wee bit optimistic. Then there are the vast distances between stars and no plausible way to cross them quickly. What’s the product of extremely low probability of sentient life and the extremely low probability of it moving out of its extremely limited neighborhood? Yeah, like I said, not a worry and about as likely as “scientists” accepting a new (to them) metaphysics.

  2. Terrible post. But they usually are, when discussing religion. It is, according to my own scientific *ahem* expertise, a sore spot of yours.

    Here, let me help you a bit:

    The implicit theory is that once a theist is given knowledge that the Earth is not privileged and that newts were once newtosauruses (or whatever), he should wise up and buy a Richard Dawkins t-shirt (to announce to all how much he has grown).

    You misunderstood them. There is no “implicit theory”, but rather a preconceived notion that is accepted as wrong by the quoted atheists. Stop your persecution complex. There’s nothing wrong about atheists asking themselves what is going to happen to religions if aliens are found.

    Both Shostak and Wall appear not to have known that Copernicus was a devout Catholic priest (there is also evidence that he might have only took minor orders), that he received a doctorate in Canon Law, and that his theory of the heavens in no way “challenged” his faith.

    Incredible bad reasoning, since at his time no european academic existed that *wasn’t* a christian, by the mere fact that all universities were run by the Church or by priests, etc. The fact that Copernicus discovered the possibility that the Earth might revolve around the sun was controversial against the faith at the time. You might say that the problem was “scientific”, not “theological”, and we would enter a debate on that point.

    Newton was a crazy alchemist despite his genius, for example.

    Again, there’s nothing wrong with atheists making this point, since it is a common theme amongst every religion to consider the Earth as the attention center of God’s whims.

    The real question is how would scientists react were they to discover a different metaphysics. Let he that readth understand.

    Metaphysics are not discoverable, they are merely regurgitated from confused minds. Let the ashes of metaphysics die within you, you will free yourself from the shackles that are twisting your mind and creating persecution complexes.

  3. Luis,

    Bad history, my friend. Copernicus’s (flawed) results were in no way “controversial against the faith.” Not then, not now.

    All of has a metaphysics; even you. Reasoning cannot begin without one.

    At least dispense with the pop psychology. You can argue better than that .

  4. Like most human endeavors, organized religions have developed rational mechanisms, such as sensus plenior, to absorb new information without a loss of institutional coherency. (Whether these processes are truthful, humane, or ultimately successful, is beside the point.)

    A more interesting question is at the individual level: Can you imagine what new information or life event would be sufficient for you to abandon your own current system of belief?

    Are aliens sufficient? Perhaps the discovery of God’s fossilized bones or Jesus Christ’s DNA? Or an apocalyptic zombie mass resurrection?

    In imagining your scenario, you determine the limit of your belief.

    V/r.

  5. Eric,

    A fun game! To be answered by both sides, of course.

    Quick update It wouldn’t be “God’s bones” because such a thing cannot exist (or even be defined). Wouldn’t be Christ’s DNA either because of course the church teaches Christ was both human and divine; i.e., we’d expect He’d have DNA.

  6. It will have no effect on some religions, there are already arguments by Darwinists to protect their religion in the event of discovery of Extra-terrestrial life. While those of us who reject Darwinism have long pointed out the absurdity of the singular abiogenesis tenet of Darwinism, religious scholars of the Darwinist faith have created Pan-Spermia to protect their faith. I find it amusing to see how religious people create ridiculous theories to defend difficult parts of doctrine.

    No offense to any believers in Darwinism is intended, some of my best friends are Darwinists. Many of the Neo-Darwinist sects have rejected the tenet of singular abiogenesis, and very few Darwinist sects teach the doctrine anymore as it is only of interest to Darwinist theologians.

  7. The simple answer is no.

    In fact, we already have the experiment required to prove it.

    Before Colombus «discovered» America, the Christian believe that the word of Christ had been heard by all of mankind. The fact that millions of people had not heard of him created shockwave it the catholic church. One of the pilar of the church fell with the discovery of these poeples. Yet it didn’t change much in the belief of religion and the church rationalized the event to explain it away.

  8. Luis needs to familiarize himself with the University system of medieval Europe. His comments are simply not accurate.

    It is also important to distinguish between those who studied natural philosophy who happened to be Christian and those who studied natural philosophy because they were Christian. (Copernicus, for example, did not “happen” to be Catholic; he was short-listed for the bishop’s seat.)

    A friend of mine, Bro. Guy Consolmagno, is a physicist and curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. He has spoken on the question of aliens multiple times, and sees no problem.
    + + +

    One of the brags of the literati and humanists who supported the Copernican model was that it lifted the earth from the bottom of the world and placed it up among the heavens. Physicists supported the geocentric geostationary model because it better accounted for the motion of the heavens. Astronomers preferred the Ptolemaic model up to the discovery of the phases of Venus, whereupon they considered it falsified and switched to the Tychonic model.

  9. Ahhh, but if E.T.’s last name is Jaynes then the godless heathens frequentists will see the One True Light!

  10. Well, I still think a fallacy to declare that the Heliocentric view did not have any impact on Copernicus’ mind, since I do not recognize in all the enligthened audience here present the ability to know anyone’s intimate thoughts (through the centuries no less).

    And before you call this above small paragraph of mine a nitpicking bore, remind yourselves of the huge doubts that crossed Mother Theresa’s own faith that no one even knew about it (before it was “leaked” much after her death).

    Even if we could have perfect knowledge and declare “TRUE” that Copernicus was still a believer after his heliocentric vision, to say that this shift had no impact on his religious beliefs at all would still be well above anyone’s abilities here.

  11. A friend of mine, Bro. Guy Consolmagno, is a physicist and curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. He has spoken on the question of aliens multiple times, and sees no problem.

    Of course, but the question presented by the quoted atheists is not if there are people who won’t be affected by such discovery, but if there are people who will, and how much of a change will that signify to the institutions that have detailed theologies that may well be in contradiction with such a discovery.

    As examples, you do have lots of religious people who did not stop being religious just because they saw the darwinian light, the copernican light, physics, medicine, etc.,etc. However, to claim that a 100% of people won’t be affected by such a change does not sit well with what we do know about humans. You may not be affected by it, but many will.

  12. Luis, as long as you say “some” you can say anything at all. “Some” may be converted to Catholicism by contemplation of the heavens. Br. Guy was a scientist for 15 years before he became religious. (BTW, he was the first to suggest that Europa might be an ice shell covering a liquid ocean.) “Some” may be persuaded to racial hygiene and eugenics by contemplation of Darwinian theory, as were Huxley, Galton, Leonard Darwin, Pearson, Shaw, Wells, Sanger, and others.

    And as long as you can imagine what might-could-be in the mind of a dead person, you can imagine that he was greatly strengthened in his faith or that he wished he could have an ice cream cone. The rest of us must be content with weighing actual historical facts and what these people actually wrote.

    It remains that the Copernican theory did not demote earth (and mankind) to its place. That is a 19th century myth that the humanists of the Renaissance never claimed. Their vision was the elevation of mankind, not its demotion.

    It also remains that the empirical evidence at the time was against the Copernican model, not only because of its failure to accurately predict celestial motions — its account of the Martian orb was especially deficient for the obvious reason — and not only because of its cumbersome calculations — the moon was on an unprecedented double epicycle and Mercury arbitrarily librated across its epicycle — but because it predicted sensible parallax among the fixed stars and Coriolis effects in free-falling bodies, and neither could be observed. Under the circumstances — i.e., in the midst of the 30 Years War — it made perfectly good sense to hold off on Scriptural exegesis until there was actual physical proof. Meanwhile, the Jesuits were cheerfully teaching Copernicanism as a nice mathematical method.

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