NASA and religion? Oh good? Yes really.
“NASA Hires Priests to Prepare Humans for Contact with Aliens,” the headline read. “NASA paid priests to know how to deal with aliens,” reads another. [Alien in spiritual triangle by Thomas Larch]
Is NASA really teaming up with the clergy to better prepare Earth society for an extraterrestrial encounter? Yes. And no. Sorta. But, this is old news. The consultation took place in 2016 at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. It only took half a dozen years for the media to report the story.
Whether it is old or new news, the interplay between science and religion as well as the cultural impact of space research are topics on the public theologian’s agenda. I wasn’t on the NASA and Religion team, but I still ask: Will confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence precipitate a crisis for Earth religion?
Are we earthlings going to lose our religion?
A researcher on the NASA and Religion Study Team was Cambridge University biologist and theologian Andrew Davison. Dr. Davison had just the right credentials to ask the right question: What can we expect regarding religious reactions to the confirmation that we share our cosmos with intelligent aliens? Davison, who frequently writes editorials for our journal CTNS (Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences), Theology and science, will publish a book on this topic later in 2022. The book? Astrobiology and Christian doctrine.
Can we predict that earthly Buddhists, Christians or Muslims will face a crisis of faith when they encounter higher intelligences from space? Will religious followers abandon their beliefs? No, Davison says. On the contrary, he said, “a large number of people would turn to their religious traditions for advice” if the expanding universe was discovered.
I believe Dr. Davison shares the best part of the wisdom on this subject.
The Peters ETI survey on the religious crisis
I love spending time on topics like astrobiology and UFOs. See recent articles such as “Are Alien Scientists the Real Gods?” And above all, “Would confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligent life cause a crisis for earthly religion?”
Here is my way of phrasing the question: What would be the impact on religious belief systems if we Earthlings woke up one morning and found ourselves in the company of extraterrestrial neighbors?
So what is the problem? As I have mentioned in previous articles, scoffers, journalists and some scientists lament that Earth religion would crumble under the weight of confirmed knowledge of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). Because Christianity and most religious traditions formulated their key beliefs in an ancient, now outdated worldview, would shocking new knowledge dislodge our pre-modern dogmas?
Let us ask ourselves: are Christians Earth-centered, so that contact with ETI would de-center and marginalize our sense of self-importance? Do our traditional religions rank us as human beings at the top of the hierarchy of life, so that if we come across ETIs who are smarter than us, will we lose our top rank? If we are created in the image of God, will we need to share this divine image with our new neighbors in space? In short, would the confirmation of the existence of the ETI cause the collapse of earthly belief systems? What if earthly religious belief systems collapse, will theologians find themselves out of work?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at some data and then look at some theology. First, the data. With the help of a former student assistant, Julie Froehlig, I conducted the Peters ETI investigation into the religious crisis. That is, I asked people about their faith. It’s a good source of data, isn’t it?
Question 3 of the survey is very informative. Here it is: “Official confirmation of the discovery of a civilization of intelligent beings living on another planet would undermine my beliefs so much that my beliefs would face a crisis. Almost no one checked Agree or Strongly agree. Over 90% verified disagree or strongly disagree. This is the case for Evangelical Christians, Fundamentalist Christians, Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, as well as self-identified Buddhists, Mormons and non-religious. In sum, believers of all the religious traditions tested affirm an integration of new knowledge concerning the ETI (Peters 2008) (Peters, The Implications of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life for religion 2011).
From astrobiology to astrotheology
Ufologists study UFOs (now called UAP, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Astrobiologists ignore UFOs and UAPs in order to study microbial life within our solar system and ETI elsewhere in the Milky Way.
It’s time to introduce astrotheology. Astrotheology is that branch of theology which provides a critical analysis of contemporary space science combined with an explanation of classical doctrines such as creation and Christology with the aim of building a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of our human situation in a surprisingly immense cosmos (Peters , Introducing Astrotheology 2018, 11-12). Our scientists and theologians from CTNS have composed a comprehensive and decisive work, Astrotheology: science and theology meet extraterrestrial life.
Let me repeat a previous recommendation. Please pay attention to the excellent work of astrotheologian David Wilkinson. Wilkinson is a Methodist astronomer and theologian.
Wilkenson does not believe Earth is visited by aliens piloting flying saucers. Still, he supports SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and other scientific work in the hopes of meeting new friends living on exoplanets.
This is important for Christians, he said, because we must appreciate how vast God’s creation is. “Human beings are not the center of the universe. In fact, it is the human belief that we are the center of all things that the Bible calls sin … God is the center of all things, and we are creatures endowed with status through his love ”(Wilkinson 2013, 148 ). By decentring on Earth, we can better appreciate our humble place in the beautiful cosmos of God.
Is Belief in Aliens Satanic?
But, aren’t aliens sent here by Satan? There is no evidence for this.
There is also no evidence that ETIs are hostile. There is no reason for earthlings to feel threatened.
These friends of yours who tell you this are very few. If they harass you, tell them to step back, but of course with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) (Peters, Reasons for the Hope Christians Have 2021).
For more on space and theology, see the videos on The Cosmic Matrix: Science, SETI and UFOs.
NASA and religion? Oh good? Yes really. But don’t burn your rocket fuel too quickly. First of all, it is old news. Second, we have no evidence that NASA paid any attention to what the priests let alone the astrotheologians said.
Peters, Ted. 2018. “Presentation of astrotheology. ” In Astrotheology: science and theology meet extraterrestrial life, 3-26. Eugène OR: Cascade Books.
Peters, Ted. 2021. Reasons for the Hope Christians Have. Roger Olson’s Patheos blog.
Peters, Ted. 2011. “The implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life for religion. ” The Royal Society: Philosophical Transactions A 369: 644-655.
Peters, Ted. 2008. The Peters ETI survey on the religious crisis.
-. 2014. UFO-Chariots of God? Spiritualiy, ancient aliens and religious aspirations in the era of aliens. 2nd. Pompton Plains NJ: New Page Books.
Wilkinson, David. 2013. Science, religion and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Couterbalance hosts the raw data of the Peters ETI survey on the religious crisis.
With Martinez Hewlett, Joshua Moritz and Robert John Russell, Ted Peters co-edited, Astrotheology: Science and theology meet extraterrestrial intelligence (2018). With Octavio Chon Torres, Joseph Seckbach and Russell Gordon, he co-edited, Astrobiology: science, ethics and public policies (Scriver 2021). He is also author of UFO: the chariots of God? Spirituality, Ancient Aliens, and Religious Aspirations in the Age of Aliens (Career Press New Page Books, 2014). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.