E.T. and God.
September 19, 2003 8:52 AM   Subscribe

E.T. and God. Physicist Paul Davies explores the question of what impact the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would have on religion on Earth.
posted by homunculus (37 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
"When we come to man, the highest of the animals, we get the completest resemblance to God which we know of. (There may be creatures in other worlds who are more like God than man is, but we do not know about them.) Man not only lives, but loves and reasons: biological life reaches its highest known level in him." -C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity"
posted by aaronshaf at 9:04 AM on September 19, 2003


Lewis' seems rather a circular argument, since all our ideas of God come from us, then there is some inevitability that the picture we created came to look like us.

With regard to the FPP, while the writer points out that religion, and christianity have had to come to terms with shifting scientific paradigms in the past, this has tended to be a slow process, whereas the shift to take into account the possible saving of souls/exploitation of new territories* has always happened a bit faster. I tend to think that most religions (or certainly the proseltysing ones) will see a first contact not as a threat to their religions but as an opportunity to be exploited, possibly one with benefits in terms of enthusing their earthly brethren. A new space race anyone?

*delete as applicable
posted by biffa at 9:18 AM on September 19, 2003


For some interesting fictional reflections on just this issue, see Mary Doria Russell's novels The Sparrow and Children of God. Jesuits in space encounter alien culture; serious misunderstandings with theological implications ensue. (Not at all silly, despite what "Jesuits in space" sounds like. For the full effect you should read both books.)
posted by thomas j wise at 9:25 AM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


aaron, seriously bro, have some confidence in your own opinions. Something that isn't a quote. Tell us what you think.

don't use metaphors, make metaphors.

if aliens suddenly contacted us trying to sell us interstellar direct TV or something, "holy shit!" would be a more honest response from Anyone. I for one would question my atheist beliefs if their technology or philosophy challenged it....it would be a struggle to retain ANY philosophy in the face of a star-faring civilization.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:28 AM on September 19, 2003


True believers would either:
a) Totally deny the existence of aliens, even if the proof was glaringly obvious,
b) Say: "See, told you so! God sent the aliens!"
or
c) carry on as if nothing happened.

Such is the nature of belief.
posted by spazzm at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2003


Along these lines, there was a great article in Wired a few years back that discussed the ramifications of implementing teleporters (a la Star Trek), particularly w/r/t the soul. If you can break someone down into discrete bits and reassemble him somewhere else, how do you account for an immaterial soul?
posted by mkultra at 9:44 AM on September 19, 2003


Lewis' seems rather a circular argument, since all our ideas of God come from us, then there is some inevitability that the picture we created came to look like us.

Lewis also said, in the same volume, that "eternal life" -- what he called the kind of life/nature God has -- was as much like human life as animal life is like vegetable life. This is probably largely a spiritual metaphor, but I think it shows some flexibility of thought on his part, one that I think some christian thinkers share. Not to mention Lewis' science fiction.
posted by weston at 9:47 AM on September 19, 2003


Carl Sagan's novel "Contact" does, I think, an excellent job exploring the ramifications and likely reactions to an actual discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Everything from an intelligent man of faith who's willing to hear the evidence and accept the possibility, to fanatics who sabotage the mission.
posted by dnash at 10:15 AM on September 19, 2003


I think the majority of religions and religious people have a history of cognitive dissonance in regards to any information they encounter that doesn't fit into their world view. People who take the bible literally and won't accept evolution as fact for example. The question then becomes, at what point does the example and experience of reality (in this case the discovery of E.T.) permeate the thick membrane of relaxed religious ideology to the spongy awareness below?
posted by velacroix at 11:00 AM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, imagine the hijinks that would ensue if we met some fundamentally weird alien critters -- viviparous avioids with a life cycle similar to a wasp's, linked together into a weakly superhuman hivemind, or whatever else you find fundamentally weird -- but who were nevertheless clearly and recognizably Christian (or whatever).

Or if a mighty starship of vastly superior, so-advanced-it-might-as-well-be-magic technology shows up out of the deep, having been traveling at or near or beyond lightspeed for hundreds of years.... because the passengers are making the Hajj.

Or a race of machine intelligences who have a multi-megayear history of being recognizable Mormons.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:22 PM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


ROU_X: I'm looking forward to those three novels, damn betcha.
posted by alumshubby at 12:42 PM on September 19, 2003


If you squint at it hard enough, you can get the first out of Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, but it was more about meeting Space Aliens who had never Fallen. Not that I'm really recommending it; it kinda left me cold.

Anyhow, it would be neat to read a story where meeting the aliens was somehow arguably-confirmatory of some existing Terran religion, if only for variety's sake. I emphatically un-nominate Greg Egan from writing it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:02 PM on September 19, 2003


I don't like Davies's presentation of religion as playing catch-up to science and "facts." He keeps referring to the dawn of the scientific era, circa 15th-16th centuries. He neglects that also at that time, Christianity was innovating its doctrines rapidly to accomodate the "discovery" of new pagans, indigenous Americans. Missionary thought during the age of colonization wasn't backward, it was new. If you think that religion is just a bunch of beliefs in people's heads with no social context, you'd miss that.

The zeal of Christian missionaries is all the more stronger today. If ET were to show up tomorrow, is it so unlikely that she/he/it would be handed a Bible? Or for that matter, put into the framework of prophecy on the 700 Club. That was a little Christian-centric, but you get my meaning.
posted by ~rschram at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


a mighty starship of vastly superior, so-advanced-it-might-as-well-be-magic technology shows up out of the deep, having been traveling at or near or beyond lightspeed for hundreds of years.... because the passengers are making the Hajj.

For those who, like me, didn't know, here's some info about the Hajj. If anyone has better linkage, I'm interested.


I've often wondered what would happen if an alien race showed up and was actually humanoid. That by itself would open a whole can of worms, no matter what (if any) religious beliefs they carried along.
posted by namespan at 1:34 PM on September 19, 2003


ROU_Xenophobe : If you get a chance, check out A Case of Conscience by James Blish. Religon, aliens, good stuff.
posted by bshort at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2003


...it is more likely that any civilization that had surpassed us scientifically would have improved on our level of moral development, too. One may even speculate that an advanced alien society would sooner or later find some way to genetically eliminate evil behavior, resulting in a race of saintly beings.

I've seen this argument a number of times and never understood the underlying logic. Why equate technological development with moral development? History certainly hasn't show this to be true.
posted by signal at 2:22 PM on September 19, 2003


James Morrow has written some interesting religious SF in recent years (such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem) though I don't recall any alien involvement. And his work might be more speculative fiction than true SF...
posted by billsaysthis at 2:46 PM on September 19, 2003


if aliens contact us, they will be either:

1-military [bad]
2-clergy [bad]
3-sales [trinkets for our resources]
4-damn alien kids out joyriding "what do you mean radiohead is sold out? vaporize paris!"
5-something we can barely comprehend

either way, the acheivement of being able to travel between star systems will so far overshadow any accomplishment we have made. Xanax prescriptions will go thru the roof.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:57 PM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


th3ph17, you forgot
6-slave labor-seeking (bad)
7-"How to Serve Man" - types like in Twilight Zone (worse)
8-curious aliens (good or bad)
etc

Discovery of extraterrestrial life certainly wouldn't be devastating for the vast majority of human beings on Earth...we've been prepped for it, both good and bad, by books and hollywood for ages now.

I second the recommendation of Morrow: his Bible Stories for Adults is great--has a story of a space colony of robots who create a religion out of Darwin's Origin of Species, and what happens when 2 humans come to teach at their university, among others. His Towing Jehovah is wonderful too--God dies and falls out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean.
posted by amberglow at 3:17 PM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


Or a race of machine intelligences who have a multi-megayear history of being recognizable Mormons.

religion would have a much better case if this had ever happened just within our one planet. Instead every single community "discovered" its own religion; no two groups ever got the same words from god, just from one another regarding god.

Why equate technological development with moral development? History certainly hasn't show this to be true.

Development in the moral arena is difficult to quantify, but it's certainly arguable that society is generally progressive rather than regressive - if only because technology reduces desperation and need, thereby allowing us to allocate resources instead of fighting to the death over them, etc.
posted by mdn at 3:22 PM on September 19, 2003


I think most religions would essentially accommodate their existence and view them in the same way they view other potential converts.

In the gap between the discovery/realization of the other planets and the discovery/realization that they were uninhabited, it was frequently just assumed that someone lived there.
posted by obfusciatrist at 3:31 PM on September 19, 2003


mdn: what I contest is that in the encounter between two civilizations, the one with the most advanced technology is also the one with a more developed morality. The entire record of colonialism the world over puts paid to this idea.

I am not saying that less technology = more morality either, of course, just that I see no correlation whatsoever between the two.

it's certainly arguable that society is generally progressive rather than regressive - if only because technology reduces desperation and need, thereby allowing us to allocate resources instead of fighting to the death over them, etc.

I don't see this so much as an advance in morality as just a betterment of material conditions. When the resources get scarce again, people start killing each other once more.
posted by signal at 4:22 PM on September 19, 2003


What if Aleins from another planet had their own religion, and wanted to froce it on us? What if their religion made more sense?
posted by Keyser Soze at 4:24 PM on September 19, 2003


What if Aliens from another planet had their own religion, and wanted to froce it on us? What if their religion made more sense?

If they had the firepower to force it on us and wanted to, they would--people would keep their old religions in secret, like Catholics in Holland in the 16th or 17th centuries, or the Jews in Portugal and Spain who converted, but kept practising Judaism in secret.

If their religion made more sense to people, and wasn't being imposed on us, i bet tons of people would eventually adopt it. (It might have added cachet if the aliens were really helpful and wise and kind, etc.)
posted by amberglow at 4:39 PM on September 19, 2003


More effects of genuinely alien aliens on religion and politics, can be found in the (reccomended by me) Engines of Light trilogy by Ken Macleod.

Cosomonaut Keep
Dark Light
Engine City
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:31 PM on September 19, 2003 [1 favorite]


We have a precedent that hasn't been mentioned in this thread that I can see. Prior to Galileo, it was a natural assumption on the part of the Roman Catholic Church that mankind was the center of God's focus, and the Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo led mankind on the mental journey which we still understake: not only are we not the center of the universe, we are more insignificant to the universe than how we perceive ants to ourselves. The Roman Catholic Church responded at first by trying to silence Galileo and belittle his findings by claiming him a heretic.

Failing that, over time The Church learned to accept science's findings, and explained partially that it was a matter of interpretation of the Scriptures. That it wasn't that the Word had failed, just Man's understanding of said Word. They also blamed Ptolemy for being wrong, saying that Man's understanding of the world adversely affected their interpretation of the Word. Whatever.

The time was ripe for this by the way. John Calvin had started the ball rolling less than fifty years before. Between then and now, a score or more denominations of Christianity spread out from Europe to the rest of the world. From Lutheran to Episcopalian to Baptist to Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. And more. Each of which are similar to one another in some ways, but dramatically different in others. Catholicism is either parent or uncle to all of them.

So when there's conclusive proof that we're not alone in the universe, Religion's first reactions will coincide with the five Stages of Grief. Despite this, Mankind will be best served by Religion when religious institutions realise they exist to serve Mankind and not the other way around. Religion will also have to reinforce this sentiment among the human community, so that we survive the years after First Contact. After all, that is the true purpose of Theology: to help us comprehend our place in God's universe.

"We are not powerless specks of dust drifting around in the wind, blown by random destiny. We are, each of us, like beautiful snowflakes - unique, and born for a specific reason and purpose."
--Elizabeth Kubler-Ross


After all, to every thing , there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. And above it too. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 6:00 PM on September 19, 2003


Dan Simmons had an interesting take on religion in space-faring high technology races in his Hyperion books. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic church was a very powerful institution that had taken the stars by storm.
posted by ashbury at 6:15 PM on September 19, 2003


George R.R. Martin's short story A Song for Lya is largely based on humans meeting an alien religion. It's a good story, and an interesting exploration of the idea.

I'm not sure what to make of the argument that a spacefaring alien race would be more morally advanced. Would a rigidly structured society, akin to an ant colony, even have a clearly recognizable parallel to morals? That's just one example, but there are too many different possibilities to assume even that our species' would share the concept, let alone the actual morals.
posted by Nothing at 8:46 PM on September 19, 2003


re: morality--don't all successful species here on earth look out for their own (family, pack, colony, hive, etc), and protect their young? I think even ants, when fighting ants from another colony, recognize their own members as such, and don't attack them the way their attack the foreign ants. Couldn't that be a basis for morality?

Any alien species that had evolved enough to travel to other planets would have had to develop some sort of behavioral rules, even if they just applied to their own kind, no?
posted by amberglow at 9:22 AM on September 20, 2003


add internal cooperation in there too
posted by amberglow at 9:23 AM on September 20, 2003


Any alien species that had evolved enough to travel to other planets...

I'm looking forward to an alien species that trumps every evolution of morality theory to date.
posted by ~rschram at 2:53 PM on September 20, 2003


6-slave labor-seeking (bad)
7-"How to Serve Man" - types like in Twilight Zone (worse)
8-curious aliens (good or bad)


9-neo-liberal economists "galaxisation is good" "the earthlings need to be pulled up by their bootstraps" (good or bad)
posted by biffa at 2:41 AM on September 22, 2003 [1 favorite]


re: Humans or other species needing to "evolve" in order to reach other planets.

All it would take for present day humans to reach extrasolar planets would be:

a) A way around the light speed barrier OR workable cryogenics / long term life support.

b) A vastly more efficient/powerful/renewable drive to power the ships.

c) The political will to do so.

None of these hurdles would neccesarily require "evolving" on the part of the species. If we ever leave Sol, I doubt we'll do so in a state of moral enlightenment. Quite the opposite, actually.
posted by signal at 2:55 PM on September 22, 2003


but signal, don't forget:

d) the teams of people using the brainpower and labor required to work together to solve the scientific and other problems and build the ships etc. (most likely an international team would be needed)

no individual human can ever build such a ship alone. I would bet no alien could either. It's a collaborative undertaking, which says something about morals.
posted by amberglow at 3:39 PM on September 22, 2003


amber: what about at the first years of the space race? The US and USSR of the time were not exactly paragons of morality.
posted by signal at 4:08 PM on September 22, 2003


While the government or the administration or the powers-that-be might not have always acted morally here in the us (especially with spying and vietnam and cuba, etc.--and they still don't), the people working together at nasa and its subcontractors to get us to the moon actually saw themselves as doing something good for all of humanity, not just for america. (i dont know how they did it in russia, but their ships are still better than ours, and last longer.) I'm not sure how to fit optimism into morality, but i think it's there somewhere. While we could have used slave labor or killed all the engineers and scientists and technicians so they didn't sell their knowledge to other countries, we didn't. Aliens certainly could be using slave labor or specially bred "worker bees" or worse, but without cooperation, you can't succeed at such an enormous undertaking, i don't think.
posted by amberglow at 5:30 PM on September 22, 2003


short version: governments are amoral; most people aren't : >
posted by amberglow at 6:00 PM on September 22, 2003


« Older Mitsi Kato's fifth-grade class at Roosevelt Elemen...  |  Arrr, snuggled contraband!... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments