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SETI, UFOs and Religious Belief.

“To seek out strange new worlds and new civilizations,” these words would definitely be familiar to any Trekkie or if you have Netflix and are an avid viewer of star trek: discovery. While being one of the federation’s prime directives it is also a cornerstone of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). The search for extraterrestrial intelligence was sparked off by a discovery in August 1996 by scientists at the NASA space center in Houston, Texas. They believed they had discovered evidence of primitive life on early mars after examining a meteorite from Mars dubbed ALH84001, recovered in Antarctica, and found it contained microscopic carbonate globules that resembled bacteria found on earth. Although many in the scientific community thought this evidence inconclusive, it was enough to ignite the thrusters and rocket (pun intended) interest in the search for extraterrestrials. Just two months ago, a group called Messaging Extraterrestrial intelligence, sent tutorials in math, physics and music from Jean-Michael Jarre all encoded in radio signals to the planet GJ273b orbiting a star called Luyten, 12.4 light years away from the earth. 

While a whole lot more can be said about SETI, I want to focus on two aspects which are popular misunderstandings. The first is that it would lend credence to the UFO phenomenon, and second that it would somehow undermine religious belief or that religious belief is incompatible with the existence of extraterrestrials.

First an interesting bit of history. On June 24, 1947, Businessman and private pilot Kenneth Arnold while flying his plane near Mount Rainier in Washington, first observed nine bright objects traveling at incredible speeds for the time (estimated in excess of sixteen hundred miles per hour). Arnold described the objects as boomerang-like and disk-shaped, and he described their movement as appearing "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water." [1] The headline of an Associated Press story mentioned "nine bright saucer-like objects," and that is how the age of the flying saucer was born. For national security reasons, the United States government got involved in the emerging flying saucer phenomenon and described these Ariel anomalies as "unidentified flying objects"- UFOs.
Since then some ufologists have posited the extraterrestrial hypothesis, which is the view that UFOs are objective, physical, and empirical realities—that is, metallic spacecraft (“nuts and bolts”) piloted by interplanetary space visitors. For these class of folks, a message from a distant star system in response to one or several radio signals sent from earth would count as evidence for their belief that aliens have indeed been visiting the earth in manned spacecraft. While the reception of a message with sufficient complexity and specificity would bolster the belief that there are intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe this hardly means such beings have been to earth. The extraterrestrial hypothesis suffers from several formidable objections which can be summarized in the following questions: 

1. How are alien craft expected to traverse the vast distances of interstellar space, given the physical limits on how fast a craft can travel in space?
2. How can such a craft sustain a crew over these vast distances of space?
3. Why do sophisticated surveillance systems fail to detect incoming and outgoing UFOs?
4. How feasible is it for an extraterrestrial civilization, however advanced, to maintain a mission to Earth?
5. How is it possible that virtually every so-called metallic craft is different in size, shape, and color from the others?
6. Why are there so many different alien life-forms, and how do they readily adapt to space travel and to Earth’s atmosphere and gravity?
7. Why do UFOs, as a physical craft, not behave like physical objects but instead manipulate and violate the fundamental laws of physics at will?
8. What intelligent reason can be suggested for such bizarre and often absurd behavior as that exhibited by UFOs?
9. If alien visitors are physical, why do they so closely resemble or correspond to psychic or occult phenomena?
10. As a proposed “advanced civilization” (in the areas of technology, morality, and spirituality), why do these aliens often comport themselves in a crude, sloppy, deceptive, and malevolent manner? [2]

The fact is if there are intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe it does not follow that such beings have the ability to embark on a long tumultuous ride to earth.


Concerning the incompatibility of the existence of extraterrestrial beings and religious belief, popular physicist and ETI optimist Paul Davies writes:
'It's inevitable that if we discover life elsewhere in the Universe, it will change forever our perspective of our own species and our own planet ... Those people who cling to the idea that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, or that somehow we were made in the image of God, would I think receive a rude shock.' [3]

Davies here echoes a popular sentiment that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligent beings would be a defeater to the belief that humans are the pinnacle of creation, or are made in the image of God. While it might come as a “rude shock” to a lot of people (not only those with religious convictions but also to people who believed like the late evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that the evolutionary pathway leading to Homo sapiens was completely fortuitous and was unlikely to be repeated in any other roll of the evolutionary dice anywhere in the universe) that there are intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, it might come as a bigger shock to Davies and his ilk that religious believers have entertained and reflected upon such scenarios long before the first man firmly planted his feet on the moon. A notable example of this is in 1464  a Christian theologian named William Vorilong related the issue of other worlds to the doctrine of original sin and the atonement. As to the question “whether Christ by dying on this earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world,” Vorilong answers that “he is able to do this even if the worlds were infinite, but it would not be fitting for him to go into another world that he must die again.” [4] For Vorilong, the already accomplished incarnation and death of Christ on earth are sufficient to provide for the redemption of any beings that might exist in other worlds. 
Another notable example is Thomas Chalmers, a pastor, and preacher of the Free Church of Scotland. In 1817 he preached a series of sermons later published under the title Astronomical Discourses. While skeptical about the existence of extraterrestrials, Chalmers mused that just as the effects of the cross on earth were not diminished by time, so these effects might also extend outward in space to other planets. He concludes that …“ the plan of redemption may have its influences and its bearings on those creatures of God who people other regions.” [5]

Moving aside from the fact that religious believers have long mused about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe, C.S. Lewis directly answers that charge of incompatibility by suggesting the interlocutor misrepresents the religious believer's position by saying "man is the pinnacle of God's creation" in an absolute sense. He writes:

‘If there are species, and rational species, other than man, are any or all of them, like us, fallen? This is the point non-Christians always seem to forget. They seem to think that the Incarnation implies some particular merit or excellence in humanity. But of course, it implies just the reverse: a particular demerit and depravity. No creature that deserved Redemption would need to be redeemed. They that are whole need not the physician. Christ died for men precisely because men are not worth dying for; to make them worth it.’ [6]

Lewis also thinks the existence of other creatures is compatible with the fact that man is made in the image of God. For Lewis, being made in the image of God is that which makes us “spiritual animals” or “rational souls.” What he means by this is that we have not only the faculty to abstract and calculate, but the apprehension of values, the power to mean by "good" something more than "good for me" or even "good for my species.” Hence if such creatures do have such moral knowledge then they would also be made in the image of God, and if not then they would not have the image of God. I think Lewis would argue that the Christian position does not claim man is the only creature with a moral knowledge of God, for even angel and demons which are not humans posses moral knowledge. Therefore if we do find other creatures with a moral knowledge of God it would not invalidate the Christian system. 

Finally and as a side note, Theologian John Jefferson Davis has argued that God could have designed the Human nature of Homo sapiens to represent the nature of all sentient, embodied beings. In this hypothesis man would be the “federal head” or representative of other embodied beings just as Christ represented a cross-section of humanity (the elect) at the incarnation and crucifixion. Hence as Adam fell in the garden so too all alien races fell in him, and as the redemptive benefits of Christ are applied to elect humans so too are they also applied to elect aliens. Under this scheme I think it could be argued that man is the pinnacle of creation in the sense that it is man's nature that is used to represent all sentient embodied beings.  The fact is there are many ways to argue that the existence of extraterrestrials is compatible with religious beliefs. Hence the popular misconception that the confirmation of sentient life elsewhere in the universe would spell the doom for religious beliefs is obviously wrong.


Footnotes.
[1] Quoted in John Spencer, ed., The UFO Encyclopedia (New York: Avon Books, 1991), s.v. “Arnold, Kenneth.”
[2] Vallée, Dimensions, 228–41; Clark, s.v. “extraterrestrial hypothesis and ufology;” Ankerberg and Weldon, 11–13.
[3] Paul Davies, in Russell Stannard Science & Wonders, p.73.
[4] Cited by Grant McColley and H. W. Miller, “Saint Bonaventure, Francis Mayron, William Vorilong and the Doctrine of a plurality of worlds," Speculum 12(1937): 388. 
[5] These references from nineteenth-century writers are found in Crowe, Extraterrestrial Life Debate, pp. 187, 305, 452.
[6] C.S. Lewis 'Religion and Rocketry'.






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