Can terrestrial religion survive intact in a universe in which innumerable planets orbit other suns? The short answer may seem to be no. At first glance, the world’s religious traditions do not appear to have room in their myths to deal with the discovery of new planets in far-off star systems. However, religions are resilient and able to adapt to new information. Rather than ushering in the demise of religion, the discovery of exoplanets will most likely prompt a series of new and radical reinterpretations of traditional religious doctrine.
The exciting news from the world of astronomy is that the Kepler space telescope has discovered a variety of planets in other solar systems. Scientists have extrapolated from Kepler’s observations and now estimate that our galaxy contains fifty billion planets. Five hundred million of those planets may be rocky worlds that occupy the “Goldilocks zone” around their stars—not too hot and not too cold. Some of these planets may be capable of supporting life.
Given the fact that there are one hundred billion galaxies in the universe, it is likely that there are other planets on which life has evolved. And it is possible that intelligent beings on these other worlds have developed religious ideas that include some claim about their own special status and unique relation to the gods. We may never directly encounter these extraterrestrial beings in our lifetimes. However, the likelihood of their existence gives us a reason to reinterpret terrestrial religion.
Despite the fact that some religious believers oppose the theory of evolution, religions do evolve to accommodate new facts. Some belief systems—such as Young Earth creationism—attempt to deny scientific fact. But many religious people are interested in the latest scientific knowledge. The Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, has argued that religion must adapt to new knowledge. As the title of one of his books puts it, Christianity must either “change or die.” Spong has argued that our knowledge of the size of the universe precludes the possibility that Jesus ascended “in any literal sense into a heaven located somewhere above the sky.” The facts of contemporary astronomy and the heliocentric theory of the solar system are now so undeniable that it would be difficult to imagine a religion that excluded them. Indeed, the Catholic Church has finally admitted it was in wrong in the Galileo affair. And the new pope has acknowledged the basic facts of evolution: the Big Bang event, the age of the earth, the fossil record, and genetic connections across species. Moreover, in 2009 the Vatican hosted a conference on astrobiology and the question of whether there is life on other planets. And in 2008, the head of the Vatican Observatory, Jose Gabriel Fuentes, a Jesuit from Argentina, gave an interview to L’Osservatore Romana in which he said: “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures over the earth, so there could be other beings, even intelligent (beings), created by God. This is not in contradiction with our faith, because we cannot establish limits to God’s creative freedom. To say it with St. Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters,’ why could we not speak of a ‘brother alien’? He would also belong to the creation.”
Here in the United States, theologian Ted Peters of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley has written on this question. Peters predicts that religious belief will adapt to new astronomical discoveries. He even conducted a survey in which he interviewed people about the question of whether the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would undermine their religious belief. His conclusion: “Responses from persons self-identifying with one of seven major religious traditions report that they do not fear an impending collapse in their own religious belief system. Taking into account a minority who for theological or scientific reasons affirm the rare earth position [that humans are alone in the universe], relatively little fragility in existing religious beliefs seems evident.”
Spong, Fuentes, and Peters each imply that it is possible to reconcile religious belief with these new scientific discoveries. But will it be easy?
A fundamentalist reading of ancient religious myths—myths that developed when human beings were unable to imagine exoplanets—will have a hard time incorporating exotic planets and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. At the very least, traditional religions will have to reinterpret themselves in such a way as to explain how the geocentric focus of the past is to be understood in light of our expanded astronomical knowledge.
I use the term geocentric here deliberately as a reminder of the history of the tension between religion and astronomy. It is apropos that the space telescope is named after Johannes Kepler. Kepler, along with Galileo, was a proponent of the heliocentric model of the universe—which contradicted the church’s geocentric theory. Although Kepler and Galileo remained committed to the basic tenets of Christianity, each challenged the traditional view of the universe. Now that the Kepler telescope is showing us distant planets, we are moving even beyond the heliocentric model. Old Helios—the sun god—has definitely been deposed.
It is not surprising that religions are geocentric. When the world’s religious traditions developed, it was impossible to conceive of other planets orbiting distant stars. Ancient peoples only knew about Earth and its inhabitants. Ancient religions had no knowledge of any other possible centers for God’s concern. Even after the Copernican revolution, it was possible to imagine that God had created this system and Earth as unique places in the cosmos. Something like this persists today in the “rare earth” hypothesis mentioned by Peters in his discussion of one of the ways that religious believers may choose to cope with exoplanets. The rare earth hypothesis—defended in a book of that name by Peter D. Ward—holds that it is wildly improbable that life would develop at all anywhere in the universe. Thus despite the fact that other planets exist, it is still possible for us to believe that we are unique and exceptional.
This focus on our uniqueness helps explain why the world’s religious traditions tend to be ethnocentric and anthropocentric. Western religious traditions emphasize the special relationship that a chosen people has with God. This view developed historically within closed communities that concentrated on the needs and desires of the community without concern for nonmembers. So it makes sense to find elements of ethnocentrism in these traditions. Some religious traditions have evolved beyond ethnocentrism toward a broadly ecumenical concern. But they tend to remain anthropocentric to the extent that they emphasize human concerns. It is human beings that are supposed to have a special relationship with God, having been created in God’s image. Some traditions do speak of transmigration of souls across the species divide. But it is usually held that there is something special and unique about the human phase of the soul’s journey. In religion, the interests of human beings on this planet are the primary concern.
We are on the cusp of another phase in the evolution of religion. Religions will have to evolve beyond an exclusive focus on the earth. While some critics may hope that this phase in the evolution of religion may lead us beyond religion altogether, it is more likely that religion will develop in new directions. While the discovery of exoplanets finally confirms the fact that there is nothing special about our planet, defenders of the rare earth hypothesis can focus on the specifics of temperature differentials, gravitational fields, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and the presence of liquid water to argue that intelligent life remains special. It is more likely, however, that the earth is not so rare—especially if we acknowledge the billions of stars that may host inhabitable planets. We need, then, to reconceive our place in the cosmos. The discoveries of the Kepler telescope direct our attention to the vastness of the universe and our own insignificance. And they remind us how limited our terrestrial perspective is.
Several generations hence, we may well look back upon this discovery as the sort of turning point that we associate with the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, and Darwin. But we should recall that these scientific geniuses ran afoul of traditional religious and moral teaching. Galileo was forced by the church to abjure his theory; his work was banned for several centuries. Kepler’s mother was accused of witchcraft and threatened with torture. Kepler used his influence to free her. He was eventually forced out of Prague when the emperor ended tolerance for Protestants. Darwin was not subject to the same threat of torture or censorship. However, his idea of evolution by natural selection has been denied by advocates of creationism. And Darwin’s view of the world has been maligned for removing the traditional basis for morality and for running counter to the basic ideas of creationism.
There have always been those who want to deny the discoveries of science in the name of religion. There may be some exoplanet deniers, who question the reliability of the method used to find these planets. The same methodological doubt was used to respond to Galileo: it could be that the telescope misled him. In the same way, some creationists continue to defend the idea of a “young earth” despite the mass of evidence that the earth is older than six thousand years. But as science unfolds, through repeated observation and confirmation, it will soon enough be undeniable that there are other planets out there. Exoplanet skeptics will be as marginal as Young Earth creationists. Censorship will be impossible. Perhaps the rare earth hypothesis will remain as a bastion from which to defend traditional religious belief. But as Fuentes and Peters indicate, religious belief can continue even if life is found on distant planets.
In that case, religious traditions will have to revise their creation stories in such a way as to provide for a creation event that includes other planets. And as we become more aware of the possibility of life on these distant planets, the creation story will have to admit that there may have been independent developments of life on distant worlds based upon something like evolution as we know it here on Earth.
Of course, the world’s religious traditions will have to find ways to explain the embarrassing lack of knowledge among ancient prophets who knew nothing of these other planets. It could be that religious hermeneuts will find obscure passages in the ancient scriptures that can be interpreted in such a way that they include reference to foreign planets. But it will remain difficult to explain how the mainstream tradition developed during the past millennia in ignorance of these exoplanets. Theologians and scholars have often pushed far beyond the literal word of the ancient texts. So it might be possible to reinterpret these texts in a variety of ways to make room for the new astronomy. Something similar happened with interpretations of the book of Joshua and its claim that God held the Sun still in the sky in order to allow Joshua time to complete a battle. Galileo’s discoveries forced the church to revise the standard interpretation of this passage, but the passage still remains as part of the tradition.
Perhaps it will be possible to incorporate these new discoveries within a traditional religious worldview. Advocates of intelligent design might argue that God created a vast number of worlds, including several that have the potential for life. And until intelligent life is discovered elsewhere, it may be possible to remain adamant in the claim that human beings alone are created in the image of God. But this still leaves much to be explained. And the problem remains: to explain why and how the designer of the vast cosmos has a special relationship to Earth and its human beings. The intelligent designer of this cosmos may end up quite different from the god of traditional religions, who appears to be obsessed with occurrences on our puny world.
Most terrestrial religions promise much more than the abstract theology of intelligent design provides. Religious tales usually speak of a chosen people, a prophet with divine wisdom, or a unique historical moment of revelation. These myths will have to be reinterpreted to accommodate the fact that we are not alone or unique in the cosmos. And claims about saviors and redemption will have to be reinterpreted to explain the possibility of redemption for inhabitants of exoplanets.
Religions do adjust to new discoveries. Consider, for example, what happened with Mormonism. Joseph Smith claimed to have found a way to deal with the fact that the Christian tradition was ignorant of the Americas. His prophecy explained how the lost tribes of Israel came to the New World and how Jesus appeared to people in the Americas after his resurrection. Mormons continue to believe that God ordained that Zion (the promised land) will be built in the Americas. And esoteric Mormon doctrine holds that it is possible that righteous men can become gods and go on to rule over universes of their own. Perhaps this idea or some other like it could be used to explain ideas about the existence of other worlds.
It is possible that a similar adjustment could be made by a religion that wants to incorporate the existence of exoplanets into a larger theory of salvation and redemption. It is possible to imagine a religion teaching that some humans left the planet to visit distant worlds or that Jesus or some other prophet or messiah has roamed the stars in spiritual form. Indeed, Church of Scientology doctrine contains elements of an extraterrestrial mythology.
But mainstream terrestrial religions—as they exist today—provide scant guidance for dealing with the possibility of life on distant planets. Traditional religions provide no answer to the question of whether extraterrestrial life would have moral value. Would it make sense to say that extraterrestrial beings are created in the image of God or that they are endowed by their (or our) creator with inalienable rights? And how would extraterrestrials be incorporated into religious eschatology? Are extraterrestrials afflicted by original sin? Can they be saved? And so on.
Science and modern moral philosophy do provide us with better guidance here. Darwinian biology provides an account of how life would evolve on those distant worlds: via natural processes and in response to the exigencies of the local environment over the course of long millennia. The Darwinian model tells us that sentience, intelligence, and cooperative activity develop as species respond to the environment. Indeed, Darwinian theory can explain how religion itself might have evolved on a distant planet—as the response of communal and intelligent beings to the demands of the environment. A similar approach is found in modern moral philosophy, which tells us that moral value can be found in sentience, intelligence, and communal belonging. If we discover life on distant planets, it is these features that will matter when we begin to think about the value of those extraterrestrial life-forms.
The great philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that two things fill him with wonder and awe: “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The vast sublimity of the universe is awe-inspiring. But it is our awareness of ourselves and our moral connection with other beings that gives life value. It may be possible that there are some beings on distant worlds who are filled with wonder at the starry skies above and at their own sense of self. Indeed, Kant hinted that morality should extend to include all “rational beings.” This phrase points in a direction that goes beyond mere human nature—toward rational nature in general, wherever it evolves.
As far as we know, we are the only beings in the universe that understand morality and the question of value. We are not perfectly rational beings—but we are the most rational beings we know. We are special because we are able to wonder whether we are special and because we are able to ask whether other beings on distant worlds might have a similar sort of value. In this way, the discovery of extra-solar planets is an important reminder of what is valuable to us here on Earth.
One hopes that as the news of these new discoveries filters into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to the need to revise our old beliefs in order to make room for these new discoveries and the newly enlarged cosmos beyond our solar system.
Andrew Fiala is professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno.