Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


26.4.3  The Religious Response

How would the major world religions, particularly Christianity, react to first contact? Here there is the opportunity for the gravest misunderstandings between races. This problem is well illustrated by the remarks of Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Dean of the Chapel of Stanford University, at a recent SETI Symposium:

Does an extraterrestrial intelligence have a conception of God? I'd guess that they do, and that it'd be like ours. If they don’t have a notion of God, frankly the first-thing I'd like to do is send missionaries.2160

According to Father Clifford Stevens, a Roman Catholic priest and former Air Force chaplain, the central issue is whether Christians should "attempt to convert and baptize intelligent creatures from other planets, creatures who are not children of Adam and who may not have received or needed the redemption brought by Christ."1333

As best the author can discern, modern Christian theology holds that beings from other worlds may be created in any of four distinct states, depending upon the qualities which the Creator has chosen to bestow upon the race. (See Donceel,719 Zubek,119 Raible,116 Lewis,107 Grasso,326,113 Perego,115 and Stevens.1014) There are two kinds of gifts -- preternatural (gifts of the body, such as knowledge, long life, freedom from disease and accident) and supernatural (gifts of the soul, such as sanctifying grace and other "privileges which partake of the nature of the divine") -- hence four possible combinations:

1. State of Pure Nature -- no gifts of the body or of the soul. Such beings would enjoy only ‘those qualities which are proper to a rational animal" and nothing more.

2. State of Integral Nature -- gifts of the body but not of the soul. These creatures would enjoy various preternatural advantages over mere rational beasts but would retain a "natural destiny."

3. State of Supernature -- gifts of the soul but not of the body. This would be a race of rational beings with a supernatural destiny and possessed of sanctifying grace which would make them capable of "quasi-divine acts," despite their lack of preternatural gifts.

4. State of Innocence -- gifts of the body and of the soul. Such beings would enjoy "a relatively carefree life," with "no disease, concupiscence, ignorance or death" and everlasting happiness. This enviable condition was the status of Adam and Eve before the commission of original sin.

Furthermore, any race endowed with supernatural gifts holds them in trust for God, and therefore conceivably may betray that trust. Hence, beings in a state of pure nature or integral nature cannot "fall" or sin against the Creator; races in a state of supernature or innocence may "fall" from Divine pleasure. These latter species may be considered "temptable" in the sense that they are susceptible to the temptation of original sin.

Once again, there are four possible conditions in which these "temptable" extraterrestrial races may be found, according to traditional theology:

1. Untempted by sin as yet.

2. Once tempted by sin, but successful in overcoming it.

3. Once tempted by sin, fallen, but redeemed by the Creator. (Mankind)

4. Once tempted by sin, fallen, and unredeemed by the Creator. (Seen as unlikely by most theologians, in view of "the infinite mercy of God.")

Redemption could occur in many ways. For example, He could simply forgive the transgression and re-elevate the race to its previous dignity. He might demand merely a partial satisfaction for the offense, perhaps accomplished by one or more representatives (Redeemers) of the fallen species. He could demand personal disposition from each individual, in the form of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Finally, God might choose a combination of the above, combining the mediation of a Redeemer with the cooperation of repentant sinners.

Another aspect of redemption that would depend entirely upon the will of God is the number and kind of gifts which He would return to the redeemed race. According to Father Daniel G. Raible of Brunnendale Seminary of the Society of the Precious Blood:

In the case of our mankind, He willed to return only the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace, without the preternatural gifts of infused knowledge, freedom from concupiscence (perfect control of the will over man’s lower faculties) and immortality. Another fallen race He might treat differently, by returning both the preternatural and the supernatural gifts.116

Taking this broad theological viewpoint, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence presents no insurmountable difficulties to current conceptions. It is clear that the concepts of God, preternatural and supernatural gifts, and the basics of redemption are not called into question or challenged in any way by the existence of ETs. Theologists will merely classify the space creatures according to traditional categories. Religion and xenology are quite compatible.

Many writers have argued that the particularistic character of most of human revealed religion must inevitably doom it when sentient life is found in space.71 For example, Arthur C. Clarke suggested nearly two decades ago that:

The proof, which is now only a matter of time, that this young species of ours is low on the scale of cosmic intelligence will be a shattering blow to our pride. Few of our current religions can be expected to survive it, contrary to the optimistic forecasts from certain quarters. The assertion that "God created man in his own image" is ticking like a time bomb in the foundations of Christianity. As the hierarchy of the universe is slowly disclosed to us, we will have to face this chilling fact: If there are any gods whose concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.55

This and similar appraisals that appear frequently in the literature appear to be rather serious overstatements of the expected consequences of discovering alien lifeforms.3370,1231,206,3607 In light of the adaptation and survival of Roman Catholicism in spite of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, it seems ludicrous to suggest that the Church would be destroyed by any Contact less severe than acculturation resulting in extinction or total assimilation of human society (in which case religion would be the least of our worries).3589,1776 As science writer Kendrick Frazier admits:

Institutions, especially those with a good record for endurance, have a certain amount of stretch built into them; thus it may be an underestimation of their resiliency to expect them automatically to crumble at the first hello from elsewhere in the galaxy.1938

There seems to be at least two viable viewpoints from which Christians (and members of other particularistic faiths) can view the problem of exterrestrial sentience without precipitating theological catastrophe or dogmatic crises of inconsistency. First, the terrestrial messiah may be regarded as unique in all the universe.103,978,104,562 In this conception, only Earth has been redeemed. For instance, since Christ took human form, only human beings have been rescued from spiritual oblivion by God. Alien races comprised of nonhumans, who are deemed "fallen" by the Church, cannot have been saved by Jesus, who was human. The ETs thus are either the fallen sinful, unworthy of the Creator’s salvation and hence to be quarantined and forever shunned by humanity (lest we become tainted with "diabolical" evil), or they are the redeemable unredeemed, in which case missionaries should be dispatched immediately to bring them the "good news" of Christ on Earth.3596 Any local messiah whom the extraterrestrials may claim as their own redeemer is a false prophet or "antichrist," an apparition of the Devil to be exorcised by special ritual cleansings, crusades or holy wars of extermination, or Divine intervention.

Besides violating the Principle Thermoethic, the above (self-consistent) conceptual framework also violates one of the cardinal assumptions of xenology -- the Hypothesis of Mediocrity. Roland Puccetti at the University of Singapore has calculated that if there are 100 million sites of extraterrestrial intelligence in our Milky Way galaxy, and at least 10 billion galaxies in the universe, then if each such community had but one distinct religion of its own there would exist some 1018 independent sacred traditions throughout the cosmos.71 By what horrendous effrontery to common sense, he asks, can Christians claim that Christ chose to redeem only Earth instead of one of the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 other sentient races in the universe?

A few theologians are willing to do without the Hypothesis of Mediocrity. According to Dr. Andrew J. Burgess, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Cleveland State University, the setting of the bible is not in mighty Rome or Greece but in remote Palestine. The actors are a small band of slaves who migrate to an out-of-the-way territory and never even manage to control that for more than brief periods of time, rather than a powerful people shaping history. The Messiah was born of obscure parents, spent his early years in backwards Galilee, assembled an otherwise undistinguished crew of followers, and finally was executed as a common criminal. (God has shown "an exasperating tendency toward what, in other contexts, one would have to call slumming.") Thus it should not seem at all strange to speak of Christianity as beginning on "an insignificant planet of a secondary star of an unimpressive galaxy somewhere out in space."2606

More intellectually preferable is the second viable Christian viewpoint alluded to earlier: That the terrestrial messiah is not absolutely unique in all the universe, that other races may be redeemed by Him, and that Jesus may have assumed different physical forms on different worlds.1558,100,356,108,109,3632,3558 Notes Father Raible:

Suppose that God intended to demand adequate satisfaction from a fallen {extraterrestrial} race. That would necessitate that God become a member of the fallen race in order to redeem it. Could it be the same Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who became incarnate for our salvation? Yes, it would be possible for the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity to become a member of more than one human race. There is nothing at all repugnant in the idea of the same Divine Person taking on the nature of many human races. Conceivably, we may learn in heaven that there has been not one incarnation of God's son but many.116

Paul Tillich, one of the foremost Protestant theologians, is in basic agreement:

Incarnation is unique for the special group in which it happens, but it is not unique in the sense that other singular incarnations for other unique worlds are excluded. ... Man cannot claim to occupy the only possible place for Incarnation. ... The manifestation of saving power in one place implies that saving power is operating in all places.3591,3592

In this view the Church will not be interested in converting other planets to Christianity105,1014 C.S. Lewis stood firm against "all theological imperialism." Said he: "To different diseases, or different patients sick with the same disease, the great Physician may have applied different remedies."106 The Lord's mission was to Earth only, to the human race -- other intelligent species did not share in the Fall and thus do not require redemption. Or, if they are not in a state of grace then God will have made His own provision for them.3593 Jesuit Paul Curtin of Boston College insists that there exists no theological authority for man’s spiritual proselytizing beyond the Earth:

The only theology I know or can know is that of a revealed God in relationship to the children of Adam. If there are beings on another planet, then they must be the object of another Providence. They are not the children of Adam, and so they are not a part of our salvation history, which is that of a fallen and redeemed race.259

Professor Eduard Stakemeir, Roman Catholic theologian at the Philosophical-Theological Academy at Paderborn, Germany, is in full agreement:

The inhabitants of other worlds could be like us, but they could also be much superior to us in sense and will. And perhaps they also surpass us in gratitude to the Creator and in goodness and love to all that demands love and kindness. [But] in principle we must say that the Christian order of redemption was realized by God for this world. Only we, who are descended from Adam, are born in original sin, and God became man to redeem us. His church and His sacraments are not valid for other planets.118

Only one minor technical problem remains if the above position is adopted. Recall the calculation that there may be as many as 1018 religious traditions extant in the universe. Assuming most of these required a redemption, and if Jesus' lifetime on Earth is considered typical (about 30 years), then 3 x 1018 years would have to transpire for the Son of God to pass from birth to resurrection on each inhabited planet of the cosmos. This is about 100,000,000 times the estimated age of the universe, so either the cosmos are very much older than scientists suspect, or the relative fraction of redeemed civilizations is exceedingly small (i.e., most races never fall, or go unredeemed), or at any given time approximately 100,000,000 Incarnations must be occurring simultaneously throughout the cosmos. While a few philosophers have argued that one God cannot be in more than one place at a time,71 the better theological view seems to be that the Supreme Being, who is both omnipotent and omniscient, may also be omnipresent and infinitely partitionable without dilution.2865 There is theological precedent for this viewpoint in the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

All this is not to suggest that human religious institutions will be unaffected by the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. Far from it. Major modifications and adjustments will have to be made in order to adapt to changed circumstances and to respond in a meaningful way to alien revelation (or the lack thereof). Hardest hit will be those people whose attitude is characterized by "I have a private conviction that They'll turn out to be Catholics after all."102 The more excessive the chauvinism, the greater the shock. But most world religions are probably sufficiently resilient to absorb such events without ill effects.


Last updated on 6 December 2008