I recall Scientific American as a stodgy but respected journal. It bristled with challenging but intriguing titles like "The Large-Scale Streaming of Galaxies" and "Branching Phylogenies of the Paleozoic and the Fortunes of English Family Names."
But one of the newest titles -- "Did Jesus Save the Klingons?" -- just doesn't have the same ring. Nor, unfortunately, does the article: a Q&A of an astronomer pontificating on how religion -- meaning, of course, traditional Christianity -- would be undone by the discovery of life on other planets.
Says David Weintraub, author of the new book Religion and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?:
I think at bottom most people have this idea that we humans are pretty special creatures and that God is paying attention to us. If we find somebody else, then there are lots of somebodies, most likely. And if there are lots of somebodies, that somehow would seem to make us less important. I think that is, psychologically, what has happened a number of times in human history. When Copernicus first said the Earth goes around the sun, theologically that meant we’re not the center of the universe anymore. Later on when astronomers said the sun isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just a silly star out in the suburbs of the galaxy, that threatened our well-being again. Suddenly if there are other beings out there, I think it changes completely the way we think about our place in the universe. I think it would be truly profound to know that.
As you read this article, keep in mind that it has little to do with science. You'll find nothing of cause and effect or the scientific method or rules of proof. The article is simply a bit of triumphalistic rhetoric, thinly papered over with an appeal to the authority of science. You could hear opinions at least as urbane over beers at a college rathskeller.
One guess on which religions Weintraub says will have the most trouble adjusting to the news of E.T.s:
The ones that have decided that we humans are the sole focus of God’s attention. The religions that see the world through that viewpoint tend to be some of the Christian evangelicals. The Eastern Orthodox Church, a branch of Catholicism, also has that view.
There are some people who claim that if God had created extraterrestrials, then there clearly would be words in the Old and New testaments, which we would have already found, that would have said explicitly that God created extraterrestrials -- and since those words don’t exist, there can’t be. Well, there’s nothing in the Old and New testaments that talks about telephones either, and telephones do seem to exist.
We'll pause to note that while commenting on religion, both Weintraub and his interviewer seem fine with the erroneous notion that the Eastern Orthodox are "a branch of Catholicism." What's more, the quote is linked to another SciAm article that debunks the old "Chariots of the Gods" hypothesis -- an article that says nothing about whether God created aliens.
Another touch of ignorance: Weintraub mentions "the idea that Adam and Eve shouldn't have eaten the apple." The Bible, of course, doesn't name the forbidden fruit.
The interviewer then asks if Christians believe Jesus would have to visit each planet separately. Weintraub is ready with an opinion:
Right. That’s a serious theological problem. Most theologians are pretty seriously averse to the idea that the son of God will have to visit every planet and get crucified on every planet.
What if there’s another planet that’s been in existence for 100 million years before us? Do all of those creatures not get to go to heaven because the Jesus event didn’t happen until 2,000 years ago? Is that fair? It’s not for me to say.
Some Catholic theologians are wiling to wave their hands and say it’s simply not a problem; God will take care of it. Some say it’s a serious problem. But theologically it’s a pretty interesting problem. These questions have been sitting out there for several hundred years. Two hundred years ago [American revolutionary and political philosopher] Thomas Paine put these questions out there very eloquently, and theologians started to address this and decided, yeah, this is a problem.
Leaving aside whether Paine was a Catholic, let alone a theologian: How is it a "serious theological problem" if most theologians don't buy it?
You won't be astonished to know that Weintraub lets off nearly every other religion easier than Catholic and evangelical Christianity. He says the founder of Seventh-day Adventists (Who? Doesn't say) had "visions of extraterrestrials." He says Mormons believe they will one day rule their own worlds. Quakers and Jews, he says, don’t say much about extraterrestrials. That somehow gets them off the hook in Weintraub's eyes, although they use the same Hebrew scriptures as the allegedly clueless Catholics and evangelicals do.
None of this is new; many scientists and even science fiction writers have long taken swats at Christianity. Back in 1962, Harry Harrison wrote "The Streets of Ashkelon," in which a misguided missionary preaches to aliens, with deadly results. In "The Star," scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had a priest on an interstellar ship making a faith-bruising discovery. And in his nonfiction writings, like Profiles of the Future, Clarke often said the belief that God created man in his image was "ticking like a time bomb at the foundations of many faiths."
But Weintraub and his SciAm interviewer seem blissfully oblivious of the many conversations by Christian thinkers on extraterrestrial life. It goes way beyond the statement by Pope Francis this past May, when he said that if little green Martians landed, he would have no problem baptizing them. Six years before then, Father Jose Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, told L’Osservatore Romano:
As a multiplicity of creatures exist on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. This does not contrast with our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God. To say it with Saint Francis, if we consider earthly creatures as “brother” and “sister,” why cannot we also speak of an “extraterrestrial brother?” It would therefore be a part of creation.
And in 2009, Funes hosted an international conference on the possibility of life on other planets. Attending were 30 scientists, including non-Catholics, from several countries.
Even Christian sci-fi and fantasy writers have tried creative approaches. There's the Space Trilogy -- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength -- in which C. S. Lewis spun a yarn of Mars and Venus, suggesting how life elsewhere could have a spiritual arrangement different from that on Earth, yet consistent with Christianity.
There's also the trilogy by Madeleine L'Engle -- A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet -- which works spiritual themes into a story of a young girl learning about intergalactic civilization.
As pedestrian a publication as Our Sunday Visitor published a long history of western thought about life in the universe -- including Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.E., the medieval Bishop Etienne Tempier of Paris, freethinkers Descartes and Voltaire, even philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Even without about Funes and Francis and L'Engle and Lewis, Weintraub and Scientific American could have simply read history. Sure, momentous discoveries have always shaken up societies, including religious ones. Then they adjusted. The church survived Copernicus, despite what Weintraub says. Christian belief has also survived Darwin, Freud, Marx, even Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher. In fact, it has become the faith of 32 percent of everyone alive.
Maybe the Scientific American article is just clever marketing. I'm tempted to buy Weintraub's book myself, just to see if it's really as ignorant as this article makes it sound.