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Missionaries to Mars? The religious implications of the search for life in the Universe

David Wilkinson, The Plain Truth, Apr-May 2004

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: Will Christians have to hold a closing-down sale if extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) is found elsewhere in the Universe? Or has there already been the passion of the Christ on different worlds?

Mars has become big news. Beagle may be out there somewhere on the surface trying to ‘phone home’; meanwhile, the US has landed Spirit and Opportunity and sent back stunning pictures of the Martian surface. Mars Express orbits the planet confirming the existence of water, and George Bush prepares to go boldly where his father was unable to go by planning to land humans on the surface of Mars.

In amongst all of this is the age-old question, ‘are we alone in the Universe’? While the exploration of Mars may not give us good evidence for another decade, this question drives our thinking both in a scientific sense and indeed in a religious sense.

Will Christians have to hold a closing-down sale if extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) is found elsewhere in the Universe? Or has there already been the passion of the Christ on different worlds?

A Christian search for extraterrestrial intelligence?
It will come as a surprise to some that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) can in part be traced back to a Christian motivation. Kepler (1571-1630) argued from Galileo’s observation that since Jupiter had moons it too must be inhabited. He reasoned that as God had made the Moon for our benefit, then the moons of Jupiter were made for the benefit of the inhabitants of Jupiter. So then there must be inhabitants! A similar type of argument was used by the astronomers Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in England and Christian Huygens (1629-95) in Holland. Following the discovery of the vast number of other stars apart from our sun in the Universe, they reasoned that if there were stars which were unable to be seen from Earth, then they must have been created for the benefit of those who could see them. There must be other beings elsewhere in the Universe.

The historian of science Colin Russell has suggested that common to the many speculations about other worlds in the seventeenth century was an insistence on God’s ability to create life anywhere he wished and that the universe existed not just for the sole benefit of human beings, but to exhibit his glory to all.1 E.A. Milne, the distinguished Oxford cosmologist and Christian went even further: ‘Is it irreverent to suggest that an infinite God could scarcely find the opportunities to enjoy himself, to exercise his godhead, if a single planet were the seat of his activities?’2

Christians have long understood that God’s creation contains other life apart from humans. From worms to wasps, God’s creativity is expressed in a wide diversity and indeed extravagance of non-human life. The relics of primitive life on Mars at one level would not cause any difficulty at all for Christians; it would simply be yet more of the tapestry of creation.

Intelligent life, but not as we know it?
Of course, if we found that the Universe was full of bacteria that would not be very interesting.

Star Trek would not work if the on-going mission was to boldly go to seek out yet more bacteria! The key question for many is whether there is other intelligent, self-conscious life within the Universe. The scientific jury is still out on this question. On the one hand we know that the Universe is a very big place containing more than 100 billion stars in each of 100 billion galaxies. On the other hand biologists clearly point out that the evolution of self-conscious life depends in a very delicate way on many aspects of the laws of physics and the circumstances of the earth. Finding evidence of primitive life on the surface of Mars (and if it could be shown that this was not contamination from the Earth) might tell us that life itself may be emerging in many places in the Universe, but that does not necessarily mean that all amoebas will inevitably turn into accountants! Indeed the lifeless surface of Mars today is a reminder that the building blocks for life may be there in abundance, but things have to
be just right for intelligent life to develop.

While the SETI programme continues looking for signals of other civilisations, the continued silence of the heavens is not encouraging. The physicist, Fermi, in the 1950s suggested that if the Universe was giving birth to many civilisations then ‘if they existed they would be here’. While some will argue for UFOs and alien abductions to be good evidence, the vast majority of the scientific community is unconvinced. The fact that as yet we have not seen or heard ‘ET phoning home’ has been significant.

But just supposing we were to encounter little green men and women, what would that mean for religion and Christian faith in particular?

A watchmaker of alien watches?
Paul Davies has written widely in recent years on the link between God and his work as a cosmologist. He is especially struck by the anthropic balances that make life possible. These are the amazing balances in the law and circumstance of the Universe that allow the development of carbon-based life. These, coupled with the intelligibility of the Universe, lead him towards a cosmic designer.
He believes that there are as yet undiscovered principles of complexity, organisation and information flow consistent with the laws of physics, but not reducible to them, and these principles lead to intelligent life.3 If this turns out to be the case, Davies feels that atheism would seem less compelling and something like design more plausible.

William Paley became famous in the nineteenth century for likening this design in the biological world to finding a watch as you walk across the heath. The intricacy of the design suggests a designer. Would such a watch on the surface of Mars give any proof of the existence of God?

Such an argument may dent atheism, but it does not prove the Christian God. Even if you identify ‘design’ you then have little idea as to what the designer is really like?

Contact problems for religion?
If you cannot prove God then can aliens become a means of disproving God? Jill Cornell Tarter is one of the leading SETI researchers in the world. She argues that if ETI is detected then ‘long-lived extraterrestrials either never had, or have outgrown, organised religion’.4 She thinks that religion causes war and the destabilisation of societies, and therefore a stable, technological civilisation would mean either one universal religion or no god at all. Indeed, if it is one universal religion, then we will all convert to it and junk the divisive religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism on the cosmic scrap-heap.

Of course, this is a long way from finding evidence of life on the surface of Mars. Whilst wildly simplistic in its understanding of religion, technology and society, it is however interesting to see SETI researchers seeing their work in dialogue with the big questions. Cornell Tarter does not recognise the positive contribution of religion to society, not least in the growth of science itself. The situation is far too complex to predict that any ETI will have one God or no religion at all. Her argument is weak, but she is not alone in using alien life to attack God.

Is God an alien?
Famous for his iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick once suggested that ‘all the standard attributes assigned to God in our history could equally well be the characteristics of biological entities who, billions of years ago, were at a stage of development similar to man’s own and developed into something as remote from man as man is remote from the primordial ooze from which he first
emerged.’5 Is ‘God’ in fact a super intelligent alien?

Again, this is not new. A former NASA engineer, J.F. Blumrich in a book The Spaceships of Ezekiel, published in 1974, suggested – quite unconvincingly – that Ezekiel’s vision of God was in fact an encounter with a flying saucer.

Erich Von Daniken and others went further in arguing that many of the accounts of Jesus were simply telling the story of a super- technological alien. Thus, angels in ‘shining garments’ are actually aliens in space suits and the ascension was simply ‘beam me up Scotty’! Such suggestions are highly-entertaining but do little justice to basic questions such as the historicity of the life and teaching of Jesus, and the significance of his death and resurrection.

There are even reputable scientists who have suggested similar things. The cosmologist Edward Harrison was struck by the anthropic balances in the Universe.

He suggested that there could be only three explanations: First, God designed the Universe, but Harrison hastily argues that answer precludes further rational inquiry. Second, the anthropic principle of this Universe as one universe in many universes, but he finds this unsatisfactory. His preferred third option is that this Universe is created by life of superior intelligence existing in another physical universe.

How does he get to this extraordinary conclusion? First, he picks up on the suggestion that black holes could be the birthplaces of new universes. Second, he argues, that due to the rapid evolution of intelligence there is every reason to expect that a time will come in the future when we will be able to design and create our own universes. Thus, the fine-tuning of this Universe is to be explained as an engineering project of superior beings. They have created this Universe out of a black hole. He calls it a ‘natural creation theory’ and claims that it also explains why the Universe is intelligible to us. It is created by minds similar to our own who designed it to be that way.

One wonders whether this is an elaborate wind-up, even though it appeared in a scientific journal. Harrison criticises belief in God for stopping any further rational inquiry, but then falls into the same trap. What can we possibly know about these ‘superior’ beings in another universe? If he is to be drawn to the conclusion that this Universe is designed, is it not simpler to see the ‘superior being’ as God? Indeed, in contrast to the unknown aliens in another universe, Christians claim that this God, far from being in another universe, has revealed himself in this Universe and forms a personal relationship with those who open their lives to him.
The evidence for the existence of God is much stronger than that for superior beings in another universe.

Big Brother on Mars?
Whilst Paul Davies is open to God, he does think that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would somehow undermine what he sees as Christianity’s claim that men and women have a special and exclusive relationship with the Creator.

If we are not alone then we are not special.

Whilst Davies might be right in seeing this in some expressions of Christianity, it is not true to the traditional Christian position. Russell points out that the popularity of the speculation about other worlds in the seventeenth century was a significant indicator of the ascendancy of biblical values over those of Aristotle. The reason being that in the Aristotelian Universe, position and status were closely associated. The Earth was at the centre of all things, separated from the rest of the Universe by the orbit of Moon. We were special because we were placed at the centre.

In contrast, the Bible does not associate status and place. The dignity and worth of human beings comes from the gift of relationship with God. This is clearly spelt out in the Genesis narratives. The core of being made in the image of God, being given stewardship over the world and having the capacity for intimate communication with God are all held together in the gift of relationship. Such a relationship can be special without being exclusive. I have a special relationship with my daughter, but that is not devalued by the fact that she has a brother with whom I also have a special relationship.

Extraterrestrial intelligence does not pose a problem to Christian belief that men and women are special in the eyes of God. It may even increase the sense of awe at how great this God is who creates with such diversity and extravagance.

God in little green flesh?
Yet how would the existence of ETI affect the central Christian claim that God has become a human being in Jesus to communicate with us and to save us from our sin? This has bothered some theologians. Arthur Peacocke, who has done so much to hold science and religion together, worries, ‘Does not the mere possibility of extraterrestrial life render nonsensical all the superlative claims made by the Christian church about the significance (of Jesus)’6

Here is what theologians call the issue of particularity: Christian faith is based on a particular revelation at a particular time to a particular people, which is, at the same time universal for all. Christians have thought about this in terms of other cultures and faith communities and a few have tried to extend this to ETI. The speculations have followed two separate paths.

Some have said that the revelation of God in Jesus is once for all for the whole Universe. Milne observed:

‘God’s most notable intervention in the actual historical process, according to the Christian outlook, was the Incarnation. Was this a unique event, or has it been re-enacted on each of a countless number of planets? The Christian would recoil in horror from such a conclusion. We cannot imagine the Son of God suffering vicariously on each of a myriad of planets... We are in deep waters here in a sea of great mysteries.’ 7

Milne eventually solves his great mystery and overcomes particularity by suggesting the sending of the good news by radio waves!

Others have taken a different view. Milne’s view was severely criticised by the theologian E.L. Mascall in his Bampton lectures in 1956. He argued that if salvation was what God was all about, then he would make sure his creatures knew about it. Mascall stresses that salvation has to be achieved through incarnation.8 That Jesus became a human being means that it is doubtful that his saving work would be for different types of beings.

Such a view was also represented by the hymn writer Sydney Carter who wondered:

‘Who can tell what other cradle,
High above the Milky Way,
Still may rock the King of Heaven
On another Christmas Day?’ 9

In deciding between these two views we need to proceed carefully. Christian faith understands God in human flesh for two purposes – one is about showing us what God is like, and the other is to save us from our sin which alienates us from God. In thinking about incarnation on another world, we need to ask the question posed by C.S. Lewis – that if aliens do exist, and if they are intelligent, will they have sinned like human beings?

Milne is right that we find ourselves in a sea of great mysteries! However, the physicist and theologian Sir John Polkinghorne, when asked about whether God would become incarnate on different worlds, replied that the God he saw in Jesus ‘will do what is necessary.’ 10 It seems to me that’s not a bad answer!

Why search Mars at all?
If the science from Mars and indeed from other considerations is not clear, and some of the theological questions need more thinking, we can ask the question why is there so much fascination with this question? The search for life on the surface of Mars is part of a wider human quest that is also expressed in the fascination of The X-Files phenomenon of alien visitation and in much of the science fiction industry. We can highlight five themes common to this fascination.

1. Lost in space
First, a feeling that can only be described as cosmic loneliness.
The astronomer David Hughes writes:

‘The confirmation of the existence of extraterrestrial life is billed as the greatest possible scientific discovery of all time. Today, however, we are still experiencing the pangs of cosmic loneliness. Never mind not coming to visit, no extraterrestrial being has even left a calling card or shouted at us from a distance.’

If there is no evidence of life on Mars, and indeed we do find that we seem to be alone in the Universe, what does that mean for how we understand the significance of human beings?

2. Why are we here?
Stephen Hawking might be trying to figure out how the Universe emerges from a quantum fluctuation, but that still does not solve the question ‘why?’ At the same time recent discoveries confirm that the Universe will continue to expand forever, eventually dying in what, for many, seems a pretty pointless heat death. Yet the anthropic balances of this Universe seem to indicate that the development of carbon-based intelligent life seems to be an important part of the structure of the Universe. 12 Would the discovery of other life help us in thinking about ‘cosmic purpose’?

Paul Davies sums it up: ‘For those who hope for a deeper purpose beneath physical existence, the presence of extraterrestrial life forms would provide a spectacular boost, implying that we live in a universe that is in some sense getting better and better rather than worse and worse.’ 13

3. Who are we?
The science fiction author Ray Bradbury commented on claimed evidence of life on Mars:

‘This latest fragment of data... is only worth our hyperventilation if we allow it to lead us to the larger metaphor: Mankind sliding across the blind retina of the Cosmos, hoping to be seen, hoping to be counted, hoping to be worth the counting.’ 14

The search for ETI also shows an interest in our ‘cosmic identity’,
that is, we want to find out about ourselves. Humans do that fundamentally in relationship. Science fiction has used this device on many occasions. Star Trek reflected the American culture of the 1960s, exploring themes such as racism through encounters with ‘aliens’. We want to find out about aliens because we want to find out about ourselves.

4. The War of the Worlds?
Fourth, we all seem to have some sense of ‘cosmic fear’. H.G. Wells novel of 1898, The War of the Worlds, was a story with a specific purpose.

It was written in response to the outrage he felt at the colonialist eradication of the people of Tasmania. His aim was to show what it was like to be a victim of a war of extermination.

However, in 1938, the radio version of Orson Wells had quite a different effect on the American public.

It produced widespread fear and panic in many Americans who were in the grip of pre-war paranoia. Science fiction works on such fear and paranoia, from the Alien movies to the vast flying saucers of Independence Day. Even the discovery of small Martian ‘bugs’ would remind us of our own vulnerability on this fragile planet Earth.

5. There must be a better world somewhere
Finally, we want ‘cosmic salvation’. Some believe that aliens would help us through new medical techniques, help us to resolve our environmental problems, and allow us to discover deeper truths about the Universe.

As far back as 1949, Sir Fred Hoyle pointed out this motivation for believing in extraterrestrial intelligence: ‘the expectation that we are going to be saved from ourselves by some miraculous interstellar intervention’. 15

The hope for many is that something outside of ourselves will come and save us from the reality of life that we know. We look beyond our present knowledge for hope.

Searching Mars helps you work, rest and play?
This fascination with questions of cosmic loneliness, purpose, identity, fear and salvation is of course not confined to SETI. They are the age-old questions of religion and philosophy. Paul Davies rightly sees that the interest in extraterrestrial intelligence ‘stems in part... from the need to find a wider context for our lives than this earthly existence provides. In an era when conventional religion is in sharp decline, the belief in super-advanced aliens out there somewhere in the universe can provide some measure of comfort and inspiration for people whose lives may otherwise appear to be boring and futile.’ 16

The search for life on Mars is part of natural human curiosity that Christians see as a gift from God.

This scientific quest is, in the words of Kepler, ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’ and is to be welcomed. Christians have nothing to fear from this quest, although as we have seen there will be some challenging questions along the way. In fact, as Christians see some of the deeper motivations for SETI they can find a common ground for exploring the big questions of the Universe. It is interesting that even in so-called post-modern culture we want to invest so much in finding out the answer to the question of life on Mars. However, even the answer to the question will not deliver friendship in the face of loneliness or help in our need of salvation.

The Apollo astronaut James Irwin once said, ‘It is more significant that God walked on earth than that man walked on the moon.’ While I would love to walk on the surface of Mars, my own life is given purpose and perspective through God who walks on this earth in Jesus. In that sense we are a visited planet!

David Wilkinson is Fellow in Christian Apologetics and Associate Director of the Centre for Christian Communication at St Johns College, University of Durham.

He is author of Alone in the Universe? The X-Files, Aliens and God (Crowborough, Monarch, 1997).

1 C. Russell, Cross-currents, Interactions Between Science and Faith, (Leicester, IVP, 1985) p. 52.
2 Quoted in P. Davies, Are We Alone? (London, Penguin,1996) p. 30.
3 P. Davies Are We Alone? (London, Penguin, 1996); P. Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life (London, Allen Lane, 1998).
4 J. Cornell Tarter, In Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications, ed. S. J. Dick, (Radnor, Templeton Foundation Press, 2000) p. 145.
5 J. Angel, ed., The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (New York, New American Library, 1970) p. 331-2.
6 A. Peacocke, In Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications, ed. S. J. Dick, (Radnor, Templeton Foundation Press, 2000) p. 103
7 E.A. Milne, Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God, (London, Oxford University Press, 1952) p. 153.
8 E.L. Mascall, Christian Theology and Modern Science, (London, Longmans, 1956) p.36.
9 S. Carter. Every Star Shall Sing A Carol, (Copyright 1961 Stainer and Bell Ltd) Used by permission.
10 Quoted in The Observer, (11th August 1996).
11 D.W. Hughes, The Observatory, 116, 183, (1996).
12 D. Wilkinson, God, Time and Stephen Hawking, (Crowborough, Monarch, 2001).
13 P. Davies, Are We Alone? (London, Penguin, 1996) p. 52.
14 R. Bradbury, The Wall Street Journal, (21st August, 1996).
15 F. Hoyle, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 109, 365, (1949).
16 P. Davies, Are We Alone? (London, Penguin, 1996) p. 89

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