How will the discovery of extraterrestrial life impact religion?
What will the impact be on religion when extraterrestrial life is discovered? It is a common assumption that such a discovery will be detrimental to core beliefs of religions around the world. You might be surprised to hear, however, that some experts believe the religious impact will be minor.
A panel discussion on this topic took place on Sunday, June 24 at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute’s SETIcon II conference in Santa Clara, California. This panel, titled “Would Discovering ET Destroy Earth’s Religions?,” concluded that the resulting impact on religion from an alien discovery is “probably not going to be as severe as we might initially think.” That is according to panelist Doug Vakoch, the director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute. Mike Wall of Space.com points out that “the Bible, Koran and other sacred texts of the world’s major religions stress God’s special concern for humanity and for Earth,” so discovering ET “might seem threatening, by implying that we and our planet aren’t all that special.” But as SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak mentioned during the panel, “We haven’t been the center of the universe for a while now — four centuries.”
Ancient astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei countered the established belief that the sun and everything else in the universe revolved around Earth. Such crazy talk was viewed as blasphemy by the world’s largest Christian church–the Catholic Church.
The present-day Vatican, however, is much more open to science and the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe.
In a 2009 interview with Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Father José Gabriel Funes, the director of the Vatican observatory, stated, “As a multiplicity of creature 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.”
In addition to this latest panel discussion on the topic of the extraterrestrial impact on religion, an “ETI Crisis Survey” was conducted in 2008 by Dr. Ted Peters, professor of systematic theology at both Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley California, to test the belief that, “upon confirmation of contact between Earth and an extraterrestrial civilization of intelligent beings, the long established religious traditions of Earth would confront a crisis of belief and perhaps even collapse.” More than one-thousand people from varying religions participated in the study, and results showed that only a small percentage of the participants felt their personal beliefs would be affected by the confirmation of extraterrestrial life.