Sunday, June 22, 2008

Do we take God with us into the startling new world?

First Contact provides a new landscape for society, science and commerce. However, religion may be the most profoundly tested pillar of our civilization. Can our current conceptions of God encompass the reality of extraterrestrial life? Certainly some theologians have tackled this dilemma. Most recently a slightly renegade Catholic scientist took up the issue:

"In my opinion this possibility (of life on other planets) exists," said Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, a 45-year-old Jesuit priest who is head of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict."How can we exclude that life has developed elsewhere," he told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano in an interview in its Tuesday-Wednesday edition, explaining that the large number of galaxies with their own planets made this possible. Asked if he was referring to beings similar to humans or even more evolved than humans, he said: "Certainly, in a universe this big you can't exclude this hypothesis".

It seems unlikely that Pope Benedict thought this a pressing issue to make public. It does show that the collision of science fiction, science and religion has taken place in more than a few heads around the world.

A 2005 study of religion by the Encyclopedia Britannica showed that only about 15 percent of the world population is non-religious or atheist. That would leave 85 percent of the world population looking for some serious answers from their religion in a First Contact event. Why does this matter? The search for understanding and incorporating this new reality of the universe will be profound for most of us. Those who are deeply religious may find it hard to accept. Some of those may react in violent or disruptive ways. The stability of our society depends on people staying calm and ingesting all of this new information slowly and carefully.

It seems likely that world religious leaders would be among the first to speak out about extraterrestrial contact, and take up the issue of what it means for the followers of their religion. At this point the conversation could take several turns. They could argue that their God is so large and all encompassing that it takes into account these new neighbors of the universe. You would imagine this would be the case for most of the major world religions. Some though may decide that the revelation of First Contact is a sign that the world is ending, apocalypse nearing and judgment approaching. These religious groups could become very dangerous to themselves and larger society. Others may choose to interject politics into the equation. An extraterrestrial hello originating from American soil could lead to conspiracy theories and distrust from those in other countries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate may be not so much what we believe, but what they believe? Do our extraterrestrial visitors have a religious nature as we might understand it? How does their religion take us into account? People who take on a secular-scientific approach to the world might expect a technologically advanced civilization to have abandoned religion long ago. We won’t know until we meet them. Perhaps they have a religion that will be tough for us to understand? Perhaps it will even seem barbaric or unjust?

So, do we abandon God on our walk into the startling new world After First Contact? You would imagine that First Contact will lead to seismic shifts in religion over the course of generations. How could it not? First Contact will lead to seismic shifts in most of the pillars of human society. In those first few years though there will be a transition where we take our old world and turn it into a new world. It seems unlikely that God and religion won’t be along for the ride. Where we go from there may depend on what we learn from them and perhaps more importantly what we learn about ourselves.

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