Monday, April 26, 2010

A Change in Perspective

Faith. If you look to the dictionary you find: confidence or trust in another person or thing; belief in god; belief in something for which there is no proof. If you look to a former heroin addict you find a more poetic use of the word. When Lou Reed said “you need a busload of faith to get by” he was describing the human condition. We use faith to get us through the hard times. It can be the rock that supports you during the death of your father or the key to survival in a Brazilian slum. It can be held by Jews under Egyptian tyranny or African slaves struggling to survive in the Americas. It can be as simple as providing a reason to get up in the morning and go to work. The common denominator is transcendence; a state of being that can surpass the physical world. It gives people a reason for hope, and the power to carry on, under the most trying of circumstances.

Will faith change in the light of First Contact? Will religion change? Will our view of god change? Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI research, describes the challenge for humanity well. She said “Perspective is a very powerful thing. Perspectives can change.”

First Contact would be a massive change in perspective for humanity. We try and imagine what it could be like, however I don’t think we will be able to grasp the scope or magnitude of the change until it happens. Will our faith be challenged in the process?

I think there are a number of different levels on which human faith and religion would be impacted. At the highest level human religious institutions would need to evaluate the discovery of extraterrestrial life and determine how it fits into their particular doctrines. The Catholic Church has already started this process. They are embracing possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence in a rather dramatic and active discussion.

The individual level of religion is where the personal experience meets the institution. So what do people think might happen to their religion after First Contact? Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley did a survey recently, as reported in the New Scientist. It asked 1300 people about how the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would impact world religion. None of the Buddhists queried thought the discovery would undercut their religion. Only 22 percent of Catholics thought it could pose a problem for the Church. Most interestingly perhaps is the fact that 30 percent of Catholics and 40 percent of Buddhists thought that First Contact would prove disruptive to other religions.

It seems to me that faith is a fairly elastic thing. It finds new forms here on Earth all the time. Would it really be challenged by First Contact?

Perhaps the more likely disruption would come from those who seek to incorporate alien contact into their belief system in an excessively positive or negative way. It seems likely that there would be religious splinter groups that would react very poorly to news of First Contact. Alien beings could easily be portrayed as devils. Civil unrest or even violence could become a problem. The flipside is of course those who might believe aliens are angels or even gods of some sort. First Contact could bring about entirely new religions. Amy of these possibilities could be quite disturbing to the diplomatic process as we try and establish a relationship with an extraterrestrial civilization.

Those negative and positive poles would most likely be populated by fringe elements. What would happen to the larger world population? Perhaps we would simply expand our perspective to include our new neighbors? I think that we would carry on with our religion and our faith as normal. It’s just the scope of those beliefs that might change. In the end First Contact won’t change the human condition. Loved ones are going to die. People are going to be oppressed. Life is going to be hard at times. We’ll still need a busload of faith to get by.

Will we look to aliens to help us along the way? Perhaps at first, but if they don’t provide the answers we are looking for it seems likely that people will return to the institutions and beliefs that have carried us through the centuries.

I think the bigger question is what will the extraterrestrials believe? Will they be evangelists hoping to convert us to their faith? Will they actively challenge our beliefs? What kind of history do we share with them? Have they been here before? These are factors that could change humanity forever.

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