Monday, February 7, 2011

A Continuity of Meaning

The recent Royal Society meeting on extraterrestrial life has sparked a wave of thoughtful and intelligent media coverage of First Contact issues. Charles Choi, originally writing for, takes a closer look at the material presented at the meeting, and as collected in a Royal Society journal issue entitled: “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society.” reprinted the piece recently ,which expands on the presentation concerning religion and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).

The range of opinions among theologians seems wide. Some wonder what First Contact will mean for Christians, and in particular the role of Jesus. Others predict that most religions will be able to easily enlarge their perspective to include ETI in their overall vision. Surveys certainly support that prediction, as most religious people polled say the discovery of extraterrestrial life was not likely to significantly change their religious views.

The most interesting part of the piece is the discussion of the impact of alien culture, and perhaps alien religion, on human religions and beliefs. Even if they do not share our concept of religion, could our interaction with aliens create a kind of “new secular” religion based on extraterrestrial ideas? It sounds a little scary, quite frankly, but probably not outside the realm of human reaction. People need faith and faith comes in a variety of forms. An alien based religion could fulfill the needs of humans. What that means for our future is a big question.

Theologian Ted Peters at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary provides an interesting perspective in the story:

Alien religions could draw converts, and if there are many points of agreement between religions on Earth and from space, one might see communication of ideas across species as well. "Greek philosophers never met the God of Moses, but there were people who said, 'Doggone, there seems to be much that coheres,'" Peters said.
Theologians will not find themselves out of a job -- traditional theologians will have to become astrotheologians, Peters noted.

"One of the things that distinguish one religious tradition from another are the symbols that have developed over time -- Christians have their set, much as Hindus have theirs," he said. "No doubt extraterrestrials have their sets of symbols as well, and theologians will have their work cut out analyzing them to see if there is any continuity of meaning."

I like that phrase “continuity of meaning.” I suppose humans would look for many of those continuities in the interaction with an extraterrestrial civilization, in religion, culture and science. While differences may be the most dramatic truths, it seems likely that we will also search for the similarities, as we try to reconstruct our view of ourselves and of the universe After First Contact.

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