We recently had another bout of “end of the world” mania and yet we’re all still here dealing with the burden of reality. The high interest does beg the question- how would humans react to an astonishing event such as First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? Would it be considered the end of the world? That question is an enormous one, probably too big to tackle in such general terms. So, how about religion? How would alien First Contact impact human religion and thoughts about the end of the world?
Theological scholars have been interested in what First Contact would mean for religion for some time. The results of most studies show that the revelation of extraterrestrials would have little impact on religious beliefs. The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey showed that the majority of respondents, representing various religions, didn’t expect proof of extraterrestrial intelligence to change their religious belief or their religious traditions. Interestingly, 69 percent of respondents who did not identify as being religious thought that ETI knowledge would undercut religions, while only 34 percent of the religious thought so.
In another approach, the Alexander UFO Religious Crisis Survey focused on clergy members. Jeff Levin of Baylor University went back to the original 1994 data to take another look. Across the spectrum of Judeo-Christian religions the results showed that clergy members thought that ETI revelation would not have a significant impact on religion. Leaving out Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths is quite limiting in scope, however the results are interesting. It appears that religious leaders and religious followers are not particularly worried about aliens shaking the foundations of their institutions.
For many of us religious beliefs are deeply embedded in our lives as part of our faith and culture. The religious surveys seem to confirm what other polls have shown: humans will not freak out over proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. The general questions about religion, though, don’t take up aspects of belief related to prophecy and that may be where the real passion lies, at least for some religions. A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 41 percent of Americans expect Jesus to return by 2050 with the number growing to 58 percent of white evangelicals. What does Jesus have to do with First Contact? People with apocalyptic religious beliefs often look for signs. It seems quite possible that the announcement of extraterrestrial contact might be considered a sign of impending apocalypse and the return of Christ. Fringe preachers and internet soothsayers could lead an apocalyptic reaction to First Contact that could catch on with more mainstream religious leaders and pontificators. Does the fire spread to the rest of the world? Hopefully, cooler heads in other countries and with other religions would help to calm us down. Americans are an excitable bunch when it comes to apocalypse.
To confuse matters even more, in the original Greek sense the word apocalypse would fit First Contact well. The originating Latin word apocalypsis means a disclosure of knowledge that has been hidden from humanity. That would certainly describe alien First Contact well.
People will not be rushing to their dictionaries if we have a dramatic First Contact event with visiting extraterrestrials or if we discover a far off signal that turns out to be engineered. Apocalypse and many other words will be thrown around without much thought. What will decide the day is how human perception coalesces after the turmoil dies down. What will we make of our future and of our faith in the wake of such a great revelation?
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