When Galileo Galilei started peering at the stars with his telescope, he had no idea how many new worlds he would discover: those four small dots next to Jupiter had enormous significance. They were small celestial bodies: moons, to be precise. And their simple existence was already a challenge to religions.
Celestial bodies did not revolve exclusively around the Earth. And the Earth was not the center of our universe. The discovery was so shocking to the Christian church that Galileo was subjected to an inquisition, condemned and forced into confinement in the last 9 years of his life.
Religions and extraterrestrial life: a complicated relationship
More than four centuries have passed since that discovery in 1610, and we know a lot more about the cosmos. NASA's Kepler spacecraft discovered nearly 4.000 planets orbiting other stars. After nearly 60 years of exploration, we also know that there is water practically all over the solar system.
And where there is water, there can be life.
It is easy to imagine that the discovery of extraterrestrial life could cause an uproar among religions and people of faith all over the world. Did God create that life too? What does it mean if the body is not carbon based like we are?
"This idea that we are the main thing and that everything revolves around us has shaped many attitudes in monotheistic religions," says Dr. Richard Mouw, an evangelical Christian and theologian at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. According to which the "panic" of religions in the case of the discovery of life on other worlds is totally unjustified.
The idea of life on other worlds or other planets would simply be the affirmation of what Christians and Jews have always believed. God created the galaxies and all, none of this should be shocking to us.Richard Mouw
Cosmic pluralism (the belief that many worlds, planets, moons and even the sun could harbor life) is a secular philosophical belief that appeared strongly in Islam in medieval times. The belief system is still relevant in modern Islam, says Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, an imam and director of the Orange County Islamic Society. “I personally don't see any problems with life finding life on other worlds,” he says.
In Islam, the belief is that God created the entire universe and took care of everything and every being that could exist.Muzammil Siddiqi
The rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, says that Judaism also agrees with this concept. "The appreciation of God should be even greater as we are now finding other planets, not to mention all the other galaxies," he says.
If there was life on one of those other planets, it would simply affirm God's role in the creation of the universe.Elliot Dorff
In theory, no problem for religions ...
The scriptures of Islam, Judaism and Christianity say similar things about the beginning of our planet: God created the heavens and the earth in six days. An interpretation that varies according to faith, but everyone believes that this timeline should serve as a metaphor. These are not 6 "human" days of 24 hours, but divine days. They can have any duration, even millennia. Thanks to the non-literal interpretation of the texts, religions theoretically leave room for everything. From the expansion of the universe to the birth and death of the stars. From planetary formation to evolution on Earth. And of course, there is room for life on another planetary body.
Intelligent life, however, could pose entirely different problems.
... but in practice?
The idea of an intelligent life is a real challenge. Especially for some fundamental assumptions of religions. Christianity chapter: Jesus came to save other humans, but what about creatures on other planets?
Islam on the other hand has no problem with intelligent life anywhere in the universe, except in human form. “Human beings are on Earth. God created humans for the Earth, ”says Siddiqi. "Nobody believes there are humans on other planets, but other creatures or bacterial life, yes." The Quran explicitly says that human beings are designed as we exist now and created exclusively for the Earth.
Judaism still does not make a turn. Rabbi Elliot says that if we were ever contacted by other intelligences, "this would only broaden our appreciation for God's universe." But would this evaluation be enough to keep the whole belief system of religions in place?
Leaders of all religions should think about how to educate people of faith to the very real possibility that we will discover life on other worlds very soon.
There is little to joke: 84% of the world population believes in God and adheres to a religious belief, it is important to anticipate what people's reactions to extraterrestrial life might be like.
NASA took this question very seriously.
in 2016 the agency awarded a $ XNUMX million grant for painstaking research. Several theologians have been tasked with thinking about how finding life could affect the ways in which the majority of believers, especially Christians, will think of God. The grant announcement caused controversy, with critics fearful that NASA would sided with Christian beliefs not taking into account the views of other religions.
How will religions and science be reconciled?
Science and religion must dialogue, says Dr. Mouw. “We should think about how to educate people of faith to the very real possibility that we will discover life,” he says. “We must do the spiritual, theological and scientific education of faith communities to prepare for this. Otherwise we will end up with people who will deny, or somehow feel their faith threatened. Both would be wrong answers. "
All three major religions have scriptures supporting the possible discovery of life elsewhere, intelligent or not. Perhaps the world will have a lot to deal with - or perhaps such a discovery will answer some of humanity's greatest questions. After all, who among us hasn't wondered if we're alone in the universe?
Carl Sagan he once wrote that “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality ”.
I agree. For this reason, religions should not go against the various Carl Sagans around the world.
Even if religions and science do not seem to agree with the ultimate nature of reality, they share one very important thing: a profound sense of mystery, and a reverential awe of the cosmos in which we find ourselves.