The gospel according to E.T.

 Credit: Porter McDonald

Credit: Porter McDonald

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Star Trek: The Next Generation aired from 1987 to 1994. It portrays a mid-2300s version of humanity that has spread throughout our corner of the galaxy, forming peaceful alliances with other species. Star Trek humans live in a post-scarcity, socialist-adjacent society that doesn't use money. The closest thing they have to a military is Starfleet Command, which doubles as a diplomatic and exploration corps. And religion is largely absent.

The future portrayed on Star Trek is supposed to be our future: an-all out embrace of peaceful scientific exploration, reason, and galactic-scale equality. Where do I sign up?

The question of how we transition to space utopia is explained in Star Trek: First Contact. In 2063, humans fly faster than light and attract the attention of Vulcans, the benign, pointy-eared, logic-driven aliens that become humanity's closest ally. The Vulcans visit Earth, make first contact, and then Everything Changes.

"It unites humanity in a way that no one ever thought possible when they realize they're not alone in the universe," says Counselor Troi in the movie. "Poverty, disease, war—they'll all be gone within the next 50 years."

This salvation-through-E.T. theme runs deep in sci-fi. It's comforting to think the discovery of life beyond Earth might be the precipitating event that compels humanity to get its shit together. The good news: If life is out there, we might find it within the next couple of decades! We're sending space probes to sniff the plumes of Europa and bring samples back from Mars. We’re also building next-generation telescopes that will examine the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets.

The bad news: If we find something, it probably won't be Vulcans. It’ll more likely be ancient fossils, microbes, or signs of biology in another star system. The Star Trek universe may have to wait. But it still begs the question: if we find life beyond Earth, what will happen to society?

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In 1984, a team of snowmobile-riding geologists in Antarctica found a 4-billion-year-old meteorite from Mars, thrown into space after an ancient planetary collision. Twelve years later, in 1996, scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center announced they found what appeared to be microscopic, worm-like fossils in the rock. The findings were compelling, but not conclusive, and are still debated to this day.

 A worm-like fossil in an ancient Martian meteorite. Credit: NASA

A worm-like fossil in an ancient Martian meteorite. Credit: NASA

NASA's announcement garnered enough attention for then-President Bill Clinton to a make a statement at the White House saying that if the discovery was confirmed, "it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.” It was unprecedented for the president of the United States to publicly discuss the possibility of life beyond Earth, and the discovery made national news.

But beyond conspiracy theory circles and a mention on the X-Files, the finding had a relatively low impact on society and religion.

"The next day, people weren’t saying, 'I’m not going to the church or mosque,’” said Salman Hameed, a professor of science and humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Hameed holds a Ph.D. in astronomy and studies the intersection of science and religion with an emphasis on the Muslim world. He reminded me there is already plenty of scientific counter-evidence for religion. Even if we assume the discovery of life beyond Earth disproves fundamental tenets of the world’s major religions—a big if—it probably won't have much of an effect on believers. Case in point: 67 percent of Americans are religious, yet just 24 percent think the Bible is the literal word of God. Objective truth is clearly not the point when it comes to believing in a higher power.

“We sometimes overemphasize the place of science in religion,” Hameed said.

I posed the aliens-versus-religion question to Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. Consolmagno pointed me to a passage from a book he co-authored in 2014, which conjectures that both believers and non-believers would shape the discovery to their pre-existing beliefs:

"We can see this occurring in the way that cosmology has been misused in religious arguments: some believers look at the latest Big Bang theory and say, “aha, the universe started with light, just like Genesis said!” while non-believers can take the possible origin of the universe as a quantum fluctuation of the gravity field and say, “aha, no need for God to start the universe!” Either way, it’s a circular argument; you wind up concluding the very thing you assumed.

This sort of fallacy is what happens when believers insist that finding extraterrestrial intelligence would confirm their belief in God, while the atheists insist just as strongly that such a discovery would prove all religions were meaningless."

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Despite the fact that NASA is a key player in the search for life beyond Earth, the agency has done little to study how society and religion might react to a discovery. NASA’s current astrobiology strategy, formalized in 2015, recommended “assessing the societal implications of discovering other examples of life.” Part of that task was assigned to the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI), a Princeton, N.J.-based theological research group. CTI received $1.1 million for 12 scholars to research the topic during the 2015 and 2016 academic year.

Linda Billings, a consultant to NASA's astrobiology program, said the grant was meant to give scholars an opportunity to work on independent research projects and exchange ideas.

"I believe that I am fairly representing NASA's interest in this project when I say that we hope the scholars involved in the project will carry their interest in astrobiology into their classrooms and future research projects,” she said in an email.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) protested the CTI grant on the basis that the Center was, by its own account, “rooted in Christian theology.” This, FFRF said, was a violation of the separation of church and state and an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money.

Disappointingly, I couldn't find any results from the CTI study—not even a simple report or research summary. Billings was not aware of any such report, and directed me to Mary Voytek, the manager of the NASA's astrobiology program in Washington, D.C. Neither Voytek nor CTI responded to emails asking for more information. The only major public record of the scholars' work I found was a photo from a symposium and brief interviews with three of the scholars. Perhaps NASA and CTI, wary of more scrutiny from FFRF and the general public, kept the results of the grant quiet. In any case, Billings said there won't be any more NASA research of this kind.

"There will be no ongoing NASA program of research into ethical, theological, and social issues relating to astrobiology," she said.

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Most religions allow for the existence of intelligent beings other than humans. God, the devil, and angels are all otherworldly creatures. The Bible's Genesis chapter 6 mentions the mysterious Nephilim, literal giants who were offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of Adam. The Quran describes pre-humanity beings called the Jinn who live on a parallel world.

David Weintraub is a Vanderbilt astronomy professor who has studied the relationship between religion and life beyond Earth. His 2014 book on the subject examines how specific religions might react.

“What I found is that most religions would be very accepting of life beyond the Earth,” he told me.

Weintraub noted that major scientific discoveries in the past did not spell doom for major religions. Copernicus’ revelation that Earth was not at the center of the universe was controversial, but Catholicism eventually adjusted, as did Protestants, who were initially the more unreceptive group.

"Religions are pretty good at adapting when they have to,” he said.

Theologians will no doubt debate how the discovery of extraterrestrial life fits into concepts like original sin, but Brother Consolmagno notes that theologians already can't agree on many biblical concepts.  

"In other words,” he writes in his book, "finding intelligent aliens may feed into our present theology and give us new things to think about; but our theology today is already constantly challenged, and we are constantly being called to grow in that faith as a response to those challenges."

Weintraub thinks evangelical Christianity, with its special reverence for its followers, may have the hardest time adjusting to the news of life beyond Earth. I asked him if in today's post-truth, Fake News world, people might disregard its importance. He is confident that over time, the facts will win out—just like they did during the Copernican revolution.

“They’ll get the importance," he said. "I don’t think they can look at it as just one more scientific discovery.”

Salman Hameed said we might even expect to see new religions spring up, as humans try to project meaning onto the message that they are not alone in the universe.

"We don’t like a vacuum of information. We tend to fill it up," he said.

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We know that Mars and Earth can exchange pieces of themselves, such as the above-mentioned Martian meteorite. So if we find past or present life on Mars, it may have the same origin as Earth life.

But if we find life on Europa or Enceladus, it could mean that life independently arose in two separate places, in the same solar system. That would suggest it's relatively easy for life to take hold, and since we know life evolves, there would be a good chance evolved beings like us exist elsewhere.

If we do find life, it may trigger an appetite to investigate further. Maybe we'll see an increased investment in exploring our own solar system, researching propulsion systems that can take us to other stars, and building bigger telescopes.

It's exciting that we’re even considering this! The question of whether or not we're alone in the universe has gone from the realm of Star Trek to bona-fide, scientific inquiry. And no one knows for sure what we’ll find.

“The only thing we can be certain about it is that we’re probably wrong about a lot of stuff,” said Weintraub.