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."
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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