Religious People Talking About Aliens?!

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I talk about aliens all the time, at least when I’m around other science fiction writers and some scientists (e.g., those who work on exoplanets or SETI). The science fiction literature and TV/movies have offered up literally thousands of aliens of all sorts, from funny-forehead humanoid aliens on Star Trek to the very alien alien Solaris, and everything in between. My own novels are first contact stories.

I think talking about aliens is fun, and aliens are a great foil as well to think about what it means to be human.

This week I was amused to see notorious creationist Ken Ham, of the Creationist museum that features a triceratops with a saddle, talking about aliens, too. Here’s a quote:

“I’m shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life.”

And:

“Jesus did not become the ‘GodKlingon’ or the ‘GodMartian’! Only descendants of Adam can be saved. God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.”

He apparently thinks NASA, SETI scientists, and others interested in finding intelligent alien life in the cosmos are only doing it to “rebuke God” and to “prove evolution.” I’m interested for none of those reasons. I think it would be fun and cool and educational — assuming they were friendly. But according to Ham, they’re damned to hell and can’t get salvation because they’re not descended from Adam. If they exist. Which Ham doesn’t think likely.

But if intelligent aliens do exist, apparently Pope Francis would baptize them. At least if they asked.

I think it’s a bit unlikely aliens would be that interested in Earth-based religions, but you never know. They’re like, aliens, you know?

There was a short story I remember fondly, but do not recall the title or the author (leave a comment if you do, please!), in which SETI is successful in contacting an alien civilization. All the aliens want to do, however, is preach at us and convert us to their religion. At least the aliens running their radio telescopes. A Jesuit is enlisted to help solve the impasse. He starts asking questions — over many years given the speed of light delays — that are designed to point out weaknesses in their dogma. Eventually a religious revolution among the aliens lets their scientists start speaking to us about something other than religion, and meaningful dialogue is established. I’m not religious myself, but I enjoyed the story quite a bit.

What Ham and the Pope are doing is what a lot of science fiction writers do: use aliens as a mirror — maybe a warped one — to talk about topics of interest to them. Original sin, and large sums of money being put into science Ham doesn’t approve of. The Pope’s interest in Catholicism being inclusionary.

I think it’s arrogant and myopic, but they might say that about the issues I focus on when I talk about aliens. Things like how they perceive the world compared to us, if they’ve learned more about the universe than we have so far, if they’re like us in the essential qualities of reason and emotion or if those are something human rather than something universal.

Mary Doria Russel’s interesting novel The Sparrow featured the Catholic church sending an immediate mission to the Alpha Centauri system when aliens were discovered to be living there, just to know more of God’s creatures. I think that’s a charitable notion about the response of a major religion to something fundamentally challenging to the belief systems of many of us on Earth.

In any event, I find it amusing, the way I found politicians and religious ethicists discussing the possibility of cloning in the late 1990s. Aliens, cloning, intelligent computers, space exploration…these are things that the science fiction community has discussed for many decades or longer. We may not have all the answers or angles even, but we have a common language and don’t approach these topics with general ignorance as if they’re new and crazy. I mean, the Pope was discussing “Martians” specifically. If Martians exist today, they’re odd, tough microbes, and won’t be able to ask for a baptism or speak at all.

Then again, I kind of like a world in which everyone is talking about aliens! Even if they’re simple-minded about it, or focused on their own issues, it’s more interesting than a lot of things they could be discussing. And, I mean, it might even be timely. We’re in the process of developing the technology to identify Earth-like worlds and probably determine if they have life on them, even if there are not many civilizations anywhere nearby to chat with. NASA says so — on a time scale of a few decades anyway. I’m aware of the technology and the searches, and believe them — assuming the aliens are indeed there to find.

And that’s the ultimate question when this topics comes up: Are We Alone? I doubt it myself, but the development and evolution of life may be difficult enough that it is amazingly rare, even given the plethora of planets in our own galaxy with conditions suitable for it to arise. Any answer is interesting. Intensely interesting.

One unlikely answer I’d be amused to see Ken Ham respond to is finding aliens who look like humans, have their own religion, and claim that we’re damned to Hell because we’re not descended from Alien Adam. We’d probably have to call in the Catholics to help us sort that out! But in the meantime, let’s hope that Ham doesn’t read James Blish’s A Case of Conscience and get the idea that aliens probably are out there, ready to “prove evolution,” because they’re agents of Satan.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Whew, Mike! Terrific – and brave – essay. To me, the religious, principally fundamentalist, debate over (denial of?) the existence of intelligent alien life is a symptom of a larger fear – a deep suspicion that science and scientists are actively proposing “theories” inspired by Satan, or atheism, or ignorance, to challenge the God-given truths of their beliefs. Not being a religious person myself, I find it irrational and sometimes wearisome. I value science, and its language, mathematics, as avenues into discovery of the deep and profound mysteries of nature and the universe; a spiritual (with a lower case “s”) experience for me in the most transcendent sense of its meaning. And while I personally have no compulsion to rationalize that experience with the intervention of a divinity, it seems sad that people like Mr. Ham have so little confidence in the supreme nature of their God that, in their arrogance in declaring what is best for Him, they must, by denying science, defend Him from the works of His own creation. But then, maybe he doesn’t see it that way.

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