All, however, would be compelled to take a very close look at their sacred texts, to see which parts need to be reinterpreted, according to David Weintraub, author of Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal with It?
5-minute reading time
David Salisbury. (2014). Are the world’s religions ready for E.T.? Vanderbilt News.
[This article has been edited for brevity.]
In 1930, Albert Einstein was asked for his opinion about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. “Other beings, perhaps, but not men,” he answered. Then he was asked whether science and religion conflict. “Not really, though it depends, of course, on your religious views.”
About David Weintraub
Over the past 10 years, astronomers’ new ability to detect planets orbiting other stars has taken this question out of the realm of philosophy, as it was for Einstein, and transformed it into something that scientists might soon be able to answer.
Realization that the nature of the debate about life on other worlds is about to fundamentally change led Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy David Weintraub to begin thinking seriously about the question of how people will react to the discovery of life on other planets. He realized, as Einstein had observed, that people’s reactions will be heavily influenced by their religious beliefs. So he decided to find out what the world’s major religions have to say about the matter. The result is a 2014 book titled Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?.
Public opinion polling indicates that about one fifth to one third of the American public believes that extraterrestrials exist, Weintraub reports. However, this varies considerably with religious affiliation.
Belief in extraterrestrials varies by religion
- 55 % of Atheists
- 44 % of Muslims
- 37 % of Jews
- 36 % of Hindus
- 32 % of Christians
Of the Christians,
- 41% of Eastern Orthodox
- 37% of Roman Catholics
- 37% of Methodists
- 35% of Lutherans
- 29% of Baptists
Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.
Asian religions would have the least difficulty in accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Weintraub concluded. Some Hindu thinkers have speculated that humans may be reincarnated as aliens, and vice versa, while Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.
Weintraub quotes passages in the Qur’an that appear to support the idea that spiritual beings exist on other planets but notes that these beings may not practice Islam as it is practiced on Earth. “Islam, like other faiths, has fundamentalist and conservative traditions. All Muslims, however, likely would agree that the prophetically revealed religion of Islam is a set of practices designed only for humans on earth,” Weintraub wrote.
Weintraub found very little in Judaic scriptures or rabbinical writings that bear on the question. The few Talmudic and Kabbalistic commentaries on the subject do assert that space is infinite and contains a potentially infinite number of worlds and that nothing can deny the existence of extraterrestrial life. At the same time,
If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin?Among Christian religions, the Roman Catholics have done the most thinking about the possibility of life on other worlds, the astronomer discovered. In fact, they have had an on-again, off-again theological debate that has gone on for a thousand years. The crux of the matter is original sin. If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin? Do they need to be saved? If they do, then did Christ visit them and was he crucified and resurrected on other planets? “From a Roman Catholic perspective, if sentient extraterrestrials exist some but perhaps not all such species may suffer original sin and will require redemption,” Weintraub summarizes.
The inherent diversity of Protestant denominations, where individuals are encouraged to interpret scripture independently, has led to many conflicting approaches to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence. Weintraub determined that the views of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich appear to represent a viable consensus. Tillich argued that the need for salvation is universal and the “saving power” of God must be everywhere. At the same time, he maintained that God’s plan for human life need not be the same as his plan for aliens.
Evangelical and fundamental Christians are most likely to have difficulty accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life
Evangelical and fundamental Christians are most likely to have difficulty accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the astronomer’s research indicates. “…most evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders argue quite forcefully that the Bible makes clear that extraterrestrial life does not exist. From this perspective, the only living, God-worshipping beings in the entire universe are humans, created by God, who live on Earth.” Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham was a prominent exception who stated that he firmly believes “there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God.”
Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism theology embrace extraterrestrials
Weintraub also identified two religions – Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism – whose theology embraces extraterrestrials. In Mormonism, God helps exalt lesser souls so they can achieve immortality and live as gods on other worlds. And, Ellen White, who co-founded Seventh-Day Adventism, wrote that God had given her a view of other worlds where the people are “noble, majestic and lovely” because they live in strict obedience to God’s commandments.
Are we ready?
In answer to the question “Are we ready?” Weintraub concludes, “While some of us claim to be ready, a great many of us probably are not… very few among us have spent much time thinking hard about what actual knowledge about extraterrestrial life, whether viruses or single-celled creatures or bipeds piloting intergalactic spaceships, might mean for our personal beliefs [and] our relationships with the divine.”