Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The existence of alien life and the consequences it might have on religion

Recently, I've been pondering what sort of consequences the existence of intelligent alien life might have for our understanding of religion here on Earth. Personally, I believe that, in the infinite vastness of the cosmos, it's probably pretty likely that intelligent life forms have developed on planets other than Earth. Likewise, I think the incredible vastness of space means that our chances of ever encountering any of these life forms are exceedingly slim. What if we do encounter these creatures somehow though? Will that force us to fundamentally re-evaluate our understanding of religion? After all, most religions on Earth are very Earth-centric and, as such, the existence of beings not of this planet do not generally fit neatly into most religious traditions.

I think that the strictly monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will be thoroughly harmed by the discovery of intelligent life on other planets. After all, these religions teach that, though God is an all-pervasive cosmic force that exists every where in the universe, Earth and human beings are distinctly special. For instance, Christian theology tells us that Jesus had a special mission to die for the sins of human beings here on Earth. It's very hard to imagine how one might reconcile the existence of other beings on far away planets that don't neatly fit into "God's plan" for this world as it's envisioned by Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Not only does the theology of these religions fail to take into account the possibility of special beings like us existing in places other than Earth, but almost all of their history and teachings would have to be completely reworked in order to reconcile them to this new development.

On the other hand, religions like the various Neo-Pagan movements, Hinduism, and such focus on local manifestations of spiritual forces that theoretically could be broadened out to include other places within the universe. After all, if the Celtic gods developed here on Earth, there's nothing to say that local gods couldn't have developed uniquely on other planets. These types of religions seem to have the least to lose from the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Hinduism already teaches the existence of other worlds besides the one in which we exist, so very little about Hinduism would have to change in order to account for the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Different movements in paganism would have to react differently, but generally wouldn't have too much of an issue with broadening out their understanding in order to incorporate other intelligent beings on other planets. Of them, I think Wicca would have the hardest time reconciling itself to this development, but it would still only require very minor changes to Wicca's over all theology and teachings.

Somewhere in the middle would seem to be religions like Buddhism which, though large parts of their theology may have to be reworked in order to bring them in line with the new knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, their general teachings would not have to change very much in order to be reconciled with this new knowledge.

Anyway, I thought I'd just throw this out there and let you all run with it. Since we have no idea what sort of religions and cultures intelligent life on other planets might have developed, it's a purely theoretical scenario with no real right answers. Still, I think it's worthwhile to think about as it presents a new way of thinking differently about our religions here on Earth and our approach to them.

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