Philosophers and scientists, believers and atheists, have long pondered the question, “Are we alone in the universe?”
But theologian Robin Lovin knows what he would say to people wondering how to take the news of extraterrestrial life.
“This discovery is a reminder of what we should all have known all along,” said Mr. Lovin, director of research at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. “God is doing things in places that our minds have not been able to go.”
Mr. Lovin shared that message with an audience at the Library of Congress’ John W. Kluge Center during a panel discussion to consider the impact of alien, intelligent life on religion.
“I think it’s very important [that] religious communities proactively address these questions and show themselves concerned about these issues,” he said. “Because people are raising these questions, and I think [they] want to see them as moral and spiritual queries — that it isn’t just a question about biology, but a question about themselves.”
The universe is an enormous place, too vast for life not to exist somewhere else, said Steven Dick, chairman in astrobiology at the Library of Congress.
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“I think the underlying principle is, the laws of physics and biology are universal,” Mr. Dick said. “What has happened here is likely to have happened out there. The idea of life out there is very much at the forefront. The question is what are the implications.”
Despite initial concerns that some people of faith would suffer a crisis of faith if life on another planet were discovered, studies have shown that’s probably not going to be the case, Mr. Lovin said.
In 2008, Ted Peters, distinguished research professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, surveyed 1,325 people of various religions, asking a series of questions relating their beliefs and a crisis of faith to a hypothetical announcement that extraterrestrial life had been discovered.
Citing that study, Mr. Peters said the message he received from respondents is that people who belong to traditional religions are “going to be just fine” if alien life comes along.
“I got comments such as ‘Earth is so small, God is so big, we would expect to have neighbors in space,’” Mr. Peters said. “My favorite quote was ‘I’d share a pew with an alien any day.’”
Albert Harrison, a social psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis, said he also isn’t surprised by the resilience of religion.
“Religion has been around a long time,” he said. “Religion in most cases has proven adaptive. I think a very important thing to keep in mind, whereas some scientists attack religion. It provides a tremendous source of support and solace for people, particularly when dealing with the unknown. I just don’t buy that idea that people are going to freak out and panic.”
That’s not to say all people who consider themselves religious would embrace the idea of a cosmic neighbor.
“Discovery is an extended process,” Mr. Dick said. “Each of those stages can last weeks, months, years, decades. There’s no doubt there will be some people who deny it.”
Humans making a close encounter of the third kind might still be far in the future, but the experts said the opportunity is much closer for humans to make their mark on other planets.
“We wouldn’t necessarily have to have communication [with another life form] before we have an impact,” Mr. Dick said. “I think we need to be proactive. We can’t wait until an event happens.”
Mr. Harrison and Mr. Peters said the policies of space exploration and planetary settlement are where theologians can make an impact.
“As we move on to other planets, what right do we have to alter the Martian landscape,” Mr. Harrison asked. “Is it OK if we go ahead and create a base, generate artificial atmosphere and really change the conditions there.”
Mr. Peters said religious scholars could also look at the sanctity of life on other planets.
“Does life have intrinsic value,” Mr. Peters said. “If we find microbial life on Mars, do we have a moral obligation to protect the biosphere. We need to ask whether we should protect the life environment on and off Earth. There’s no consensus yet, but it’s going to be important.”