For centuries, theologians have speculated on what it would mean to the religiously devout people of the world to discover that mankind is not the sole “advanced” life-form in the cosmos. In particular, what would the discovery mean to followers of Christ? This is a question that won’t go away. And if Christians don’t address it, Hollywood will soon own it.
The question of other civilizations existing somewhere out there has been speculated on at least from the time of the Greeks until today. It is the stock-in- trade of the movie industry, with several films in the past decade assuming that we’re not alone. Belief that extraterrestrial (ET) intelligent life exists is the soul of the perennially popular Star Trek series. In addition, science news itself has kept the question on the front pages of our newspapers: a meteorite found in Antarctica purported to provide evidence of primitive life on Mars, the apparent discovery of planets existing in other solar systems, the death of veteran ET seeker Carl Sagan. Even NASA has made “ET contact” a major thrust of its research.
THE SEARCH FOR ET
Universities around the world have well-funded research projects dealing with the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” (SETI). Perhaps the most well-known of these is the project carried on by the University of California at Berkeley. Using the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the UC SETI Institute receives and analyzes cosmic background “noise” reaching earth from the fringes of our galaxy and beyond. The SETI project at Berkeley also utilizes the PCs of more than a million individuals, corporations, and universities around the world when their users are not actively connected. While these volunteers are asleep or are otherwise away from their computers, SETI-at-Home sends sets of “signals” to their normally idle PCs to examine them for possible evidence of a deliberate transmission from some other intelligent race elsewhere in the universe.
NOT A NEW QUESTION
Recent speculations on this issue jolted my memory. I recalled that in 1955—yes, more than 45 years ago—I had come across articles that mentioned the potential of other intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe. In fact, I had incorporated some of that material into an address I gave to several churches, talking about the possible impact on religion of such a discovery. The material I used then is still both compelling and relevant. For example, there was this letter an Edwin Aiken had contributed to the Christian Century, the leading magazine of mainline Protestantism in our country at the time:
Recent observations in astronomy may lead to revolutionary results in human thinking. The Hale telescope has revealed the existence in the universe of a billion galaxies. (A galaxy is an assembly of an immense number of stars and planets, of which our Milky Way is an example.) From this discovery Prof. Harlow Shapley, the eminent astronomer of Harvard University, reached the conclusion that one hundred million earths, peopled much like this earth, may exist. If this turns out to be true, it would have a tremendous effect on man’s scientific, religious, and general outlook. It should be noted that there is no proof, as yet, that anything like human life is to be found on other planets. But the probability is so great and the consequences for religion would be so momentous that religious journals, religious thinkers, and theological seminaries should begin to consider with the utmost seriousness what is involved.
That letter in the May 25, 1955, issue of the Christian Century made the gears of my mind begin to whirl a little faster than usual. After all, I was serving in a seminary, so I felt as if Edwin Aiken’s letter was a personal challenge. About the same time, May 28, 1955, an article by Robert S. Richardson, astronomer at the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories, appeared in the Saturday Review, a publication now defunct. Rather sensationally titled, “The Day After We Land On Mars,” it read, in part:
Doubtless, men have always dreamed of traveling to far-off worlds more wonderful and (presumably) happier than their own. Until very recently the idea of travel beyond the earth has hardly been more than a vague dream. Indeed, few ever contended that it could be anything else. Now suddenly the spectacular advances in rocketry and electronics have made space travel a possibility within our lifetime— within the next 10 years, according to some. The prospect it holds before us is dazzling. The opportunities for discovery seem unlimited and our enthusiasm for exploration in space unbounded.
A few months later, on November 26, the Saturday Review featured another article on this subject. In “The Planets Are Not Enough,” the famous British astrophysicist Arthur C. Clarke asserted:
It seems incredible that ours should be the only inhabited planet among the millions of worlds that must exist among the stars, but we cannot solve this problem by speculating about it. If it can be solved at all, it will be by visiting other planets to see for ourselves. . . . Though the difficulties of interstellar travel are stupendous, they are not insuperable. It is by no means certain that man must remain trapped in the Solar System for eternity, never to know if he is a lonely freak without brothers and/or competitors. . . . The men of 500 or 1,000 years from now will have motivations very different from ours, but if they are men at all, they will still burn with that restless curiosity which has driven us over this world and which is about to take us into space. Sooner or later we will come to the edge of the Solar System and will be looking out across the ultimate abyss. We may pause there for centuries, gathering our strength. Then we will reach out for the stars.
These long-ago, mindstretching speculations prompted me to consider the issue of extraterrestrial life and what it might imply. My reflections back then brought me to some tentative conclusions about two central questions: (1) Is life possible anywhere else? and (2) Would the discovery of extraterrestrial life improve the human condition? The remainder of this booklet addresses those conclusions, to which I still adhere.