How might the discovery of alien life affect religion?


In this context it is also important to distinguish between aliens as conceived by modern extra-terrestrial astronomy and the aliens of mythic lore. In modern astronomical thought, aliens refer to entities which have evolved biologically in distant planetary systems quite independently of terrestrial life, and are believed to have attained sufficient technological and other intellectual sophistication to be able to at least attempt contact with other similar creatures in the star-studded stillness of space, of whose existence they must have been scientifically convinced. On the other hand, in traditional religious/cultural views, those inhabitants (angels, jinns, cherubim, devas, and the like) of distant worlds were already connected to humans some way or another. Therefore, the question posed is really inappropriate because the same word (alien) has two quite different connotations in science and in religions. It is not unlike asking how the discovery of black holes might affect religion. Ancient religions have talked about hell, but that is not quite the same as the explosive singularity of a supernova.

From a global scientific/cultural perspective even a slight indication of the existence of extra-terrestrial life anywhere in the universe would be a fascinating, and indeed a shocking and most remarkable discovery. Concrete proof of an advanced ET civilization would be more than an eye-opener: It would be the most revolutionary discovery in all of human discovery. Yet, it is not likely to jolt the collective consciousness of humanity as much as it should, because few people have reflected on the moral, religious, and conceptual significance of something like that. We will cease to be special and singular in this vast universe that seems to stretch beyond our maximum spatial needs. Affirmations of God creating Man on the last day of His/Her creation-project may have to be drastically re-considered, because any confirmation of extra-terrestrials would demolish the centrality, primacy, and uniqueness of terrestrial consciousness in the universe which is a fundamental tenet of all religions. Confirmation of ETs will shake the very foundations of all human-centered religions.

However, if a religion subscribes to the view that human consciousness is a spark of a Cosmic Fire (as Hinduism does), and also realizes that there are countless  bio-friendly planetary niches in the vast universe (as current astronomy suggests), then from the perspective of that religion, it is extremely likely that similar sparks have found thriving spots elsewhere in the cold galactic expanse, embodied in carbon-based, silicon-based, or whatever frames. From such a perspective (which is not incompatible with Hindu visions) discovery of the existence of aliens ought to  be greeted with more applause than apprehension.

March 9, 2011

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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