Exoplanets and Theology

Does the discovery of exoplanets threaten established religions here on Earth?

Artist concept of the surface of exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f [NASA / JPL Caltech]

NASA has announced a breathtaking discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a single star. All of these planets could potentially harbor liquid water. Three of them lie firmly within the habitable zone.

Understandably, these discoveries stimulate questions about humanity’s place in the universe. Are we alone? Are we unique? And with over 80% of people self-identifying as religious, do these discoveries have any implications for the faithful?

It’s a complex topic, and opinions differ. What’s important to remember is that religions have hardly been taken by surprise by the prospect of life on other worlds. These questions have been actively explored by theologians for quite some time.

Within Christianity, C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy explored a mythical cosmology where God’s creation extended beyond a single planet. In his epic story, the battle between good and evil played out over a wider canvas. Lewis also advised caution for those who would foretell Christianity’s demise on the basis of new discoveries. In his 1958 essay Religion and Rocketry he writes:

“Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.

But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.”

More recently, astrophysicist and theologian David Wilkinson wrote positively on the hard science and implications of SETI. And theologian Ted Peters helped devise a field of inquiry dubbed “astrotheology”. Prominent journals of religion and science like Zygon and ISSR regularly publish articles from respected thinkers exploring these themes.

These scholarly perspectives sync with views on Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) held by adherents more broadly. A survey published by the Royal Society of over 1300 people from seven different religious traditions found:

“widespread acceptance of the existence of ETI and incorporation of ETI into their existing belief systems”

The survey decisively found that adherents thought ETI would not precipitate a personal crisis of belief:

Question: Official confirmation of the discovery of a civilization of intelligent beings living on another planet would so undercut my beliefs that my beliefs would face a crisis.

A crisis for the world’s religions was indeed predicted by non-religious people. But religious adherents did not share this assessment:

Question: Even though my religious (or non-religious) viewpoint would remain unaffected, contact with extra-terrestrials would so undercut traditional beliefs that the world’s religions would face a crisis.

These empirical findings and the openness of theologians and scientists on the matter indicate that a thoughtful religious person can keep an open mind on the implications of exoplanets. This isn’t a make-or-break issue for their faith.

Some scientists go further, suggesting the idea of a divine super-intelligence should actually stimulate space exploration. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, explains:

“…I think it’s exciting as Christians to go exploring, because we’re never going to find anything that’s outside of God’s realm. Everything is part of this majestic creation, and the more you discover the more amazed you get by thinking about God, and so I think exploration is a divinely Christian activity and people should be excited about it.”

So what will science reveal to us about other worlds in the future? The final conversation in the film Contact, where astronomer Ellie Arroway addresses a group of schoolchildren, seems a fitting blend of hope and humility:

Child: Are there other people out there in the universe?

Arroway: That’s a good question. What do you think?

Child: I don’t know.

Arroway: That’s a good answer. A skeptic, huh? The most important thing is you all keep searching for your own answers. I’ll tell you one thing about the universe though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… it seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”