29 July, 2005


The time has come for me to attempt to answer what is arguably the most profound issue of the day: how would religious kooks react if they were to encounter alien civilizations?

I'm not really well-placed to answer this question, so I asked someone who is. I spoke with Claudio Pasqua, a janitor at Harvard's Divinity School, who has acquired an impressive knowledge of theology over the years, mostly gleaned from tracts discarded in Divinity School waist-bins. Unfortunately he took this interview a lot more seriously than I was expecting. Here it is anyway:

RHINOCRISY: First of all, do you believe extraterrestrial life exists?

CLAUDIO PASQUA: To be honest, I don't know that much about it. But, our government gives the SETI project several million dollars a year, so obviously THEY believe extraterrestrial life exists. And I think most scientifically-minded people would admit that in a universe so large, it seems very improbable that ours is the only planet to develop life.

R: What about UFOs?

CP: Well. I mean, I think it's of course possible that some form of alien life form could visit us, but I tend to favor the notion of Jung, that UFO reports are a sort of modern mythology. Throughout our history we've always wanted some sort of authority figure watching over us - Mithra, Jehovah, Ahura Mazda, what have you - I tend to think that UFOs fill that role for us in the rationalist, more atheist modern era. Sort of, you know, elder brothers who've already explored and understood this vast, cold universe and can guide us through it. So this is a kind of modern myth-making, supplanting the importance of older myths. Sometimes quite literally, in fact, if you look at the "alien astronaut" theories which suggest that some extraterrestrials visited ancient Sumeria or Babylon and gave humans the skills and technologies that allowed us to become civilized. That in fact parallels some of the early Mesopotamian myths, which had the gods Enki and Enlil giving these same tools - irrigation, farming implements - to humanity. So we're seeing a literal re-imagining of these old myths in a way that's more palatable to the modern mind.

R: Erm... that was very... thorough.

CP: (laughs)

R: What sort of positions do religions take on aliens?

CP: Most religions are more or less silent on the subject. Of course, there are some that are actually constructed around the existence of aliens, for example the Raelians or the Heaven's Gate cult. Or Scientology. But these are really on the fringes, they could be wrapped up in the general fabric of this broader tendency to believe in UFOs. I think most major religions are wary of making pronouncements on the subject, because they're afraid of being at odds with science. The Catholic church actually had tremendous entanglements over this very subject in the past, in fact. A philosopher named Giordano Bruno was executed because he preached what was then considered a very heretical doctrine, that the universe was not geocentric and there was extraterrestrial life. Remember that according to the cosmology of the time, heaven was actually a physical place - it was above the firmament, the vault of the sky that held the stars, and God actually, literally, lived directly above us. So when people came along and said, no, the earth isn't the center of the universe, they were contradicting this conception of the firmament and were in a way actually destroying heaven. And also, geocentrism suggested that human beings were important, we were special - but heliocentrism and later the idea that there were other suns, other stars out there really destroys that notion. And it leaves open a lot of thorny theological questions that I think most religions really aren't ready to touch.

R: Like are aliens Christian.

CP: Exactly. Or, was Jesus crucified on other planets? But also questions like, what is the nature of the Catholic Church, and is it still privileged in some special way if other Churches exist that have the same relationship with God? I think this would be more problematic for Christianity than for, say, Islam, which emphasizes the subordination of man to God, or eastern religions that are more abstracted, more about elementary concepts like consciousness rather. But Christians really emphasize the special privilege of human beings.

R: God created us in his image.

CP: Exactly. And gave us dominion over all his creatures, etc. So if there are other races, even if they are Christians, even if they do show up bearing Bibles, you know, where does that leave us with respect to them? I think these are uncomfortable ideas, so the easiest way to respond is with a sort of agnosticism towards the entire question.

R: Okay, this is a bit more loopy, but: how do you think that Christians would react if aliens DID come and visit us?

CP: (laughs) Well, that's really hard for me to answer, I mean I have no idea what the aliens would be like. But I think it's a fair guess they're not going to be Christians.

R: That's a pretty safe bet.

CP: (laughs) I'd put money on that one. But I think most Christians will react to that by being rather threatened by it, you know, because of all the questions it would raise, the doubts it would raise. So a lot of them would be pretty hostile, maybe even decide that these are demons or agents of Satan. And then consider the possibility that aliens might proselytize us.

R: We'd try and convert them, for sure.

CP: Definitely. Which could be a pretty sticky interaction, that might cause some friction. But in general I think... Religion has proved remarkably robust, adapting to new ideas, somehow managing to survive. The Copernican revolution should have destroyed Christianity - it literally shattered the sky, this notion of the firmament. But it survived. And I think if we ever do meet aliens religion will end up proving to be pretty tenacious.

R: Thanks for your time.

CP: My pleasure.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?