What would your priest, rabbi, or imam say if we discovered alien life?
For the religious, knowing that life on Earth is not unique may demand radical new ways of thinking about ourselves: How special and sacred are we? Is Earth a privileged place? Do we have an obligation to care for beings on other planets? Should we convert ET to “my” religion? These questions point to a deeper issue about whether our religions can adapt to the idea that humans are not the only sentient beings in the universe capable of worshiping God.
Some faiths might unearth new meanings in ancient texts and develop ways of incorporating alien life into their world-views. Other religions that are less flexible in their interpretations of scripture or that claim humans are the only intelligent beings in the universe might struggle to adapt.
Whether we are believers or not, none of us can fully escape the influence of religion in our culture. Religion is one of the oldest parts of our social fabric, and is one way—perhaps the main way—that society will process first contact. Here is a brief list of how some religions think about aliens, whether they will try to proselytize them, and which religions are likely to remain intact in the wake of the potential discovery of alien life.
There are a few reasons to believe that Judaism would outlast a first encounter. Since Jews believe there are no limits on the power of God, they are open to the idea that God is free to create more than one form of sentient species in the cosmos. Also, Rabbi Norman Lamm recently proposed that Judaism “can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God’s world,” because “Man’s non-singularity does not imply his insignificance.” From Lamm’s theological perspective, humans might not be the focal point of God’s universe, but they still have a purpose.
Jews would also not bother to proselytize ET. Twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides held that the righteous of all nations and faiths will earn a place in heaven. On this basis, Jews would assume that ET will decide for itself how and whether to worship God.
Seventh-day Adventism emerged in the 19th century in part as a solution to theological problems stemming from the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The prophetess, Ellen White, described visions of extraterrestrial beings in different worlds that were “tall, majestic people” and entirely without sin. These visions inform the religion’s bedrock belief that since aliens are not affected by original sin, they do not need Christian redemption.
Of course, a serious problem could emerge if ET turns out to be evil. In this case, White’s prophecies might be seen as false, and Seventh-day Adventism would either need to find a way to adjust or vanish into history.