Religion & Philosophy

Vatican Observatory says aliens would be "God's creatures"

Reverend Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying that any extraterrestrials, if they exist, would be “extraterrestrial brothers”. Apparently, Ref. Funes was interviewed on the topic of the interaction between the Roman Catholic Church and science in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

In some respects, this interview was probably pointless. Extraterrestrial bacteria, never mind intelligent organisms, have yet to be discovered even within our own solar system, never mind outside it. So who cares, right?

The problem is that scientists continue to launch powerful instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope and its eventual successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is systematically scanning the sky, looking for unusual patterns in the background that might indicate intelligent life. The Kepler mission will search for Earth-sized planets orbiting 100,000 of the Sun’s nearest neighbor stars. And with yet more Mars missions planned, including at least a few intended to return samples to the Earth and to do biological assays on the Martian surface itself, the chance that we’ll discover that life evolved somewhere else in the universe is going up, up, up.

And billions of people will not handle well the fact that Earth-evolved life is not unique in the universe. Massive numbers of people (55% of the population of the U.S. according to a Gallup poll in 2007) disbelieve in evolution even though the scientific evidence for it is overwhelming. And this because the supposed inerrancy of a book or five written 1400 to 4000 years ago when humanity lacked the knowledge and ability to understand the facts of how the universe functions. Imagine what would probably happen if tomorrow we suddenly discovered, with nearly complete certainty, that life had evolved independently of Earth somewhere else in the universe. To quote Agent Kay from the Men In Black movie:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

Or, to put it another way, if people are offended by the idea that they might be related to chimpanzees and poo-throwing monkeys, imagine how offended they’d be to find out that their God created bacteria or rotationally-symmetric trilateral intelligent beings somewhere else in the universe. Care to guess how would that sit with the whole “created in God’s image” thing?

That’s why this admission by the Jesuit in charge of the Vatican Observatory is so important. It points that at least one of the major religious powers on the planet is thinking about the theological ramifications of extraterrestrial life instead of doing the theological equivalent of closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears, and shouting “la la la la la” at the top of your lungs. And if the Roman Catholic Church is thinking about this, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to help keep their collective flock under control when extraterrestrial life is discovered.

I can only hope that other, more conservative (Southern Baptist), less centralized (Judaism and Islam), and less authoritarian (Buddhism) faiths are doing the same.

Thanks to Mike Pecaut for pointing this one out.

20 replies »

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  2. I’m not so sure he DID think it through. With aliens comes alien religions/belief systems/reality filters. That’s gotta throw a wrench into the works…

  3. Guy Consolmagno is both a Jesuit priest and a professional astronomer and he has written a very interesting book called “Brother Astronomer” which is partly autobiographical and also discusses aspects of science and religion. The book has a whole chapter discussing Catholic theological thinking on extraterrestrial life which has been going on for over a century.

  4. Great post. Yeah, I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of this statement. I’m hesitant to use the term progressive in the same breath as the Roman Catholic Church, but this represents a huge shift in their position. This is that same church that only 20 years ago tried to tell Stephen Hawking that it was okay to research the history of the Universe near to the point of the Big Bang, but that researching or contemplating the initial moment of creation or whatever might have come before would be right out.

    I’ve been thinking that the Bush administration has been slashing the NASA budget, in part, because the last thing a creationist needs is the discovery of evolved marine life on Europa.

  5. Who the fark cares about what people who live their lives entrenched in dangerous and divisive myths do to keep these myths alive in their sealed-off minds. And if you do care, Brian, you should do more investigation into the actual tenets of Buddhism before making blind assertions about it.

    Rrrrrr.

  6. pookapooka – We all should care because what they think and, more importantly, what they do impacts everyone. If 90% of the world believes in “dangerous and divisive myths,” then the other 10% better at least plan for the reactions of the 90%.

  7. pookapooka,

    What blind assertion did Brian make about Buddhism? Any assertations about Buddhism escaped my limited mental capacity. As for describing it as less authoritarian, Brian would be absolutely correct especially comparing Buddhism to orthodox religions of any type. My real Buddhist friends (as compared to white suburban cocktail party Buddhist converts, ie: Richard Gere, Stephen Segal et al,) describe Buddhism as pretty laid back, so Brian probably hit it on the head.

    Jeff

  8. To quote from your other post:

    As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the terms “person” or “persons” shall include any alien from the moment he or she lands on earth.

  9. Brian — The blind assumption is that Buddhism has to change its tenets to conform to a discovery of extraterrestrial life. It, my friend, is already there. Jeff — please look into the actual philosophy and practice of Buddhism before passing opinion on it based on the impressions of a few friends. Summing it up as “pretty laid back” is really lazy. It’s like Woody Allen’s joke about speed-reading War And Peace: “It’s about Russia.”

    And yes, of course we should keep careful watch on the behavior of those who live ossified lives based on smug and unquestioning belief in some myth, particularly those myths that divide humanity between the Saved and the Infidel. Please reread my initial comment. The “who cares” part is about concerning ourselves unduly with the minutiae of how they grudgingly allow the myth to be slightly adjusted.

  10. Pookapooka,

    Can you show me factual evidence of extraterrestial life? Can you prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it exists?

    As for your incorrect speculations, I have studied The Four Noble Truths, and have also studied the Tripitaka, so do know something of what I’m talking about.

    Jeff

  11. Jeff — my humblest apologies. Why didn’tcha tell me about your studies of Buddhism in the first place? No doubt then you are aware that the question of the existence of extraterrestrial or nonextraterrestrial life is irrelevant in Buddhism, which is concerned with how an individual lives the life that he/she is experiencing now, and eschews questions of god, before-life and after-life. As such it would have no problem with the discovery of any heretofore unknown kind of life, earthbound or otherwise, and thus would not be forced to make any shifts in its basic tenets.

    Moreover, you also know that nowhere in Buddhism is there any indication that the “collective flock” must be kept “under control” — only guidelines of self-discipline to help the individual gain his/her own insight about the nature of life.

    As to that silly initial factual-evidence question, may I and your laughing Buddha pose an equally irrelevant question to you? Can you prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that anything at all will exist, earthly or extraterrestrial, after your death? Be honest now. Laughing, of course, is entirely permissible.

  12. Hey Pooka,
    I can’t prove anything will happen after my death and don’t care what happens after my death I don’t even know if there will be existence after my death. I’ve been pondering death a lot, as I’ve been dealing with the death of a spouse, something I hope you don’t have to go through. Whatever, it doesn’t matter because, you’re right….what’s now is what’s important.

    I said I studied Buddhism….which I once did in my college days, along with Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, and a bunch of other irrelevant religions. I studies those religions as a result of a crisis of faith and realized that I don’t need a crutch.

    One thing your belief system didn’t teach you is humility and manners. You might work on thosed areas.

    Oh yeah, you still didn’t answer my questions about ET’s.

  13. Jeff — OK mannered pot, ill-mannered kettle responds, trying my best to communicate in a neutral and hopefully non-nasty way! For the record, here is my response to the ET thang.

    Really now, the gotcha! question is irrelevant to this exchange, and I suspect you just pulled it out of your … (oops! There I go being illmannered again, sorry. Its just that snark is so much fun when you’re not face to face…) Let’s start again —

    If this is some kind of attempt at rhetorical checkmate, you must show me first where in my own words I asserted that ET life really does exist. I sure can’t find where I led you to jump to that conclusion. My specific point continues to be this — in the case of “how to deal with [theoretical] ET life,” it is intellectually lazy to assume that Buddhism can be dumped into the same cookie-jar as the Abrahamic religions. Why should I have to prove or disprove something I have not used to support this argument?

    If anything, it shows I must be clearer and less argumentative in how I express my points.

    If your question was not meant to be a gotcha, but perhaps innocently was intended as a kind of background check, I’ll say — personal opinion only — that I believe the universe itself is alive, and thus there is no distinction between terrestrial and ET life. The biological distinction is arbitrary. Mind you, this is just my belief. No proof on either side of this assertion.

    Also personally speaking, your answer to my absurd question was spot-on. Thank you for a serious and considered response. It also happens to be close to how I would answer, engendered by a similar path as yours. Although I never experienced a crisis of faith, after close study of religious and philosophical systems to satisfy a curiosity begun when I majored in Japanese, I concluded that of all religions, some strains of Buddhism conformed pretty darn closely to how my own life was spinning out, but that I really didn’t have any need to spend any inordinate time on earth following it. (BTW some branches of Buddhist thought suggest this very dismissal — talk about covering your philosophical bases!)

    And just on the odd chance that you think I have the potential to be a polite person after all, check out how polite the Zen experience is for those who choose to undergo it.

    Yours truly in continuing curmudgeonosity,

    pookapooka

  14. Pookapooka,

    Majored in Japanese….that’s totally cool. Also, accept my apologies for any percieved snark, as no malice was meant. I just enjoy debate in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin.

    Jeff

  15. As do I Jeff, especially when the debate reveals the soul and sincerity behind the words … and I’m sure Buddha laughs with all of us.

  16. There is extra-terrestrial life. there are many that know it to be fact but
    are forbidden or scared to talk about it. Research it with a open mind this subject
    and you’ll find it to very true .. The masses just haven’t been “officially” told.. I
    feel they’ll be forced to acknowledge soon…

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