A question posed to me more than once is this: If you could ask just one thing of the extraterrestrials, what would it be?
An answer I've offered -- also more than once -- is, "do you have religion?"
The reason I'd want to know is that a lot of people seem to think that the biggest impact of finding extraterrestrial life would be to disrupt religion. Our religion. These folks worry that news of advanced aliens camped out around a nearby star would shake our collective faiths.
They might be right.
I say this despite the fact that many contemporary theologians have averred that finding compelling evidence for ET would be of only slight consequence to religious belief. This "no big deal attitude" represents a substantial shift from that of European Christians a millennium ago, of course. In those days, Earth and humanity really counted for something. God had singularly blessed the cosmos with the hair-free hominids known as humans, and provided a salubrious planet for their home. By most accounts, Earth was given the ultimate upgrade, and placed dead center in the cosmos. Man bowed to God, and the universe -- Sun, moon, planets and stars -- bowed to Earth.
The latter arrangement was proven wrong once the telescope was invented. But the idea that humans are special still finds resonance, at least among -- humans. Our relationship with God, as formalized in religion, is unique and important.
But imagine this: Sometime in the next few dozen years, we pick up signals from a society hundreds of light-years away, and thousands of years beyond our technical level. And somehow, these distant beings confide to us that they, too, practice religion.
That might sound like welcome validation for earthly theology. Mind you, representatives of the major Adamist religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have claimed that the existence of thinking beings elsewhere is perfectly compatible with their beliefs. Even the Vatican - not always comfortable with non-Earth-centered cosmologies -- has had conferences on extraterrestrial life. It seems that today's theology can accommodate, without heartburn, the idea of other beings on other worlds.
But there's a small historical lesson that may muddy the waters. If you look at occasions on which a society encountered a culture more advanced than their own, you'll note that, mostly, they threw their indigenous religion overboard. The less-advanced civilization quickly adopted the mojo of the new guys. For example, the South Sea islanders of the 18th century -- long happy to venerate red feathers -- soon abandoned their centuries-old beliefs in favor of Christianity, once European ships hove into view. After all, these smelly, bearded visitors from afar had metals and the wheel. Whatever gods they worshipped were clearly a better breed.
So if we learn that ET has a religion, would that prompt us to toss out a few millennia of deistic doctrine, and join the aliens' galactic church? It's a disturbing possibility, and it makes me wonder about the general equanimity with which many theologians view the efforts to find ET. Maybe a discovery would require them to reboot their careers.
But there's another story that might be bigger. What if ET doesn't have religion? What if an intelligence a thousand or a million years beyond our own has no God and no faith? Could we dismiss that as a cultural idiosyncrasy, a small oversight in their grasp of existence? Or would we take it to mean that God is simply a human invention, and not a cosmic necessity? That might be as disruptive to our culture as Cortes in Mexico.
These are hypothetical questions now. But it's worth giving them some thought, because their relevance could change in your lifetime.
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