Lately, on the ULC Monastery blog, we’ve been taking an in-depth look at scientific progress in the search for extraterrestrial life, asking our ordained ministers and wedding officiants how they think discovering life beyond Earth would affect religion. According to scientists at the recent SETICon 2 conference in California, such a discovery will hardly pose a threat to religion; instead of being harmed, religion will simply adapt as it has done in the past in the face of other scientific discoveries. This is particularly true of the Universal Life Church, an online church which already embraces the idea of bringing diverse backgrounds together.
There is an obvious reason why some of us–even some ordained ministers–think that discovering alien life will cause religious institutions to crumble. God’s special concern for human beings and the earth they inhabit is central to the sacred texts of many world religions, including the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. If, for instance, Christ only came to Earth to save human beings, we need to explain how alien life-forms can be “saved.” Similar questions exist for Jews and Muslims. Thus, discovering life beyond earth might shake up the cosmic view held by more traditionally monotheistic wedding officiants, including some members of the Universal Life Church.
Such fears are not necessarily justified, however, as speakers pointed out in a panel discussion called “Would Discovering E.T. Destroy Earth’s Religions?” at the conference. In the early twentieth century it was believed that “canals” on Mars indicated alien life, and in the mid-1990s scientists discovered a Martian meteorite containing possible micro-fossils. Moreover, religion remains important despite the discovery that Earth isn’t the center of the universe as well as evidence that the planet’s life-forms weren’t created in their present forms, but evolved over billions of years. Religion did not fall apart in the wake of any of these discoveries, so the panel reasoned that it would not crumble after discovering life on other planets. These “test runs” show how religion has been able to adapt, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI, adding that “[t]his experiment’s been run many times, and people never go nuts.” So, wedding officiants and other ordained ministers needn’t worry about their churches coming apart at the seams.
In fact, the concept of life dotting planets across the cosmos actually give churches like the ULC Monastery a reason for being. Most of our ministers are already familiar with the church’s motto, “We are all children of the same universe.” Discovering life on alien planets would only drive this point home, because it would force us to make the most of our vision, which is to embrace diversity and forge solidarity through our common purpose of doing the right thing. Scientists like Stephen Hawking warn against broadcasting our presence to extraterrestrial life, but for the Universal Life Church, at least, the discovery of such life provides an opportunity to practice peace and develop unity with any interstellar neighbors we may one day discover.
If we ever learn of intelligent beings inhabiting another planet, it will be a paradigm-shifting, earth-shaking breakthrough for all human civilization, but it will not necessarily mean the end of spirituality; it will merely require an overhaul of religious orthodoxy. As Baptist theologian Hal Ostrander puts it, discovering life on other planets doesn’t make the human race less special–it only means we have a wider universe of brothers and sisters to understand and learn from. If anything, this should inspire and motivate us.