Illustration: Benjamin Currie, Gizmodo
In the annals of most world religions, a quick walk-on from an alien would not, at least on the surface, seem particularly strange. Unusual occurrences are kind of key to the whole enterprise. And adherents of both camps—UFO-watchers and the religious—know what it means to believe in the face of long odds. Should a member of the former group decide to link up with the latter, where would they feel most at home? What religion is most amenable to the concept of life on other planets? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts in religion to find out.
Diana Walsh Pasulka
Professor, Philosophy and Religion, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the author of American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology
Before the question can be answered, it is a good idea to consider the issue of the definition of religion. For most people in the Western tradition, religion is something that follows a set form of patterns. There is a God, there are usually sacred books, and places to go for people. Generally, when it is explained that many non-Western and indigenous cultures do not think of religion in this way, it opens their minds to the fact that they’ve had an idea of religion that is not universal across the planet. In many indigenous spiritualities, for example, extraterrestrials, often called “star people,” exist and are even ancestors of certain tribes on Earth. Even in certain Western indigenous spiritualities, such as pre-Chrisitian Irish, for example, extraterrestrials came from the clouds and provided humans with knowledge about how to live.
Even in the Western traditions—take Catholicism for example—talk of extraterrestrial life has been going on for more than one thousand years. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII established a space observatory (which was there already) to study “unexplained flying objects.” Buddhism also references the existence of other worlds. It is obvious that most religions and spiritualities have considered the existence of beings from other worlds. It is actually not new.
What is new, however, is that there are “UFO religions,” or religions today that incorporate ideas that extraterrestrials are here for various reasons. The Nation of Islam is a classic example of such a religion. Obviously religions like that found by the French man Raël is a UFO religion, as he said he had a direct experience of a flying saucer and his spirituality emerged directly from that experience. So, these religions already incorporate these ideas, as well as many indigenous religions. In my opinion, should extraterrestrials be found to exist, I don’t think most religions or their members will have an issue with it.
Professor, Comparative Religions, Drew University
I think Buddhism is a good candidate for being the religion most friendly to the idea of life existing on other planets, especially if politics can be bracketed out. Buddhism is an ‘open-enrollment’ religion that has a method of conversion (the Triple Gem) it has used for millennia to recruit members widely from across very different populations. In so doing, it has a history of interacting with pre-existing local traditions, rather than oppressing them. Thus, it is open to difference. Also, some Buddhist texts describe various regions, not all of them earthly, in which people live simultaneously but without contact among the regions. Lastly, the universal Buddhist prayer is “may all beings be (unselfishly) happy,” which is directed towards everyone, everywhere.
President of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), a non-profit research organisation that creates and transmits interstellar messages to search for extraterrestrial civilizations
Once we detect ET, everything will change. Religions that have been resistant to the prospect of extraterrestrial life will be forced to take stock and re-evaluate their positions. We’ll no longer ask “Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?” but instead we will wonder, “What does the existence of extraterrestrials mean for your beliefs?”
When religious folk are asked today whether life beyond Earth is consistent with their faith, they’re put in an awkward position. They’re being expected to consider a scientific question through the lens of their religious beliefs. Do their scriptures make explicit reference to the existence of life on planets orbiting other stars? Does silence on this topic imply the absence of aliens, or simply that religious texts aren’t trying to answer scientific questions that were impossible even to ask in an earlier age?
For the world’s oldest religious traditions, many of these questions are nonsensical. Sacred texts written thousands of years ago were based on radically different cosmologies than those reflected in modern-day astronomy. It was inconceivable to ask whether there are inhabited Earths around distant stars, when no one imagined that the stars were anything like our own Sun. Attempting to extract a scientific answer from a religious scripture is doomed to failure.
Admittedly, some traditions will have an easier time than others in absorbing the news that we’re not alone in the universe. Numerous schools of Buddhism and Hinduism posit countless celestial realms, populated by beings more or less spiritually advanced than humans. News of extraterrestrial neighbours would be welcome and easily assimilated.
Within Christianity, two prominent denominations arose recently enough to be informed by nineteenth-century astronomical observations of planets in our own solar system. The founder of the Seventh-day Adventists had visions of extraterrestrials, and the Latter-day Saint scripture The Pearl of Great Price claims the existence of other inhabited worlds than Earth. In these traditions, aliens are assumed to exist, so no adaptation will be needed.
The more interesting question is whether the discovery of life beyond Earth will create an opening for a dialogue with an independently evolved species on another world. If so, which individuals or groups will initiate an enterprise that won’t come to fruition within a human lifetime? Given the distances between stars, an interstellar back-and-forth exchange could take centuries or millennia. Here on Earth, religions have been among the most successful social organisations to operate on such long timescales. Will the knowledge that a distant exoplanet is inhabited be the impetus for the launch of a multigenerational interfaith, interspecies dialogue?
Professor, Comparative Religion, Miami University of Ohio
Buddhism, hands down. No other religion offers as vivid a depiction of what life is like on planets far from ours. In Buddhist texts we learn what it feels like, phenomenologically, to be on another planet. We learn what it might be like to live in worlds inhabited by sentient beings, worlds that are imbued with sacred qualities.
Within Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhahood can take many forms. Their philosophers distinguish between the Buddha’s ineffable body—the eternal dharma-kāya (“truth-body”)—and bodies, like ours, that are subject to decay. In between these two bodies are celestial bodies of the Buddha that are associated with outer space, with universes outside our own. These “enjoyment bodies” (saṃbhoga-kāya) are built out of the vows that Buddhas made long before they became Buddhas.
Enjoyment bodies are composed of subtle energy and do not die like ordinary bodies on Earth. The realms where these enjoyment bodies preside are called Buddha fields (Buddha-kṣetra), and they are said to be countless in number. Just as every being is potentially a Buddha, all Buddhas launch themselves as volitional beings who make vows to be of benefit to sentient beings. Those vows take the forms of worlds in outer space where a being can take birth. The Buddha-fields are designed to help even the most foolish and stubborn of sentient beings to see reality as it really is. The best of the many Buddha fields that exist are described as pain-free, calmness-inducing, compassion-making pure paradises.
Pure lands are ideal places to achieve nirvana, since life there is designed to maximise opportunities for insight. For entry-level Buddhist practitioners, the goal is to achieve birth in a pure Buddha field after death. For advanced practitioners, the goal is to make your own. Since each Buddha-field is tailor-made according to the vow that one takes as a Buddha-in-the-making, the trick is to look around at what other Buddhas created with their vows. Before you come up with the blueprint for your own future Buddha field, you should travel around in meditative trace, look at other worlds, and survey the options.
Mahayana Buddhism offers a remarkably rich cosmology. For these Buddhists, life in outer space is an article of faith and a core practice.
Professor of Islamic Studies and Director of the Drew University Centre on Religion, Culture & Conflict (CRCC) at Drew University
Most religions historically were pretty focused on this planet, and many conceived it as the centre of the universe—if not literally, at least effectively—so the issue is not something that people spent a lot of time writing about, although I’m sure that individuals wondered about it.
Most religions are complex, so it’s not really possible to ask which one is “most friendly” to an idea like extraterrestrial life. One encounters thinkers in various traditions whose thought may not have specifically addressed this issue, but one suspects that they would have had little trouble accepting the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
In the Islamic tradition, for example, the great twelfth and thirteenth century mystical philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabi would have likely been very comfortable with contemporary theory in physical cosmology that our own universe may well be only one of multiple universes, likely occupying multiple and different dimensions of time and space. Once you can accept something as wild as that, getting your head around extraterrestrial life should be a breeze.
Most traditional religions understood that the actual cosmos is greater than the physical universe that we experience, and the actual cosmos consists of dimensions that transcend the physical. In fact, those dimensions were most often of greater interest to them than our physical cosmos, because ultimate reality, however they understood it, existed ultimately in those other dimensions and necessarily transcended our own physical cosmos, because for them ultimate reality was defined by two qualities that are impossible in the context of our physical cosmos: (1) it must be eternal; and (2) it must be unchanging.
They understood that everything of this cosmos cannot meet either criteria that they understood defines ultimate reality. So for many traditional religions, ultimate reality, however defined, might in some sense be found in this cosmos, but was necessarily not of this cosmos. When you think about that for a moment, it’s far more mind blowing than the possibility of other life in this cosmos.
Thus, traditional religions typically had much greater humility, I suspect, than most 21st century secular people do about what’s ultimately possible—both in this cosmos and beyond it.
Lecturer, Protestant Theology, University of Muenster; recent papers include ‘Did Jesus Die for Klingons, too?’ and ‘Is the Origin of Life a Fluke? Why the Chance Hypothesis Should Not be Dismissed Too Quickly’
Every major religion on Earth could easily accommodate the discovery of (intelligent) alien life, with one exception: Christianity.
Christians maintain that persons who have committed moral wrongs are in desperate need of divine salvation. The good news is that, out of grace, God will save many (according to universalism, all) human sinners. Christians also believe that Jesus Christ plays an essential part in God’s terrestrial work of salvation: Jesus was a divine incarnation whose atonement (suffering, teaching, good example…) will ultimately reconcile many (or all) human sinners to God.
Now imagine the universe is teeming with other intelligent civilizations. What is a Christian believer supposed to say? Claiming that Christ died only for us, while the rest of the universe is screwed, would be incompatible with God’s love. If, however, earthly Jesus died for the whole universe, myriads of extraterrestrial sinners included, we would have to accept a geocentrism even more preposterous than the spatial variant. Neither is there a way out by suggesting that other intelligent species may not have been “fallen.” This proposal amounts to a negative human exceptionalism that is totally unbelievable, given that alien species are subject to the same general evolutionary mechanisms as we are. Natural selection favours “selfish” traits.
What about multiple incarnations? Here another difficulty of traditional Christian doctrine comes into play: Christ has two natures—he is “truly God and truly man.” But how are members of completely different biological species (“truly man” and “truly Klingon,” let’s say) supposed to stand in a relationship of personal identity? Even worse, if the number of sinful species in the universe exceeds a certain threshold, God would be forced to incarnate himself simultaneously. However, no single person who is an embodied being with a finite nature, i.e. a “truly” biological organism, can be more than one such being at the same time. If, on the other hand, the incarnations were not personally identical, many different persons with a divine nature would result—too many even for a Christian. Finally: May extraterrestrial sinners have been reconciled to God by means different from a divine incarnation? Perhaps, but even if the Christian believer concedes alternative means of salvation she is stuck with the highly implausible geocentric claim that the incarnation, i.e. one of the most remarkable events in the history of the cosmos, happens just 2000 years ago on our planet, although myriads of other inhabited planets were also available.
Therefore, I conclude, the traditional Christian believer can’t make theological sense of extraterrestrial intelligent life.
Kelly Eileen Hayes
Associate Professor, Women’s Studies, Indiana University
While it might sound like the plot of a sci-fi novel, the idea that benevolent and highly advanced beings from other planets are secretly facilitating human evolution is common to a number of religions. Members of the Brazilian religion called the Valley of the Dawn (Vale do Amanhecer), for example, claim to be the spiritual descendants of a race of beings from the distant star Capella, sent by God to jumpstart Earth’s evolution. According to Valley teachings, the elaborate pyramids built by various ancient peoples were actually technologically sophisticated structures for maintaining communications with Capella. On the North American continent, a related idea is central to Unarius, whose charismatic leader Ruth Norman, aka the Archangel Uriel, claimed to be in contact with the “Space Brothers”—highly evolved intelligences inhabiting other galaxies. Uriel promised her followers that the Space Brothers will touch down on Earth in their massive starships to usher in a new era of peace and unity, but only when human beings are ready to understand their message. Whether expressed in science fiction or religious mythology, our fascination with the possibility of extraterrestrial beings is a venerable one. Long before we developed the technology to explore the universe outside the Earth’s atmosphere, Enlightenment thinkers like Kant and Swedenborg and organised groups of Spiritists and Theosophists avowed the existence of advanced life forms on other planets. And so the answer to the question of which religion is friendliest to the idea of life existing on other planets is: a great many!
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