Friday, January 27, 2006

Philosophy Friday: To Whom Does E.T. Pray?

NASA made a ground-breaking discovery this week; one that started me thinking about the changes wrought upon humanity by scientific discovery.

The details, via RedOrbit:

Using an armada of telescopes, an international team of astronomers has found the smallest planet ever detected around a normal star outside our solar system.

The extrasolar planet is five times as massive as Earth and orbits a red dwarf, a relatively cool star, every 10 years. The distance between the planet, designated OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, and its host is about three times greater than that between the Earth and the Sun.

The planet's large orbit and its dim parent star make its likely surface temperature a frigid minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 220 degrees Celsius). This temperature is similar to that of Pluto, but the newly found planet is about one-tenth closer to its star than Pluto is to the Sun.

Behold the wonders of gravitational microlensing! Astronomers now have the ability, in certain rare cases, to spot small, Earth-type planets around other stars. Part of the sheer "Star Trek" coolness of this is the increased possibility that humans may at last make contact with other beings in the universe besides ourselves.

I firmly believe the onus of first contact will be on we Earthlings. Certainly any extra-terrestrial society technologically advanced enough to reach or contact Earth will almost certainly be able to intercept our satellite transmissions. A few days of monitoring CNN should convince any exploring intelligence to leave humans well alone. We're dangerous and unpredictable! We're also very abusive to our environment and other species, though mainly just different members of our own kind. Pretty silly, when you think about it...

Anyway, I have to wonder about the religious faiths of those we may find on another planet, as well as the changes to our own faiths here. Most western religions are based around the ideal of human exceptionalism; that mankind has a special place and plays a special role in the grand scheme of Creation. But that leading role becomes very questionable when another strong actor enters the stage. Certainly the residents of a newly discovered planet would have their own beliefs on universal origin, and could very likely see themselves as the exceptional beings. We humans don't really have a great track record when confronted with new and different religious beliefs and our initial encounters with a new intelligent species would likely be tense, to say the least.

The more important question, however, is how would the morals and faiths of humanity change when confronted with a totally new paradigm of existence. At last, we will no longer be the cradle of life in the universe but only a small part of a larger community (many of us already believe this anyway). The very nature of humanity's relationship to the universe, in a spiritual sense, will change for most of the world.

The so-called "Earth faiths", such as Wicca, Druidism or various aboriginal beliefs, will actually not change much, I think. They tend to already be centered around an intimate sense of belonging to part of nature as a whole. Such faiths will likely just assimilate a new world and a new people as a newly understood part of that greater whole. In fact, Wicca and Druidism, faiths centered around wisdom and understanding of the universe as a means of spiritual fulfillment, would likely flourish in such a new reality. A new planet teeming with life would offer an untapped well of discovery.

Many eastern religions would probably fare decently as well. Taoism, which I am more familiar with, would easily adapt to a new reality of humanity not being alone any longer. Mystical faiths, such as Taoism, would be somewhat inoculated from change by their very introspective nature. Again, it would be an opportunity for personal growth, this meeting of cultures once separated by the vastness of space.

It's in looking at the western religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, that contact with a new alien race could really affect profound change. I will focus on Christianity, as I'm more familiar with it, though Islam also would face many of the same challenges.

The first big challenge Christianity would face in light of extra-terrestrial contact, would be a foundational question about the nature of humankind. Could humanity maintain the paradoxical place as both the pinnacle and depth of Creation that it currently holds in the Christian faith? Doubtful, in my opinion. A non-human intelligence able to build a society at least as advanced as ours would call into serious question human exceptionalism in Creation. If God created the universe, then he also created the folks from our newly contacted world. Perhaps they too believe they've been given the revelation of a One True God, one that conflicts with the Christian interpretation of God. Where does the determining factor lie in such a conflict?

A second challenge would be the roll of sacred scripture in this new time. Assuming the people of this other planet have their own faiths, it seems reasonable to believe they have their own texts as well. If those texts contain a revealed understanding of the universe in contradiction to that of Christianity, then which would be "the truth" dogmatically? Both would be religious constructs based around the reality of the worlds on which they were written, while dealing with the nature of a shared universe. In other words, how would each society settle which had the correct revelation of the universe's Creator? A melding could occur, as has often occurred as Christianity evolved through the centuries, but such a melding is rarely quick or easy. I predict a radical new understanding of scripture, one that settles around the notion of one Word, tailored by God for different worlds. A peaceful melding of mutual understanding that accepts vast differences between both faiths but accentuates the commonality. A utopian vision, probably, but still possible.

A final interesting dogmatic dilemma, from the Christian perspective, would be the roles of sin and salvation in the day of an alien sister society. Sin has always been the unique curse of mankind, exempted from the "lower" life forms unable to make the conscious choice of evil. But is sin the curse of humanity or the curse of human-like intelligence? Do our extra-terrestrial neighbors need or deserve absolution or were they not present in the Garden of Eden to partake in the Fall? If they were sinners or could be somehow tainted by this human curse, would the salvation of Christ be available to them? My reading of the compassionate, loving Christ would say, unequivocally, "Yes"; salvation needed would be open to all, even 20,000 light years distant.

For my part, as a secular humanist, I can't imagine a more exciting time than to be faced with learning from a completely new society. The potential for billions of new perspectives of morality and societal structure could be the push humanity needs to break away from some of our onerous history. It would be a second Enlightenment that would spark an interest in scientific discovery likely unparalleled in human history. I get chills just thinking about it!

So get to it, NASA, and find us our first counterparts beyond the solar system. We desperately need the widening of perspective here in the current Center of the Known Universe. No one knows to whom E.T. prays, but we on Earth will be better off once we can pray with him.

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