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Religious traditions have long taught that humans share the universe with angels and demons and other intelligent beings, but a recent survey from the Pew Research Center suggests American adults who are more religious are much more skeptical about the possibility of extraterrestrial life than those who are less religious.
A survey gauging attitudes about the possibility of extraterrestrial life was conducted in June, just before the Defense Department released an official report on unidentified flying objects (UFOs).
Americans who attend religious services at least weekly are less likely than those who seldom or never attend services to say that intelligent life exists elsewhere (44 percent vs. 75 percent). And adults who pray daily (54 percent) are also less likely than those who seldom or never pray (80 percent) to say intelligent life exists on other planets.
Scientists who also study theology say the idea of intelligent life in the universe has been a topic among astronomers for years because it raises all kinds of questions for Christian theologians. Did Jesus die for aliens, too? Do aliens have their own special relationship with God? Would aliens be capable of sinning?
Duilia de Mello, an astronomer and physics professor at Catholic University, said she has several seminarians in her classes who often bring up theoretical questions about intelligent life in the universe and debate what it would mean for the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, after all, has said that if an alien wanted to be baptized, he would be willing to do so.
“If we are the products of creation, why couldn’t we have life evolving in other planets as well? There’s nothing that says otherwise,” de Mello said.
During the past year, Gil Barndollar, a member of the Church of the Advent in Washington, led a group of about a dozen people who discussed Christian science fiction works, in which they read books like C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow,” about intelligent life in the universe.
Barndollar said he believes some biblical fundamentalists or literalists could feel threatened by the idea that there might be something out in the universe that’s not spelled out in the Bible.
“On the face of it, you would think religion would make you more likely to believe in something that could be scoffed at,” Barndollar said. “For some people, those may be competitive beliefs.”
Barndollar said he personally doesn’t know whether he thinks intelligent life could be out there.
“I’m pleasantly agnostic about it,” he said. “I’m pretty comfortable with ambiguity and with mystery. I don’t necessarily need a comprehensive rational explanation for everything.”
He said that when the military released its report in June, his group made a couple of jokes about it but never discussed it in detail.
Many religious traditions teach that extraterrestrial life is possible, said David Weintraub, professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University and author of the book “Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?” However, more conservative Americans, including evangelicals, are far less likely to believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Just 40 percent of White evangelicals say intelligent life probably exists on other planets compared with White nonevangelical Protestants (65 percent), Catholics (67 percent) and Black Protestants (55 percent). Due to sample-size limitations, Pew did not include some smaller religious groups, including Jewish and Muslim Americans, in its analysis.
The idea of intelligent life could be threatening to some conservative Christians’ interpretation of the Bible and how they teach a literal creation of the universe, Weintraub said. Highly religious Americans are also less likely to believe in evolution, according to 2019 research from Pew.
“It’s not about the existence of extraterrestrial life,” Weintraub said. “It’s about what the piece of information does to the power structure of a particular church.”
The topic of aliens isn’t a pressing one in most Sunday schools, but the idea would present a new philosophical and theological question for religious leaders.
“Our knowledge about the likelihood of this [topic] is going to explode,” Weintraub said of scientific research about life in the universe. “If we suddenly have that information, if that’s a threat theologically, then maybe now is the right time to be talking about it so you’re ready for the answer.”
David Wilkinson, an astrophysicist turned theologian who teaches at Durham University in the United Kingdom, cited many reasons some Christians would find extraterrestrial life threatening or confusing. Many people believe in a literal six-day creation as described in the Bible, where aliens are not mentioned. Some people are worried that if there are other beings, God would not have a special relationship with human beings.
It raises theological questions for people, including whether redemption through Jesus’ death and resurrection can be extended to other life-forms. And if there are little green people, would God have appeared in their likeness, just as he came in the flesh as a human being?
“It would be easier for us to say we’re alone in the universe,” Wilkinson said. “God’s an exciting extravagant God who could create such things.”
After all, he said, theologians in the early centuries were open to speculation about other worlds, and authors such as C.S. Lewis used science fiction to explore theology.
The vast majority of atheists (85 percent) believe intelligent life exists on other planets, but far fewer (31 percent) say that UFOs reported by the military are likely evidence of that life. Atheists are about as skeptical as White evangelicals (35 percent), who see UFOs as evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Donald Barnes, a retired chemist who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for two decades, said he remembers once walking around his Akron, Ohio, neighborhood when he was doing an elementary school science project and asking people’s opinions about UFOs. Some people, he said, thought they were Russians and some thought it was silly. At 82 years old, he doesn’t think the question will be resolved in his lifetime.
Now living in Alexandria, Va., and attending a Southern Baptist church, Barnes said he believes that some of his fellow evangelical believers look to the Bible for detailed answers. For example, the Bible doesn’t say anything about vaccines or masks, so some people believe humans don’t need them.
“The older I get, the more comfortable I get with the ambiguity of life and the ultimate questions. I find some comfort in the lack of precision and leaving it in God’s hands,” he said. “Some astound me in how committed they are to their view. In some sense, it’s admirable. They may be wrong on some occasions, but they’re never in doubt.”
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