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It’s been nearly two weeks since I attended the annual scholarly society meetings for scholars in my field of study and interest: the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), the Near East Archaeological Society (NEAS), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR). All these societies (and more) meet annually the week before Thanksgiving. This year we met in Baltimore.

I’ll be blogging about a couple things that happened during that week that will interest readers. In this post, my focus will be the AAR session (a whole afternoon) on astrobiology – the search for biological evidence for ET life – and its intersection with religion. The session was part of the program for the Science, Technology, and Religion Group of AAR. The session theme was entitled, “Cosmic Quest, Cosmic Contact: Astrobiology, Astrotheology, Astroethics.” The speakers went in a slightly different order than the program book had them listed. The presenters and their topics were:

Margaret Race, SETI Institute, Mountain View, CA
Astrobiology, Ethics and Policy: The Need for Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Albert Harrison, University of California, Davis
Space Exploration: Carrying God’s Banner or Questioning God’s Work? (“Prophecy, Transcendence and Salvation on the High Frontier”)

Chris Crews, The New School (New York city)
What if Gliese 581 d Had Life? Christian Fundamentalism and the Politics of Astrobiology

Ted Peters, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
Astrotheology and Extraterrestrial Life

Connie Bertka, Potomac, MD (affiliations with the American Association for Advancement Science and the Smithsonian)
Christianity and the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life: Insights from Science and Religion, and the Sociology of Religion

John Hart, Boston University
Cosmic Contact: Hawking, Hynek, and Cosmoethics

I enjoyed the session. All of the lectures were interesting, even when I was familiar with the material. I promised on Twitter to share some of the content and thoughts. I’ll take them in order.

Margaret Race is a biologist associated with SETI. Her talk was really aimed at newbies to the subject of astrobiology – it seemed a necessary concession to anyone who may have wandered into the session just out of curiosity. She focused on what SETI does and the issues of the use and stewardship of space. She insisted that theologians be involved to frame an ethical and theological framework for what SETI might someday discover. She mentioned the UN Outer Space Treaty which (in part) advocates for de-militarization of space (especially no nukes – someone might want to tell China and DARPA) and rejects the idea of human ownership of space.

Albert Harrison, a psychologist, was up next. He started out by talking about how certain modern “prophets” (read: visionaries) had written about how humans would one day inhabit space. Among them he listed

  • Roger Launias’
  • Tsiolkovski and Cosmists
  • Herman Oberth
  • Willy Ley
  • Kraft Arnold Ehricke
  • Wernher von Braun

Harrison related the desire for human life in space to utopian visions, the experience of and need for the transcendent (he mentioned Edgar Mitchell here) and the desire for human immortality. In regard to this last item, he noted three different perspectives of thought:

  • Cosmists – want to resurrect everyone who ever lived out of cosmic dust via technological method “to live in solidarity with the stars”
  • Pragmatists – disperse humans in solar system in case of or in response to global catastrophe
  • Memorialists – use space time capsules to tell other civilizations about the human race

Lastly, Harrison talked about Christian acts in space and blessing of space exploration. For example, he mentioned that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took communion in space, the creation of an Apollo prayer league to pray for astronauts, and “Exomissiology” (astronaut chaplains, leaving a Bible on moon, Russian priests blessing cosmonaut crews).

Chris Crews was next, a political science doctoral student. (He narrates his slides here). He focused on young earth creationist (YEC) responses (or not) to the idea of ET life. In so doing he equated the YEC view with fundamentalism (though he was aware of the Old Earth Creationist position – a distinction he ignored in his presentation, by his own admission). The two aren’t actually synonymous (many YEC folks would not take positions on certain things integral to fundamentalism — but it’s largely a parochial squabble there). He also equated global warming denial with creationism, a greater blunder on his part in my view.

Crews’ session was filled with interesting statistics drawn from a range of studies (a bit dated). A sampling:

  • 317 million people in the USA; 247 million of those classify themselves as Christians; of those, 84 million take the label “evangelical”
  • a Gallup poll revealed that 46% of the US population agree with YEC, making the YEC position cross-denominational
  • There has been a slight rise in YEC belief since 2010

Crews went through the standard “fundamentalist” denials of the SETI enterprise, something that those who have ever heard me lecture (“Can Christianity Accommodate an Extraterrestrial Reality?“) would recognize. In the process, Crews again was a but slipshod with the ecclesiastical and theological nuances of the movements he was talking about. He lumped the “fundamentalist” rejections of SETI together into creationism. Of interest to Christian UFO enthusiasts, Crews mentioned Gary Bates (a YEC apologist – one wonders why Crews didn’t mention Hugh Ross here – I presume because Hugh didn’t fit the YEC=fundamentalist narrative Crews was articulating). Crews also mentioned the work of CE-4 on stopping repeated “alien abduction” experiences through appeal to Jesus (without citing CE-4 specifically). Crews’ conclusions were:

1. The more YEC people there are out there, the more hostile the thought toward alien life, which then makes it harder to rationalize and fund SETI. (He didn’t advocate hunting them down for removal). I think Crews is correct in the first part of that sentence, even though his language throughout was un-nuanced. I don’t think it matters, though, for funding SETI. The scientific community and those that support it now ignore the YEC crowd even now, so he’s creating a straw man.

2. There needs to be an “astrobiology apologetics” effort – a respectful one. He said pretty bluntly that ignoring creationists isn’t wise. I’d agree (let’s try and get along like adults), but I still think his YEC threat is a caricature.

Ted Peters followed. His was easily the most entertaining talk of the session. Dr. Peters has a long history of involvement with SETI and NASA and the ET life question from the perspective of a theologian. (He is not evangelical for those wondering). I regularly cite Peters’ material in my own lecture (“Can Christianity Accommodate an Extraterrestrial Reality?“). It was nice to finally meet him between sessions. A couple of the highlights of Peters’ session:

Peters playfully chided Paul Davies’ comments on religion, showing they were pretty ignorant. He asked (out loud) for Davies to censor himself on religion and stick to physics and astrobiology. Thank you, Ted. I’ve said the same thing here. God only knows where Davies gets his theological ideas. Out of the ether I suppose.

Peters also whimsically criticized the coherence of the Drake Equation. Peters said forcefully (but with a smile) that there is no empirical evidence for ET life. All people (like Drake) offer is, to quote him, “big numbers.” Thank you again, Ted. The Drake Equation is vacuous.

More seriously, Peters argued that Christian theologians have four tasks as their work relates to SETI and astrobiology:

1. Reflect on the scope of creation and settle geocentrism and anthopocentrism. He argued that both impede taking the question of ET life seriusly.

2. Set the parameters within which the ongoing debates over the relationship between Christology, soteriology, and ET life. Here Peters brought up the notorious Thomas Paine argument (which I also discuss in my own lecture) – that Christianity can’t be correct *because* there are other worlds — world on which Jesus would have to die an rise again multiple times. Peters’ point was simple: we ought not let discussion over Christology and soteriology be framed by Paine’s silly argument. There’s more than one way to think about the relationship. This was nice to hear since uninformed science media people bring this up all the time, as though the discovery of ET life would overturn the core of Christianity. It’s just lame thinking.

3. Analyze and critique astrobiology from within exposing extra-scientific assumptions. I loved this one. It was about how unbelieving scientists make theological claims all the time (usually through careless language). Atheist scientists do this all the time when criticizing intelligent design. It happens whenever they say things like “If there was a God he’d never create X this or that way since it can be improved on.” Pardon, but that’s a theological statement. Mr. scientist, stick to science. Peters then went on to discuss another SETI science myth (like the Drake Equation) that has long annoyed me. It goes like this:

Other space travelers we’d encounter are far more scientifically and technologically advanced. They must have evolved earlier and therefore have evolved longer, which of course means they are more ethically advanced than we are.

So, in other words, more time spent doing science and technology will increase human virtue. Really? Have you looked at what’s going on in the industrialized, high-tech world we live in?

4. Cooperate with leaders of multiple traditions and address ethical issues of space exploration and ET contact. This last task dealt with issues of both planetary protection and our own ethical preparation for contact.

The fifth speaker was Connie Bertka, a sociologist who has a seminary degree and special interest in religion. Some highlights of her talk included:

  • By 1916, there were 140 books on ET life that also dealt with its religious implications — most of them saw no threat.
  • She agreed with Crews that Christian acceptance of ET life had a lot to do with Christian acceptance (or not) of evolution. She cited a survey that showed that 1/3 of people in mainline denoms that (as a whole) accept evolution said humans existed in present form only. That number was 70% for evangelicals.
  • She was the only speaker that talked about Christians outside US. Christianity is growing rapidly worldwide, and 27% of that growth is represented by Pentecostals and charismatics, most of those are biblical literalists.

The last speaker, John Hart, who teaches Christian Ethics at Boston University, was very intriguing. He was obviously conversant with what most readers of this blog would think of as “UFO literature” and “UFO conspiracy.” Hart talked about “cosmic displacements” in human history — events and turning points that re-orient our perception of ourselves and the world we know. Quite obviously, ET contact would be such a displacement.

Hart then went on to confess his own displacement — a UFO sighting. He talked about how it drew him in to study of the issue. He used that to branch out into why certain people are convinced that alien life exists — they’ve experienced it in the form of such sightings. He justified that explanation by appealing to the famous Malmstrom Air Force Base incident (the one where UFOs hovering over the base took the nuclear missiles inside the base off-line). This case and similar ones involving nuclear weapons has been the research focus of Robert Hastings. This case is, in my view, one of the most credible UFO cases there is, though it can’t prove the source of the craft was extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, it doesn’t get much more real than this one.

Hart has obviously thought a lot about the UFO issue. He recently authored a book entitled, Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science, and Space. The Amazon description contains this note:

Cosmic Commons explores the ecological, economic, ethical, and ecclesial implications of terrestrial-extraterrestrial intelligent life Contact. It includes data from the author’s interview with Col. Jesse Marcel, Jr., MD, whose father, Maj. Jesse Marcel, Sr. showed Roswell debris to his wife and ten year old son. It suggests an innovative cosmo-socioecological ethics to guide human conduct in space.

I’ll certainly get the book at some point and read it, but this short statement leaves me wondering if Hart has embraced the ET explanation for Roswell much too uncritically. All UFO cases are not created equally.

 

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6 Responses to “Theology, Politics, and Astrobiology”

  • aeneas says:

    Mike,
    This is really good stuff. I’m glad that there are serious scholars in these types of fields talking openly about bringing theology into the mix. That is very hopeful and shows that a lot of the anti-religious nuttiness about theology and space exists more among the popular media clowns. I especially liked that Peters chided Paul Davies, whose ideas represent just that kind of pop theology I just mentioned. It is so irritating that people read authors like him and think it profound.

    Finally, somewhat off topic, but your mentioning of Malmstrom Air Force Base incident as a credible sighting made me wonder about your thoughts on the Rendlesham Forest incident. It seems to have a number of credible witnesses too—military ones. I do think it could have been a top-secret, man-made craft that those military witnesses saw. Have you read anything on that incident that hurts the credibility of the witnesses? The suggestion by some skeptics that they saw a lighthouse and fireball seems pretty weak to me.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing with us about the ETS.

  • kennethos says:

    Very cool to read this, and hear about the presentations! Good to know there’s actual thinking going on out there.

  • Dave Lewis says:

    Someone should have coached Chris Crews to avoid the term “fundamentalist” which has become mainly a pejorative term like “cult”.

    Dave Lewis

  • terry the censor says:

    Peters: space travelers we’d encounter are far more scientifically and technologically advanced. They must have evolved earlier and therefore have evolved longer, which of course means they are more ethically advanced than we are.
    Heiser: So, in other words, more time spent doing science and technology will increase human virtue. Really?

    Mike, dare I say you are confusing correlation with causation? The first sentence you attribute to Peters mentions science and technology but not ethics. The second sentence mentions evolution and ethics. I suggest Peters is saying a relatively longer alien history would result in BOTH technical and ethical advancement.

    I suspect Peters is just extending the Socratic assertion that knowledge is virtue. And as Gregory Vlastos makes clear in his books Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher and Socratic Studies, it is ethical knowledge that is virtue, not technical knowledge.

  • MSH says:

    The second sentence mentions the ethics, which is what Peters said does not follow (and I’d agree). Peters had no confidence that progression in technology translates to greater ethical behavior. Our own technological progress has not resulted in the elimination of evil in our nature or even the erosion of it. We adapt and seek our own self interest in different ways and new ways, in concert with technology. One could argue technology has given the evil in our nature more outlets, despite the good that much technology also does.

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