Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Aliens? No problem.

radio_telescopesThe famous Drake equation boldly attempts to estimate the number of intelligent alien species in the Milky Way galaxy. Taking in a host of factors, the Drake equation ultimately predicts that a vast number of alien civilizations have existed, currently exist, and/or will exist. Of course, other than this high probability, there is no hard evidence that aliens are actually out there. Still, if the existence of aliens were confirmed, would it have a direct impact on religious beliefs? Worried that religions are too rooted in outdated science, theologian Ted Peters (Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley) sought an answer to this question. His research suggests that the majority of religious believers think their religion would indeed survive the discovery of aliens.

Peters created a survey entitled “The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey” to see how religious people would react to the discovery of alien civilizations. He gathered Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Evangelicals, and Mormons), Jews, Buddhists, and those with no religious affiliation (“nones”) to participate in his survey.

When asked to comment on the statement, “Official confirmation of the discovery of a civilization of intelligent beings living on another planet would so undercut my beliefs that my beliefs would face a crisis,” the vast majority of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed (the lowest scoring group was Catholics at slightly over 80%, while the highest scoring group was Buddhists at slightly over 90%).

When asked to comment on the broader statement, “Official confirmation of the discovery of a civilization of intelligent beings living on another planet would so undercut the beliefs of my particular religious tradition that my religious tradition would face a crisis,” the overall number of respondents who said they disagreed or strongly disagreed took a dip compared to the last question, but the majority still said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed (the lowest scoring group was still the Catholics, at slightly below 70%, and the highest scoring group was once again the Buddhists, at slightly below 100%).

Interestingly enough, when asked whether the world’s religions in general would face a crisis, the answers from religious respondents were about even. Roughly half thought that ETI would challenge religion in general, while about half thought it wouldn't be a problem. The only exception to this were the nones: 70% of them either agreed or strongly agreed that the world's religions would face a crisis.

Thus, Peters’s research suggests that while most people do not think their personal beliefs or religious tradition would face a significant threat from the discovery of aliens, attitudes dramatically shift when asked to comment about other people’s religion (as seen emphatically in the case of the nones).

It seems that many are not giving religious people enough credit. Before this survey, many might have simply assumed that aliens would severely undermine religious belief. In fact, the religious people Peters surveyed display a theological resilience to adapt to new scientific realities. There is certainly much work in theology and science left to be done, and this is an encouraging sign.

For more, see Ted Peters’s research, which is available online, as well as “The ET effect on religion: Did Jesus have incarnations on alien planets?” in the International Business Times.

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+1 #1 Derek Michaud 2011-02-14 19:38
This research was also discussed in "Who’s afraid of ETI? Religious beliefs not easy to shake," ibcsr.org Tuesday, 26 August 2008 23:20.
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