Friday, July 24, 2015

Earth 2.0 and God

Earth has “an older, larger cousin.”

Yesterday, NASA made the announcement that its Kepler mission had confirmed the existence of “the first near-Earth-size planet in the ‘habitable zone’ around a sun-like star,” a recently discovered exoplanet designated Kepler-452b.

This is a momentous announcement for two reasons. First, this is a milestone in the search for life—including intelligent life—on other worlds. Second, as we approach closer each year to the technology for interstellar spaceflight, it is important for us to find Earth-like planets as candidates for potential human colonies. (If you find this idea of interest, please visit our Facebook group, “Humanity Must Go to the Stars.”)

A Huffington Post columnist has taken this discovery and confirmation in a controversial direction, a direction with important implications for human cultures on Earth—and a direction that I believe is stunningly misinformed, and that has the potential to do great harm.

Jeff Schweitzer, a Ph.D. in marine biology and neurophysiology, and former White House senior policy analyst, published a column on HuffPost yesterday with the (rather arrogant) title, “Earth 2.0: Bad News for God.” Schweitzer starts off well enough:

The discovery of Kepler-452b is not likely to see the public swoon with a collective rendition of Kumbaya. But this Earth 2.0 is a huge if under-appreciated discovery, not because Kepler-452b is unique but for just the opposite reason; there are likely thousands or millions or even billions of such earth-like planets in the universe. The discovery of just one such world is good evidence for many more: after all, we know of 100 billion galaxies each with as many as 300 billion stars (big variation per galaxy). Astronomers estimate that there are about 70 billion trillion stars. Math wizardry is not necessary to conclude we did not by chance find the only other possibly habitable planet among that huge population of stars.
 With this discovery, we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe. 

At this point, however, Schweitzer begins to go off the rails.

… let me speculate what would happen should we ever find evidence of life beyond earth even if you think such discovery unlikely. I would like here to preempt what will certainly be a re-write of history on the part of the world's major religions. I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens. I am not alone in this conclusion that religion will contort to accommodate a new reality of alien life.

It is important to look at that link that Schweitzer produces to support his contention that “religion will contort to accommodate” the discovery of alien life. The link is a quick survey of what the astronomer David A. Weintraub found in the course of researching his book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It? Contrary to what Schweitzer implies, Weintraub shows that several religions—including Hinduism, some forms of Buddhism, and Islam—have long held that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. Together, these religions have about 3 billion adherents, or close to half the population of the world, who will not have to do any special contortions at all to “accommodate” the discovery of alien life; they already believe that alien life exists, and in intelligent forms, as well. (Adherents of some smaller religions, such as the Bahá'í, also have this belief.)

As the survey of Weintraub’s book points out, even some Christian religions—including my own, the faith of the Latter-day Saints (LDS), also known as Mormonism—have long embraced the belief that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. (The LDS read this belief described in their unique scriptures, including the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 76:24] and the Book of Moses [Moses 1:29-35].)

The largest Christian group in the world, of course, is the Roman Catholic Church (with over 1 billion adherents). Some Roman Catholic scholars have been receptive to the idea of extraterrestrial life for a long time. Yes, the friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for this belief at the beginning of the 17th century, and Galileo’s support for extraterrestrial life was suppressed soon after. However, starting in the 20th century, a number of Catholic thinkers have found room for the concept of intelligent extraterrestrial life within a Catholic framework. (For example, the essays published in 2000 by Ernan McMullin and George V. Coyne, S.J., are particularly stimulating; see the references below.)

Despite what Schweitzer claims and implies, then, many of Earth’s religions have believed—some for millennia—that the universe contains a multitude of worlds with intelligent inhabitants.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because Schweitzer’s essay is another instance of the long-standing claim that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. Although there certainly have been times when religionists have done monumental harm to the cause of scientific knowledge—as scientists have said some remarkably stupid things about religion—I do not believe in an inherent, logically necessary conflict. Beyond that, I think that we do harm to ourselves and the human voyage to knowledge of our inner and outer universe when we fall prey to the belief that there is such an inherent conflict.

Accurate knowledge about both religion and science—and mutual respect and understanding between those who are illuminated by one, the other, or both—would truly be On The Mark.

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McMullin, E. (2000). Life and intelligence far from Earth: Formulating theological issues. In S. Dick (ed.), Many worlds: The new universe, extraterrestrial life and the theological implications (pp. 150-175). Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Coyne, G. V. (2000). The evolution of intelligent life on the Earth and possibly elsewhere: Reflections of a religious tradition. In S. Dick (ed.), Many worlds: The new universe, extraterrestrial life and the theological implications (pp. 176-188). Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

[The image of Earth and “Earth 2.0” is an artist’s conception. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.]

(Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)