Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

A Jesuit priest says the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would pose no problem for religion

Excerpted from "Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist."

Speaking of alien life forms...it's one of those questions that we get asked over and over again, mostly by reporters or people who don't know us very well. The Weekly World News once ran a story headlined "Missionaries for Mars! Vatican Training Astro-Priests to Spread Gospel to Space Aliens!" And deep down, I suspect some people think that's what the Vatican Observatory is really all about.



It isn't.

But still, we get the questions. It's part of a natural connection, one might even say confusion, between the science of looking at distant stars and the philosophy of worrying about the unknown in its many guises. People think we're looking for philosophical answers with our telescopes. What we're actually doing is inspiring philosophical questions.

One crucial question will face Christianity if, or when, extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered. Would aliens need to have their own version of Jesus?

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It has been posited that the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would fundamentally change the way we humans think about ourselves. Maybe; but, to borrow an insight from the historian of science Stephen Dick, I suspect that change has already happened. I really don't think anyone who's aware of the science would be fundamentally changed by the discovery, because nearly everyone expects that it will happen eventually. Probably not in our lifetime; maybe not in the next millennium. But eventually.

Finding any sort of life off planet Earth, either bacteria or extraterrestrials, would pose no problem for religion. Stephen Dick has recently written an excellent popular book on the history of how people through the ages have viewed the possibility of extraterrestrials ("Life on Other Worlds", Cambridge University Press, 1998). He notes that most atheists seem to think discovering extraterrestrial life would be the death of religion; but, in fact, most religious people don't see it that way at all. Indeed, as it happens some of the most prominent scientists currently working on the question of life on Mars are also active churchgoers.

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Brother Guy Consolmagno
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