A priest, a rabbi and an imam are among theologians hired by NASA to examine how the world would react if life beyond earth was found on other planets.
The US space agency NASA has reportedly recruited at least 24 scholars so far to participate in a program at Princeton University’s Centre of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in New Jersey.
The centre, which received a $1.1 million NASA grant in 2014, describes its main objective as building “bridges of understanding” between academics of various disciplines, scientists, and policymakers on “global concerns.”
The program aims to assess how the world’s major religions would react to the existence of life beyond earth and how such a discovery could potentially impact the concept of God and creation.
University of Cambridge religious scholar, Rev Dr Andrew Davison, who also holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford, is among the participants of the NASA-sponsored programme at CTI.
The book to be published in 2022
In his forthcoming book, named Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, Davison considers the possibility of God creating life elsewhere in the universe, based on his research at Princeton, emphasising the possibility of finding alien life is becoming more real.
“Religious traditions would be an important feature in how humanity would work through any such confirmation of life elsewhere,” Davidson shared in a blog post on the University of Cambridge site.
According to the copy of his book, which the British newspaper The Times accessed, a “large number of people would turn to their religions traditions for guidance” on what alien life means “for the standing and dignity of human life”, noting:
“Detection [of alien life] might come in a decade or only in future centuries or perhaps never at all, but if or where it does, it will be useful to have thought through the implications in advance.”
Other religious figures, including the Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson, Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue, and Imam Qari Asim of the Makkah Mosque in Leeds, said that Christian, Jewish, and Islamic teaching would not be affected by the discovery of alien life, The Times reported.
Meanwhile, Carl Pilcher, a former head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, said that the agency hired theologians to “consider the implications of applying the tools of late 20th (and early 21st) century science to questions that had been considered in religious traditions for hundreds or thousands of years”.
Pilcher rejects the idea of Earth being the only planet with life on it:
“That’s just inconceivable when there are over 100 billion stars in this galaxy, and over 100 billion galaxies in the universe.”
CTI Director Will Storrar told The Times last week that NASA’s goal for the program was “serious scholarship being published in books and journals” to address the “profound wonder and mystery and implication of finding microbial life on another planet.”
“We may not discover life for 100 years. Or we may discover it next week,” a NASA expert told The Times.
“No conflict between believing in God and aliens”
NASA isn't the only institution asking these questions.
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.
“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 told The Washington Post in August.
In 2008, the Vatican's chief astronomer said there is no conflict between believing in God and the possibility of 'extraterrestrial brothers' perhaps more evolved than humans.
“In my opinion this possibility of life on other planets exists,” said Jose Gabriel Funes, a 45-year-old Jesuit priest who is head of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict.
Pope Francis, after all, has said that if an alien shows up at the Vatican demanding to be baptised, he would be willing to do so.
“Amazing journey of discovery”
The James Webb Telescope, which was launched on Christmas Day, could however change the way we look at the universe.
The telescope has been described as a 'time machine' that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.
Its mission goals include searching for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago and learning how galaxies evolved from their initial birth to the present day.
It will also be used to study exoplanets - planets beyond our solar system - as well as worlds closer to home such as our planetary neighbour Mars and Saturn's moon Titan.
"We're about to go on this amazing journey of discovery," said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
"We really mean discovery because Webb has the raw power to reveal the unexpected. We can plan what we think we're going to see. But at the end of the day we know that nature will surprise us more often than not."