MRBlog | God, Aliens, and the Confirmation Bias

Water on Mars, NASA

By Thomas J. Whitley

The aliens are coming. Maybe not next week, but they are definitely coming. At least that’s how many have interpreted the latest intriguing news out of NASA that they have found evidence of water on Mars. Alien hunters everywhere rejoice.

The confirmation of water flowing on Mars does more than offer fodder to those long convinced that intelligent life is “out there,” though. It presents a particularly difficult question to many who are religious, especially those for whom humans are the crowning achievement of God’s creation and occupy God’s every thought. I suggested on Thinking Religion last week that finding life elsewhere in our universe, particularly if it is intelligent life, will present a bigger problem to many religious people than has evolution.* Though some will remain in denial for as long as possible (and some even longer), early signs indicate that these questions will be addressed in a more subtle way.

Already we see the confirmation bias at work in how some religious leaders are attempting to fit these discoveries into the worldview they already hold. Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, offers us a masters class on how to implement the confirmation bias even before one knows what the data is.

The important thing is to recognise that the universe is created by God, and however God did it tells us something about God’s personality. If God chose to make a universe where we are the only creatures, that is interesting, that tells us something about God and us. If God creates a universe where life is everywhere, that gives us a different picture of God, but in either way, we learn more about Who the Creator is.

Consolmagno is already at work spinning whatever we may find or not find. The data is irrelevant. Consolmagno already knows what it means. The point of any discovery, or non-discovery, for Consolmagno is for us to learn something about who God is.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, quotes the Bible to make the same basic point as Consolmagno, namely, that no matter what we find, we already know that its purpose is to point to the majesty of Christ.

The central point of the cosmos is Christology. All things are summed up in this man, Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10).

Ephesians 1:10, which Moore references here, says that Christ will “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Never mind that the verse doesn’t seem to say what Moore is saying it says, the author of Ephesians likely was not thinking that life on another planet was included in his “all.” But again we see that the findings are actually irrelevant because Moore already knows the answer. Whatever we may find, it’s about Christology, which if we’re being honest is a largely nonsensical statement even if you agree with Moore’s larger argument.

Such an employment of a confirmation bias is nothing new of course, except when ancients did it we call it astrology. Whereas they may have looked up at the sky and seen epic heroes involved in vibrant battles with celestial bulls, Consolmagno and Moore look up and see their own deity represented. Just as I was dead sure that I saw a dog in that cloud when I was 9 years old, both groups see their version of the divine written in the stars.

The confirmation bias, however, will only take Consolmagno, Moore, and those like them so far. It will make it easier for them to fit any potential findings into the worldview they already hold and are unwilling to reexamine, but it will not help them answer potentially more difficult questions should we actually find intelligent life elsewhere.

  • Did Jesus go to other planets and die for their sins as well?
  • Does Jesus’ dying on the cross on earth apply to the aliens if he did not also become incarnate on their planet as one of them?
  • Should our newfound cosmic neighbors be evangelized?
  • If there are other living beings out there, why does the Bible present God as only focused on humans on this planet?
  • Might it be that the authors of the Bible were only focused on themselves?
  • How might we reconcile an Alien Bible with an Earth Bible?
  • Were aliens created by God or the Devil?
  • Are they “fallen angels”?
  • Would intelligent aliens just be relegated to part of “creation” with humans maintaining their spot atop the hierarchy? (I think we already know the answer to this one.)

And these are just questions that would potentially arise from the worldview shared by Consolmagno and Moore.

Answers to these questions will no doubt be different depending on who one asks, and some will simply dismiss them out of hand as ludicrous or not yet relevant. But should we actually find life on another planet employing the confirmation bias to essentially say, “what we have believed is still true and here’s why” as Consolmagno and Moore have done so far will not suffice.

*Thanks to Sam Harrelson for always being such a great conversation partner about this and many other topics.

Image via NASA