Gavin Merrifield on David Wilkinson’s Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Is our blue planet Earth the only world inhabited by intelligent, self-aware, and religious beings? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) raises big questions which have been pondered by humanity for thousands of years as we have sought to use all the intellectual, theological, and philosophical tools at our disposal to probe our place in the order of things. We have long been driven to reach out to something greater than ourselves. This has taken place against an ever-changing backdrop of our understanding of that Universe (or perhaps now Multiverse) and what it means to be human. We have examined the lives of animals, considered angels and demons, and repeatedly questioned our own apparent cognitive uniqueness in the light of this. Yet despite this grand effort, we still do not have a definite, objective answer to our questions.
While these big questions of existence are old, in recent centuries we have increasingly adding new technologies and scientific theories to the toolkits we have used to examine them. Using high-tech telescopes, which span the whole electromagnetic spectrum, we are now putting empirical flesh onto the speculative bones of our past musings and imaginations. We may not discover any firm evidence for many years, or possibly even decades, to come, but nobody should be in any doubt that we are now in a very real position to find evidence if it is there to be found. This is a new frontier and an exciting period in human — indeed in cosmic — history. It has the potential to shake up human society and self-perception as much as anything that has come before. Indeed the modern scientific search for extraterrestrial life has encouraged a renewed interest in the topic across many disciplines.
For academia, it is a time of great excitement and possibility. As is often the case when science and theology meet at the level of the pew, however, there is only limited engagement with the subject in the public sphere which ill prepares the person in the pew for these new possibilities that might become a source of personal spiritual concern or distress. The possibility of extraterrestrial life (intelligent or otherwise) is no exception and in fact falls far below the radar of many church leaders and attendees who are grappling with more immediate issues of bioethics and environmental care or other more historic issues of misplaced disagreement between science and religion.
There are those in the church and beyond who have already convinced themselves that the discovery of extraterrestrial life could only be destructive to Christian belief. They are convinced that the discovery of such life would somehow either invalidate central Christian claims or even that extraterrestrial life could only be demonic in nature and origin. Because the positive engagement with this topic from academic theology has yet to trickle down into the churches via its leadership and authority figures, these negative viewpoints continue to spread relatively unchecked within those in congregations who may instead encounter the topic from less reputable sources both on and offline. If this lack of directed engagement is not urgently addressed, both scientists and theologians may find themselves once again unnecessarily at odds with local church leaders and congregations over an unavoidable scientific reality. While popular level interest in topics like SETI or UFOs has declined since the second half of the last century, there still exists a residual awareness and impassioned lay community whose existing views will only be bought more into prominent public awareness by more concrete scientific discoveries today.
David Wilkinson’s Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is therefore a very welcome and timely addition to this public discussion. It provides a broad introduction to the history before giving a helpful discussion of some of the perceived theological difficulties raised by the existence of life in the wider universe.
Wilkinson begins with an extensive historical overview of the field, ranging across much philosophical and theological thinking from Western thought. Although many modern commentators give the impression that thinking about SETI is very modern, Wilkinson shows us the significant body of prior thinking on the topic. Much of that thinking has been by theologians as well as scientists, a fact that should certainly encourage those believers who feel a little disconcerted by the current dominance of scientists leading public discussions on this topic. Indeed the book embodies the claim that modern science can fit comfortably within a Christian system of belief. Throughout the text is a balance between thoughtful and informed theological thinking and the latest in astrophysical research. Any perceived conflict is likely a product of existing metaphysical baggage brought to the table rather than a true account of reality. Wilkinson’s coherence and obvious comfort with mixing religion and science is a lesson in itself.
It is in the context of this balanced vantage point that Wilkinson spends the lion’s share of his book, presenting the science of how to search for alien life and placing it in the wider context of the current cosmological viewpoint of a vast and ancient universe. He first speeds readers through the solar system stopping along the way to consider Martian bacteria, sea creatures beneath the oceans of Jupiter’s moons and how the mechanics of the solar system both aid and hinder life. Following this we are flung out into the far reaches of space where we are introduced to the stars themselves, their properties, and the statistical arguments for extraterrestrial life and intelligence that revolve around them.
The fast-moving nature of the field and the excitement it generates are also conveyed well. Unfortunately these might also constitute the book’s Achilles heel. Several of the statements in this book are (knowingly) outdated already because of the exceeding pace of current research (e.g. exoplanets). Wilkinson acknowledges this flaw from the outset. The relevance of this part of the book might have been preserved by speaking only in generic terms, but instead the risk of being quickly outdated has been grasped in order to give the reader a feel for the coal face of current research.
A few noticeably mistaken things are not due to the ongoing pace of current research, however, but are just inaccuracies that have understandably crept into a book that covers a large range of subjects. For example, comments are made regarding a thick atmosphere at Io when at best it has a very partial and sketchy one, and the presence of Jupiter acting as a comet shield for the inner solar system is given as fact, when the opposite is currently thought to be just as likely by astronomers. Indeed the large scope of the book appears at times to work against itself. Besides the relatively few factual inaccuracies, the referencing of external sources throughout the text is often unwieldy, breaking up the flow of the text and the rhythm of the writing. Sometimes the external referencing repeats itself (even within a few paragraphs of each other) and occasionally is inconsistent with the extensive bibliography. Furthermore, the introductory tone throughout the text does not match the more academic feel of the detailed referencing making for a disjointed read.
And that is perhaps this book’s major flaw. Ultimately it is unclear at whom this book is aimed. Is it for the non-scientist but interested believer? It can be read as an overview of the field aimed at the academic, but it might also be taken as an introduction to a religious layman. Another possible reading may be that it is intended for the non-believing and skeptical scientist as the book demonstrates a practical fusion of science and a Christian worldview. It is never entirely clear and becomes unfocused at times. Perhaps, in an effort to please everyone, the author’s own opinions and views have been somewhat obscured. For example, in later sections there is clearly an interesting viewpoint on the origins of Scriptural authority in the later writings attributed to Paul that the author tries to bring in. However, in the imbalance of the book it feels that we get the beginning and the end of these comments but not enough of the central argument of the point to fully judge the relevance of that argument.
Some of the most interesting commentary is on the core concerns that may arise for Christian believers regarding a successful search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. The author puts forward not just many good points about the coherence of a universal Creator God and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), but suggests ways ETI could positively further Christian theology and expand the outlook of the church. Considerations on specific Christian beliefs such as the Incarnation and the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection in a universal context are presented in a non-threatening manner, which is certainly to be welcomed. Wilkinson goes further and discusses ways that consideration of ETI can bring excitement to and help direct deeper theological appreciation of the (currently) terrestrial focused church. In so doing, our conceptions and understandings of God as creator, provider and of the endless limits of His love for all creatures — no matter where they happen to find themselves in the universe that God brings into being — are potentially greatly enhanced.
I wonder whether we should push these reflections perhaps one step further and consider the practical ecclesial outcomes of a God who is not only for humanity but for ETI as well. While Wilkinson’s book will serve as a great introduction to the possibility of ETI and how it can be comfortably integrated with Christian theology, like authors before him there is little discussion of how the reality of this might function for both the church as a diverse religious community and also how it might practically impact the individual believer now and in the far future. For example how would the discovery of ETI and thus uniquely, independently-derived cultures and religions shape Christian doctrine and practice here today? Would it be a radical addition to the increasing proliferation of contextual theologies and ecclesiologies we see today? How would we seek to establish a shared “Christian” community with these other beings that God has created? Should we, and if so how would we, integrate their Scriptures (if any) with ours? How would we get fellow believers who deny aliens their similar spiritual worth to move to a position of acceptance? Would we pray for one another? Worship together or share sacraments and ritual?
These questions are worthy of consideration not just as hypothetical what ifs but as hands-on preparation for a day of possible First Contact — of whose shape we cannot yet be certain. Doing so today might avoid a successive series of stumbling blocks if that day were to come. It is far better to be ready and respond with excitement and peace than with alarm and uncertainty. And perhaps doing so for possible contact with ETI will also help to prepare the human church for another possibly more immediate contact with another non-human intelligence: artificial intelligences created here on our own world by our own hands.
If contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings occurs, it will likely launch a new epoch for both human history and theology potentially bringing about considerable anxiety and this is perhaps where Wilkinson’s book is most valuable. He showcases a long history of Christian engagement with this topic, the contemporary scientific basis of the search and its justification but also begins to construct an outline for Christianity in a galactic context.
If Christian believers are to embrace the possible reality of extraterrestrial intelligences in the coming decades, then there is a niche to be filled that considers the facts, possibilities, and impact of this discovery. David Wilkinson’s book fills this gap and addresses it from all angles: history, theology, and the physical sciences. While I’m very happy with the scientific and theological direction of the book, there will be some Christians who are not. Certain tenets of modern science (such as biological evolution in an ancient universe) may be viewed by some with suspicion and theological concern. Perhaps this book can then act as a dual call. First, a call to those Christians to engage with the relevant sciences more than they have in the past and, second, to those ministers and clergy who have a weekly opportunity to shore up those concerned believers’ theology in a way that leaves them ready to engage with ongoing scientific discovery of what is ultimately God’s creation. Ways to present the Christian narrative that cohere with modern scientific discovery must be expounded from our pulpits, seminaries, and public writings not only so that the church can re-embrace the scientific enterprise, but also so that any extraterrestrial persons and civilisations we discover or contact will be welcomed into that church gladly and with rejoicing.