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Alien looking up. Photo: © 2010 J.D. Hancock. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Can Extraterrestrials Get Religion?

I don’t expect Ken Ham to understand science, but it would be nice if he at least got the religion part right. Best known as that guy who argued with Bill Nye about evolution, Ham is arguably the world’s most famous young-earth creationist. But what I find shocking about him—and this is something that has been more-or-less a consistent problem in his entire public career—is that for an evangelical Christian who makes his living giving lectures about biblical inerrancy, he has a wildly speculative understanding of what the Bible actually says.

Take his last spin around the media, where he argues that any aliens we might find would have to be doomed to Hell because they’re affected by Adam’s original sin but, not being children of Adam, are not within Jesus’ power to save. (True to form, Ham claims this isn’t what he said—then proceeds to quote himself saying it.) This is fringe theology even by the standards of evangelical Christianity; the great 20th-century British theologian C.S. Lewis (author of a Christian-themed space trilogy) once analyzed the idea of alien salvation in far greater detail than Ham, and had a much rosier take on it all:

If there are species, and rational species, other than man, are any or all of them, like us, fallen? … No creature that deserved redemption would need to be redeemed. They that are whole need not the physician. Christ died for men precisely because men are not worth dying for; to make them worth it.

On the Roman Catholic side of things, Pope Francis has already said that he would be happy to personally baptize an extraterrestrial and a 2009 Vatican conference analyzed, and largely embraced, the possibility of alien salvation.

If Ham’s idea of universal alien damnation is unpopular among Christians, it’s at least an admirably consistent literal reading of the Bible, right? Not so much. To begin with, the Hebrew Bible already includes at least one non-human, non-earthly heavenly species: the angels. Using Ham’s logic, the angels—who predate Adam and therefore obviously are not his children—would also be doomed to Hell, since they are clearly part of the cosmos (see Romans 5:12, which I suspect to be his source text). Nor is there any rational reading of Genesis 3 by which it could be ascertained that Adam’s sin applies to non-humans in any context.

When St. Paul said "cosmos," this was almost certainly what he meant. Any extraterrestrials would either be found between Earth (center) and heaven (outer rim), or beyond the deepest primordial waters. Image: Gutenberg Chronicle (1493).

When St. Paul said “cosmos,” this was almost certainly what he meant. Any extraterrestrials would either be found between Earth (center) and heaven (outer rim), or beyond the deepest primordial waters. Image: Gutenberg Chronicle (1493).

But enough about Christianity; how well would other earthly religions be able to accommodate extraterrestrial converts?

  • Judaism: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has discussed this topic in some depth. It is likely that Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis would accept extraterrestrial conversions without difficulty, but Orthodox rabbis might (like the late Rabbi Kaplan) need to wrestle with the question of how to classify extraterrestrials first. Are they animals or golems? If so, they can’t really become Jews. If not, they probably can.
  • Islam: Islam is one of the few faith traditions where the conversion of extraterrestrials has been a foregone conclusion since the beginning. The legends of the jinn already establish clearly that all sentient beings can become Muslims, and the Qur’an (following a more recent cosmology than the Old and New Testaments) begins by describing Allah as the “Lord of the Worlds” (1.2).
  • Hinduism: Hinduism does not have a clear-cut process of “conversion,” but all beings are generally regarded as possessing souls and capable of achieving some form of salvation. The more sentient and intelligent a being is, the more capable they might be of absorbing and living under the sanatana dharma (“eternal doctrine”)—but there is nothing in most forms of Hinduism that gives privileged status to humans in the way that Western monotheisms typically do.
  • Buddhism: If extraterrestrials have desires, they’re capable of extinguishing those desires by way of the noble eightfold path. If they don’t, they are—pretty much by definition—already buddhas. It seems that some elements of the Pali canon already discuss extraterrestrial life in some detail, though I haven’t read these particular texts myself and can’t speak to whether or not the interpretation making the rounds is accurate.

The question of whether an advanced extraterrestrial species would want to convert to an earthly religion is a fair one—one might expect that they’d either have moved beyond religion, or would have religions of their own to propagate—but humanity has put so much effort into its religious traditions that they may turn out, in the end, to be our planet’s most valuable cultural export. At the very least, one would expect a few alien hipsters to be blown away by the novelty of Earth religions and convert to one or two of them, just for kicks.

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  • I’ve always been attracted by the wacky tales of the early Contactees of the 50’s & 60’s. Take Dr. Frank Stranges tale of encountering Valiant Thor inside a Pentagon office; when Stranges, who was a religious minister, asked this man that (allegedly) came from another world –Venus, to be exact– whether they had something resembling to our Bible, this is what Thor responded:

    “Why would we need a book, when we are still walking in unbroken fellowship with the Creator?”

    Believe what you will about the Contactees, but I’ve always found that paragraph fascinating.

    PS: Here’s something Jewish rabbis should start pondering upon: how to circumcise an alien being with no penis!

  • Underseer

    humanity has put so much effort into its religious traditions that they may turn out, in the end, to be our planet’s most valuable cultural export.

    If by effort you mean centuries of murdering or imprisoning anyone that didn’t share their beliefs, right up until today, then yes, a lot of ‘effort’ has been expended.

    If, however, by effort, you mean intellectual energy on a creator whose omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence is consistent with logic and suffering of innocents in the observable universe, then I’d say virtually no effort has been expended except by a few tail-chasing, though well-meaning, theologians.

    Epicurus’ trilemma is just one of many effective rebuttals to the assertion of such a God, but people believe what they want to, not matter how even a child could point out the logic traps.

    There may well be some creative force at work in the Universe, but if so, I suspect it’s nothing like what’s described by the crude authoritarianism of religion or the nebulous candy floss of the new age.

    The problem with many people like Ham is it’s not so much God that they think is infallible, but that they think their own views are infallible. The problem with many people on the other side of the argument like Richard Dawkins is that they seem to be of a similar mindset.

    I hope that a species advanced in more than mere technology will have learned the humility that both theism and atheism lack. I hope they will value spirituality as well as reason or they’ll be techno-barbarians. By spirituality I mean as differentiated from religion or new age fluff.

    As someone one said “A religious person seeks reward. A spiritual person seeks understanding“. And is it just possible that older, wiser races may have discovered in asking “is there a god?” that the answer may be far bigger than the question?

  • mph23

    Chances are, if we ever meet aliens, they either a) won’t give a damn about our religions (aside from study/intellectual curiosity) or b) try to forcefully convert US to THEIR religion.

    I am really glad that hard-core fundamentalist types are the minority, even within religious faiths. They are face-palmingly embarrassing to the rest of the human race. Also, they tend to be dangerous, violent, and lack empathy, understanding, and respect for others.

  • steven horton

    I don’t want to be rude, but every time I see someone compare religions they include Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion.

  • Re. technological advancement & humility: It’s well known by us Forteans the deep psychological (even spiritual) transformation experienced by many astronauts during their first space flight –the so-called ‘Overview Effect.’ It’s interesting to ponder if a space-faring civilization would have gone through a profound transformation on account of that effect being shared on a culture-wide scale.

    Thanks for the mental fodder 🙂

  • Malachi Sewell

    I can’t speak for Ham, however concerning whether or not Angels are in need of redemption the answer is that only some of them (the ones that sinned) but they are not given redemption:

    “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into
    hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until
    the judgment;” -2 Peter 2:4

  • Digitalisrex

    Since religions are also philosophies and Buddhism has many religious aspects and superstitions, to the point that really it only lacks a confirmed deity to distinguish it, I don’t think it’s as easy to separate the two as you make it seem and your comment might reflect more on your own biases regarding religion and philosophy? Particularly against religions?

    You might find the Sam Harris short essay ‘Killing the Buddha’ an interesting read.

  • Imprisonment before trial? That’s not becoming of a just deity.

    In any case, it’s interesting how many theologians have argued that what distinguishes Man from the rest of Creations –angels included– is that we were endowed with free will. But if angels don’t have free will… then why did some chose to rise against God?

  • I respect what you’re saying, but Buddhism is simply too interesting to leave off the list. Besides, when various popular branches of a philosophy incorporate voluminous doctrinal texts, chants and mantras, temples, monasteries, clergy, saints (bodhisattvas), reincarnation, metaphysical doctrines, heavens, hells, iconography, and so forth, it feels a little unfair to exclude it from a list of religions. I certainly grant you that there are varieties of Buddhism that are obviously and tangibly non-religious, but the same can be said within any other tradition. (I am basically a Stephen Batchelor Christian, for example, and so is the former Bishop of Edinburgh.)

  • I find a lot of value in how the majority of practitioners in various traditions quietly and humbly practice their religions. I don’t think Ham speaks for the religious experience as a whole, even among clergy.

  • Sort of. His position is very much what you say, except that re C) there’s a “probably” between “there” and “cannot”—he doesn’t THINK God would create a species just to damn it, but he can’t rule out the possibility. That being the case, his position is not that there are not aliens; his position is that there probably are not aliens, and that if there are any, they’re going to Hell. That’s what I take issue with. His belief in his particular soteriological formula is more powerful than his belief in a just God.

  • Underseer

    Thanks for the reply, Tom. I think the spiritual – as opposed to religious – impulse is one we cannot do without. Mindless materialism is having grim consequences for our environment, our fellow creatures and for our relationships with each other.

    If believing in a god makes one a better and more compassionate person, then I’m not one to judge. Sadly human history shows that this has more often than not been the case, right up to the present day.

    I’ve seen the negative impact of religious belief up close and personal, from a gay colleague who died disowned by his family, to being told I’m ‘consorting with demons’ due to my encounters with the paranormal.

    In fact those very encounters brought me, a formerly semi-militant atheist, into a forceful realisation that atheism is often a religious impulse too. When I told so called friends of the atheist/materialist persuasion of what we’d experienced and seen, my wife and I found ourselves ostracised, and whispered and snickered about.

    So I suppose I’m hardly unbiased in my dislike of the religious impulse, but I remind myself that people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin remind me there are still voices of merit within it.

  • science 101

    What a headache

  • Digitalisrex

    Maybe there’s a ‘probably’ (there should be a probably) but I’m pretty sure that there isn’t because the non-existence of intelligent aliens is the only way he can resolve the contradiction he himself created by saying that aliens wouldn’t be the ‘descendents of Adam’ that Jesus died to save and would therefore be damned, and God would never create an intelligent race only to damn it.

    He certainly doesn’t believe that any intelligent aliens are going to hell, that was a media misinterpretation of what he actually said, one that you seem guilty of too Tom. He’s since clarified this on his blog.

    Let’s not forget though that he’s totally failing to acknowledge that we might find non-intelligent ET life, like bacteriological life on Europa for example, amongst other basic logical errors.

  • I don’t know; I read his clarification pretty carefully, and what he is very direct about is that if there are any intelligent aliens, they’re going to Hell. Remember the original context of all of this was that he was arguing that SETI was a waste of time. He doesn’t seem to like where the media places its emphasis (on “if there are any aliens, they’re going to Hell” rather than “there probably aren’t any aliens because God would have no reason to create them if they’re just going to Hell”), but he said exactly what he’s been accused of saying.

  • Well said. As a lifelong resident of Mississippi, I get where you’re coming from.

  • Digitalisrex

    If that’s the case, why would he have added this to the original blog post:

    “Since secularists and some media outlets have been
    falsely accusing me of saying space aliens are going to hell as a result
    of this post, please read my response here”

    Or this in the clarification:

    “Since secularists and some media outlets have been falsely accusing me
    of saying aliens are going to hell—when I don’t even believe in aliens”

    I think this whole issue is taking attention away from the cringingly bad logical errors that DO exist in his viewpoint.

  • If you read his response, it’s clear that his logical errors extend to basic issues of internal consistency. He claims that he is being misrepresented by people in the media who suggest that he says claim [x], and then proceeds to state claim [x] using slightly different terminology. The media coverage of his position is, surprisingly, pretty accurate—he did say there is no point to SETI because we *probably* won’t find any aliens, and because any aliens we do find will be doomed to Hell anyway. It was a stupid argument, but he did actually make it. Twice.

  • Digitalisrex

    Ken Ham “And I do believe there can’t be other intelligent beings in outer space because of the meaning of the gospel.”

    The guy is a dick, but he never said aliens were going to hell.

  • “One day, the whole universe will be judged by fire, and there will be a new heavens and earth. God’s Son stepped into history to be Jesus Christ, the ‘Godman,’ to be our relative, and to be the perfect sacrifice for sin—the Savior of mankind. Jesus did not become the ‘GodKlingon’ or the ‘GodMartian’! Only descendants of Adam can be saved.” — Ken Ham, same article.

    His position is that he doesn’t personally think God would create intelligent aliens because he doesn’t know why God would create intelligent beings who can’t be saved, but if we do discover intelligent aliens, they’re going to Hell—because whether intelligent aliens exist or not, only humans can be saved. That’s his position and it’s really pretty clear. I get intellectual honesty, believe me, but you’re putting much more work into making his views internally consistent than he did himself.

  • RPJ, just saw this and realized I’d never replied to your last point: the Jewish tradition already has mitzvot in place for symbolically circumcising human males who do not have foreskins for whatever reason (deformity, injury, prior circumcision, etc.)—IIRC, it involves drawing blood from the fingertip—so that should carry over. A more troubling question might be how to give a mikvah bath to an alien whose flesh melts off in water. (Or whether deep-fried xenomorphs are kosher.)

  • Tiamat333

    I’d rather ask if aliens could help get rid of religion.