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Theologians Prepare for Alien Contact

Earlier this year, Internet discussion forums were ablaze with a somewhat bizarre debate over whether extraterrestrials can go to Heaven. But more serious theologians have less provincial questions to ask, and some of these questions were explored at NASA’s September astrobiology symposium, titled (appropriately enough) Preparing for Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Impact of Finding Microbial, Complex, or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. The event echoes similar interdisciplinary symposia on the social impact of discovering extraterrestrial life and the academic community’s possible responses to it.

While the full recording of the two-day symposium is not yet available online (the Library of Congress has promised to make it available within the near future), this 73-minute panel discussion from June on astrobiology and theology hints at some of the topics under discussion (though the symposium itself fortunately reflects a more diverse range of speakers):

One of the speakers at the September symposium was Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory, who is arguably the world’s most prominent expert on the Christian theology of extraterrestrial life. Br. Consolmagno, a Jesuit monk, is best known for saying in advance that he would happily baptize an extraterrestrial, if asked to do so. Secular viewers may enjoy his refreshing science-friendly approach to theology, and religious viewers may find his argument persuasive. Mostly, I’m impressed by the beard:

You may note that even the more sophisticated and enlightened theologies of extraterrestrial life tend to focus on Earth religions and Earth-centric moral problems. Largely absent from the theology community are lengthy, substantive discussions of what extraterrestrial religions might look like, or what our moral obligations to extraterrestrial beings might be in the event that some of them need our help. This reflects our cultural tendency to assume that extraterrestrials are both secular and very well off, but that may or may not turn out to be the case; it’s entirely possible that our first extraterrestrial contact will be with a ragtag bunch of starving fundamentalists, comparable to the pilgrims who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We just don’t know—and it’s that uncertainty, and a corresponding need for speculation, that may make astrobiology and theology natural bedfellows. 

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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