Jul 24, 2014 I Tom Head

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.

Nuremberg chronicles   f 5v 570x703
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.

Tom Head

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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