While some news writers and commentators from scientific backgrounds presume that the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) would undermine religion and religious belief, a new study reports that most religious believers do not think such a novel discovery would shake their faith. One mainline Protestant respondent to the survey even commented “Hey! I'll share my pew with an extraterrestrial any day.”
The findings come from the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey, conducted by Ted Peters, professor of systematic theology at both Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Center for Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley California. Also written by research assistant Julie Froehlig, the survey notes several prominent commentators who hold that the discovery of ETI would shake religious belief.
“It might be the case that aliens had discarded theology and religious practice long ago as primitive superstition and would rapidly convince us to do the same,” Arizona State University physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies has said, according to the survey report. “Alternatively, if they retained a spiritual aspect to their existence, we would have to concede that it was likely to have developed to a degree far ahead of our own. If they practiced anything remotely like a religion, we should surely soon wish to abandon our own and be converted to theirs.”
However, the responses given to the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey show few religious believers say that the discovery of alien intelligence would affect their religious beliefs.
The survey report summarizes the hypothesis it is testing as: “upon confirmation of contact between earth and an extraterrestrial civilization of intelligent beings, the long established religious traditions of earth would confront a crisis of belief and perhaps even collapse.”
The survey reports that the evidence gathered “tends to disconfirm this hypothesis.”
Surveying 1,325 persons from around the world, the researchers categorized respondents’ religious beliefs as non-religious, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Jewish and Buddhist. Categories with a sample size of less than 35 were not used in the survey.
The researchers asked respondents whether the confirmed discovery of intelligent beings living on another world “would so undercut my beliefs that my beliefs would face a crisis.”
Less than ten percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, excepting Jews, who agreed or strongly agreed at a rate slightly over ten percent. While about ten percent or less neither agreed nor disagreed, 89 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Among Catholics, eight percent agreed or strongly agreed while 82 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
One Catholic survey respondent commented, “I believe that Christ became incarnate (human) in order to redeem humanity and atone for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Could there be a world of extraterrestrials? Maybe. It doesn’t change what Christ did.”
“Within the scope of Christian theology, it appears that little if any beliefs preclude the existence of extraterrestrial beings,” the survey report says. “Their presence would at most widen the scope of one’s understanding of creation and create some puzzles for how Christians understand the work of salvation.”
When asked whether they believed the confirmed discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence would throw their religious tradition into a crisis, 78 percent of all respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed, with only 11 percent being in agreement or strong agreement.
Catholics disagreed or strongly disagreed at a combined total rate of 66 percent, while 22 percent agreed or strongly agreed.
Respondents were then asked that even if their own religious traditions were unaffected by such a discovery, they believed other religions’ traditional beliefs would be undermined to such an extent that those religions would face a crisis. Overall, 35 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed while 41 percent agreed or strongly agreed. Among Catholics 40 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed, while 30 percent agreed or strongly agreed.
Curiously, the non-religious respondents composed the group most confident that the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence would undermine traditional beliefs and cause a crisis in religion. While only 20 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 70 percent were in agreement or strong agreement with such a statement.
Trying to explain the disparity between religious and non-religious respondents’ estimates of the fragility of religion, the report writers said “it appears that people who embrace a traditional religious belief system do not fear for their own personal belief; nor are they particularly worried about their own respective religious tradition. A shred of evidence suggests that believers in one religious tradition might be more inclined to impute fragility to other religions to which they do not subscribe or about which they know little.”
“Non-religious people seem to know too little about religious people, because they are mistaken in their assessment of the fragility of religious beliefs.
The report writes that the survey does not confirm the hypothesis that “the major religious traditions of our world will confront a crisis let alone a collapse” in the event of the discovery of alien intelligent life
“Furthermore, it appears that non-religious persons are much more likely to deem religion fragile and crisis prone that those who hold religious beliefs,” it says.