by Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 20, 2008
Reports in 1996 that a meteorite from
Mars that was found in Antarctica might contain fossilized remains
of living organisms led then-Vice President
Al Gore to convene a meeting of
scientists, religious leaders and journalists to discuss the
implications of a possible discovery of extraterrestrial life.
Gore walked into the room armed with questions on note-cards but,
MIT physicist and associate provost
Claude R. Canizares, he put them down and asked this first
question: What would such a discovery mean to people of faith?
There was silence, and then
DePaul University president Jack
Minogue, a priest, said:
"Well, Mr. Vice President, if it
doesn't sing and dance, we don't really have to worry much from
a missionary point of view."
Everyone had a good laugh, and then
moved on to the serious business of exploring the consequences of
such a historic and unsettling discovery - a discussion that
continued for two hours.
Most scientists now discount the meteorite as evidence of Martian
life, but preparing the public for a more definitive announcement
continues. Several conferences and three major workshops have been
held, the most recent sponsored by
NASA, the John Templeton Foundation
American Association for the Advancement of
Its report, called "Philosophical,
Ethical, and Theological Implications of Astrobiology," was
published last year.
"Any discovery of extraterrestrial
life would raise some challenging questions - about the origin
of life on Earth as well as elsewhere, about the centrality of
humankind in the universe, and about the creation story in the
Bible," said Connie Bertka, a Unitarian minister
with a background in Martian geology who ran the workshops for
"The group felt strongly that the general public needs to know
more about this whole subject and what astrobiology is trying to
do," she said.
Stephen J. Dick, NASA's chief
historian and a member of the NASA-sponsored panel and another
private effort, said he thinks that all the Abrahamic religions
would have to adapt,
"because the relationship of God
and man is so central, and the idea that man was made in
God's image and put on Earth is so strong."
If life exists elsewhere, he said, then
why would life on Earth be paramount to a creator?
"A God that created the Earth
and life on other Earths would still be majestic, but the logic
of him being someone to pray to and to get salvation from
diminishes," he said.
University of Notre Dame professor
emeritus Ernan McMullin, a priest and panel member who writes
about religion, science and extraterrestrial life, said that the
discovery of life beyond Earth would pose special - though not
insurmountable - challenges to Christianity, with its message
that God sent his only son to live on Earth.
"Christians and others have debated
this question for centuries, and often more intently than
today," McMullin said. "They've argued over whether and how
Christ might go to other planets if life was there, and then
there's the whole question of: How could life exist elsewhere if
it isn't really mentioned in the Bible?"
Still, many religious people see the
possibility of life beyond Earth as consistent with their views of
an omnipotent and omnipresent God.
Vatican chief astronomer
Josť Gabriel Funes, for
instance, told reporters in May that the Catholic Church sees no
theological problems arising from that possibility, and spoke of the
possibility of "brother extraterrestrials."
Bertka said that efforts to describe and explain the aims and
implications of astrobiology are especially important in the United
States, where religion remains a larger part of people's lives than
in many parts of the world and where so many Americans say they feel
a personal connection to God in their daily lives.
"We need to understand that any
discovery of extraterrestrial life would not only be an
important scientific moment, but an important religious and
philosophical one, too," Bertka said.