NASA turned to religious thinkers and theologians to help assess and understand the existential conundrum that humanity could face if we discover alien life elsewhere in the universe, it has been revealed.
The project, titled "The Societal Implications of Astrobiology," carried out at Princeton University’s Center for Theological Inquiry between 2015 and 2018 saw religious thinkers study how people from different religions might react to the news of extraterrestrial life being found, The Times reports. With the help of $1.1 million funding from NASA, the program involved Christian priests, a Jewish rabbi, and an Islamic Imam attempting to publish what NASA hoped would be “serious scholarship” on the theological implications of finding life, even at a microbial level, on another planet.
After all, the discovery of extraterrestrial life – no matter how simple or small – raises some chin-stroking questions not just for scientists, but for theologians: is it mentioned in the Holy books? How does this line up with the creation stories? Do aliens have to abide by the same moral code as Earth-bound life? Why is God putting microbes on distant planets?
Certainly, there are plenty of examples throughout history of new scientific discoveries upsetting long-standing religious systems, but the scholars are confident that the major world religions would be able to accept the possibility of extraterrestrial life without compromising their wider beliefs.
“The headline findings are that adherents of a range of religious traditions report that they can take the idea in their stride,” Reverend Dr Andrew Davison, a priest and theologian at the University of Cambridge with a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford who took part in the project in 2016-2017, writes in his forthcoming book Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, as seen by The Times.
“Non-religious people also seem to overestimate the challenges that religious people… would experience if faced with evidence of alien life."
As for Islamic belief, the scholars pointed out that the Quran contains a passage that reads: “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and the living creatures that He has scattered through them,” possibly alluding to life beyond Earth. They also believe that Judaism would have little trouble with the discovery of alien life and, in fact, this has been discussed by rabbis since Medieval times.
Who knows, perhaps the question of whether we’re alone in the universe might soon be answered. On Christmas Day 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope – the most advanced and most expensive telescope ever built – was successfully blasted into space. Along with peering at the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, the $10 billion telescope will also be able to tell us about the atmospheres of exoplanets and perhaps identify whether they can harbor life.