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Author Topic: The existence of alien life and the consequences it might have on religion  (Read 6996 times)
Gwiwer
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« Topic Start: March 21, 2011, 04:21:42 am »

Recently, I've been pondering what sort of consequences the existence of intelligent alien life might have for our understanding of religion here on Earth. Personally, I believe that, in the infinite vastness of the cosmos, it's probably pretty likely that intelligent life forms have developed on planets other than Earth. Likewise, I think the incredible vastness of space means that our chances of ever encountering any of these life forms are exceedingly slim. What if we do encounter these creatures somehow though? Will that force us to fundamentally re-evaluate our understanding of religion? After all, most religions on Earth are very Earth-centric and, as such, the existence of beings not of this planet do not generally fit neatly into most religious traditions.

I think that the strictly monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will be thoroughly harmed by the discovery of intelligent life on other planets. After all, these religions teach that, though God is an all-pervasive cosmic force that exists every where in the universe, Earth and human beings are distinctly special. For instance, Christian theology tells us that Jesus had a special mission to die for the sins of human beings here on Earth. It's very hard to imagine how one might reconcile the existence of other beings on far away planets that don't neatly fit into "God's plan" for this world as it's envisioned by Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Not only does the theology of these religions fail to take into account the possibility of special beings like us existing in places other than Earth, but almost all of their history and teachings would have to be completely reworked in order to reconcile them to this new development.

On the other hand, religions like the various Neo-Pagan movements, Hinduism, and such focus on local manifestations of spiritual forces that theoretically could be broadened out to include other places within the universe. After all, if the Celtic gods developed here on Earth, there's nothing to say that local gods couldn't have developed uniquely on other planets. These types of religions seem to have the least to lose from the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Hinduism already teaches the existence of other worlds besides the one in which we exist, so very little about Hinduism would have to change in order to account for the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Different movements in paganism would have to react differently, but generally wouldn't have too much of an issue with broadening out their understanding in order to incorporate other intelligent beings on other planets. Of them, I think Wicca would have the hardest time reconciling itself to this development, but it would still only require very minor changes to Wicca's over all theology and teachings.

Somewhere in the middle would seem to be religions like Buddhism which, though large parts of their theology may have to be reworked in order to bring them in line with the new knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, their general teachings would not have to change very much in order to be reconciled with this new knowledge.

Anyway, I thought I'd just throw this out there and let you all run with it. Since we have no idea what sort of religions and cultures intelligent life on other planets might have developed, it's a purely theoretical scenario with no real right answers. Still, I think it's worthwhile to think about as it presents a new way of thinking differently about our religions here on Earth and our approach to them.
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« Reply #1: March 21, 2011, 07:54:55 am »


I think that the strictly monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will be thoroughly harmed by the discovery of intelligent life on other planets. After all, these religions teach that, though God is an all-pervasive cosmic force that exists every where in the universe, Earth and human beings are distinctly special. For instance, Christian theology tells us that Jesus had a special mission to die for the sins of human beings here on Earth. It's very hard to imagine how one might reconcile the existence of other beings on far away planets that don't neatly fit into "God's plan" for this world as it's envisioned by Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Not only does the theology of these religions fail to take into account the possibility of special beings like us existing in places other than Earth, but almost all of their history and teachings would have to be completely reworked in order to reconcile them to this new development.


The first of the Ten Commandments is "Thou shall have no other Gods before me".  God is not saying he is the only God, which leaves plenty of room that there are others Gods and they have their creations.
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« Reply #2: March 21, 2011, 08:09:05 am »

Not only does the theology of these religions fail to take into account the possibility of special beings like us existing in places other than Earth, but almost all of their history and teachings would have to be completely reworked in order to reconcile them to this new development.

With a couple of exceptions this is pretty much true of all religions -- at least those not of very recent origin -- they are very Earth-centeric.

Quote
On the other hand, religions like the various Neo-Pagan movements, Hinduism, and such focus on local manifestations of spiritual forces that theoretically could be broadened out to include other places within the universe. After all, if the Celtic gods developed here on Earth, there's nothing to say that local gods couldn't have developed uniquely on other planets.

Of course, those other world Gods would no more be part of the Celtic religion than the Gods of Japan. Such Earth religions would not have to change or adapt to include life elsewhere not because they already include the possibility but because life elsewhere is irrelevant to the religion.
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« Reply #3: March 21, 2011, 08:21:50 am »

The first of the Ten Commandments is "Thou shall have no other Gods before me".  God is not saying he is the only God, which leaves plenty of room that there are others Gods and they have their creations.

Well, it seems that Judaism probably evolved from polytheistic beliefs, so the Bible is kind of a mixed bag on that topic. There appears to be some small remnants here and there of that polytheistic tradition within some of the oldest texts in the Bible. As Judaism evolved further, it seems that God was accepted as the supreme god, but it was allowed that there were other gods and that YHWH was simply better than them. You find remnants of this belief in a few parts of the Bible as well. Eventually though, that belief lost favor as the Israelites began to consider YHWH as the only god, which is a tradition that Christians continued. So, most of the later texts of the Old Testament and pretty much all of the New Testament have clear affirmations of the god of the Israelites being the only true god. For instance, John 17:3 among many others.

I suppose that if you did some mental gymnastics, you could try and claim that this is technically a true statement if you assume it to mean "the only true god on Earth", but that's pretty counter to many of these passages which make it seem fairly clear that there is no other god in all of creation. Also, Jews,  most Christians*, and Muslims affirm that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, unchanging, and perfect, so that really doesn't allow for the existence of other gods in the universe. That, among other doctrinal and theological issues, would be very hard to reconcile.

* I say most Christians because there is the notable exception of Mormons who do in fact apparently believe that God is only the god of this planet and that other planets have other gods, but I'm really not clear on how they arrive at that conclusion and if they put forward any scriptural evidence to try and support it. If anyone around here happens to be Mormon, or is familiar with Mormonism, I would love to hear a little more about this point as it might prove somewhat interesting to pursue in light of the topic of this thread.
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« Reply #4: March 21, 2011, 08:29:24 am »

Of course, those other world Gods would no more be part of the Celtic religion than the Gods of Japan. Such Earth religions would not have to change or adapt to include life elsewhere not because they already include the possibility but because life elsewhere is irrelevant to the religion.


Quite true. That's one of the reasons why I think that those sorts of religions would have the easiest time adjusting. They could either ignore the new information and carry on as usual, or, if we somehow learn about the gods of these alien creatures, could even take an approach similar to the Romans who simply associated all foreign gods with their Roman equivalent.
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« Reply #5: March 21, 2011, 09:05:24 am »

<snippage>

Somewhere in the middle would seem to be religions like Buddhism which, though large parts of their theology may have to be reworked in order to bring them in line with the new knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, their general teachings would not have to change very much in order to be reconciled with this new knowledge.

<more snippage>

From what I understand of Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in specific, based on personal studies and Powers's text Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, the existence of off-world religions, alien gods, and extraterrestrial life in general wouldn't have much of an effect at all on "how Buddhism works." In Tibetan Buddhism (which came from India via Nepal), the "deities" (for lack of a better term) are mostly localized spirits that were "elevated" to godlike status as the belief system evolved. At its simplest state, the practice of Buddhism doesn't require belief in ANY deities of any kind, whether earthly or otherwise; it is a wholly internalized system, based in understanding one's self in relation to the world in which one exists. The Buddha didn't preach belief in gods, he spoke about how each person individually can transcend suffering and become enlightened. Later followers brought in the concepts involving "deities" from the local peoples, in order to make the dharma more accessible to the people of those areas. Debate continues even today on whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. My personal take is in line with those who hold that a religion requires a creator deity, of which there is none in Buddhist thought.

I'll stop there, because it's all too easy to just keep going like the Energizer Bunny. In sum, my take is: Alien life's existence and proof thereof to humans on Earth has (will have?) little if any effect on Buddhism. The search for enlightenment is internal to ourselves; what happens "out there" happens, whether we're on the path to enlightenment or not.
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« Reply #6: March 21, 2011, 09:23:01 am »


I can't speak to Christianity or Islam, but I'm pretty sure you've got the Jewish reaction wrong.

I don't think other intelligent life would really affect it - they're not saying that *this planet* is the *chosen planet* - it's that they are the *chosen people*.  Doesn't really matter how many OTHER people they are - if there's more than they thought, so what?  They're still chosen.
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« Reply #7: March 21, 2011, 10:09:08 am »

Well, it seems that Judaism probably evolved from polytheistic beliefs, so the Bible is kind of a mixed bag on that topic. There appears to be some small remnants here and there of that polytheistic tradition within some of the oldest texts in the Bible. As Judaism evolved further, it seems that God was accepted as the supreme god, but it was allowed that there were other gods and that YHWH was simply better than them. You find remnants of this belief in a few parts of the Bible as well. Eventually though, that belief lost favor as the Israelites began to consider YHWH as the only god, which is a tradition that Christians continued. (snip)

 


Uh, not quite for Judaism. HeartShadow is correct. HaShem is the only god of the Jews.  The gods of the Japanese (Shinto), India (Hindus), aliens, are irrelevent for Jews. It's not that the other gods exist or don't exist, it just doesn't matter wether they do or don't.
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« Reply #8: March 21, 2011, 03:47:28 pm »

Recently, I've been pondering what sort of consequences the existence of intelligent alien life might have for our understanding of religion here on Earth... 
... religions like the various Neo-Pagan movements, Hinduism, and such focus on local manifestations of spiritual forces that theoretically could be broadened out to include other places within the universe...

...  Somewhere in the middle would seem to be religions like Buddhism which, though large parts of their theology may have to be reworked in order to bring them in line with the new knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, their general teachings would not have to change very much in order to be reconciled with this new knowledge.

  The Buddha taught the existence of other world-systems with their own suns, moons, and oceans, harboring other intelligent beings.  He said that our world is included in a system of 10,000 worlds, one of an infinite number of world-systems.  He went on to say that Buddhas just like him sometimes appear on these worlds and teach the inhabitants the Dhamma (objective spiritual teaching and absolute Law).  Sometimes they do not appear at all and the inhabitants suffer greatly for it, living through what is called a dark cosmic aeon.
  Buddhist cosmology would be a helpful reference to this question.  And here I will be careful to make the distinction between the cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism and the cosmology of other countries that adopted Buddhism, and the cosmology presented by the Buddha.  It's also important to note that the Buddhistic sects also honor and consider the original cosmology to be legitimate.
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« Reply #9: March 21, 2011, 03:53:27 pm »

  The Buddha taught the existence of other world-systems with their own suns, moons, and oceans, harboring other intelligent beings.  He said that our world is included in a system of 10,000 worlds, one of an infinite number of world-systems.  He went on to say that Buddhas just like him sometimes appear on these worlds and teach the inhabitants the Dhamma (objective spiritual teaching and absolute Law).  Sometimes they do not appear at all and the inhabitants suffer greatly for it, living through what is called a dark cosmic aeon.
  Buddhist cosmology would be a helpful reference to this question.  And here I will be careful to make the distinction between the cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism and the cosmology of other countries that adopted Buddhism, and the cosmology presented by the Buddha.  It's also important to note that the Buddhistic sects also honor and consider the original cosmology to be legitimate.

  If intelligent life were to be encountered from other worlds, I think the educated Buddhist populace would raise their eyebrows and with a nod say, "wasn't it obvious?"  The universe doesn't have limits, it's composed of matter and mind.
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« Reply #10: March 21, 2011, 03:56:49 pm »

Well, it seems that Judaism probably evolved from polytheistic beliefs, so the Bible is kind of a mixed bag on that topic. There appears to be some small remnants here and there of that polytheistic tradition within some of the oldest texts in the Bible. As Judaism evolved further, it seems that God was accepted as the supreme god, but it was allowed that there were other gods and that YHWH was simply better than them. You find remnants of this belief in a few parts of the Bible as well. Eventually though, that belief lost favor as the Israelites began to consider YHWH as the only god, which is a tradition that Christians continued. So, most of the later texts of the Old Testament and pretty much all of the New Testament have clear affirmations of the god of the Israelites being the only true god. For instance, John 17:3 among many others.
 

And I know a few Christians who would never, ever accept that Judaism evolved from other religions/polytheistic beliefs.  To them, the One True God is just that... not a hand-me-down from the Assyrians or Egyptians or any other contemporary sources, or those who came before... so I imagine other beings from other worlds would, as said before, impact their belief system greatly. Heck, I bet my sister, a hard-core Catholic, would have trouble with the first Commandment that you mentioned;  that no other gods existed. To her, they'd be "Demons."
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« Reply #11: March 21, 2011, 04:21:37 pm »

Recently, I've been pondering what sort of consequences the existence of intelligent alien life might have for our understanding of religion here on Earth. Personally, I believe that, in the infinite vastness of the cosmos, it's probably pretty likely that intelligent life forms have developed on planets other than Earth. Likewise, I think the incredible vastness of space means that our chances of ever encountering any of these life forms are exceedingly slim. What if we do encounter these creatures somehow though? Will that force us to fundamentally re-evaluate our understanding of religion? After all, most religions on Earth are very Earth-centric and, as such, the existence of beings not of this planet do not generally fit neatly into most religious traditions.

I think that the strictly monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will be thoroughly harmed by the discovery of intelligent life on other planets. After all, these religions teach that, though God is an all-pervasive cosmic force that exists every where in the universe, Earth and human beings are distinctly special. For instance, Christian theology tells us that Jesus had a special mission to die for the sins of human beings here on Earth. It's very hard to imagine how one might reconcile the existence of other beings on far away planets that don't neatly fit into "God's plan" for this world as it's envisioned by Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Not only does the theology of these religions fail to take into account the possibility of special beings like us existing in places other than Earth, but almost all of their history and teachings would have to be completely reworked in order to reconcile them to this new development.

On the other hand, religions like the various Neo-Pagan movements, Hinduism, and such focus on local manifestations of spiritual forces that theoretically could be broadened out to include other places within the universe. After all, if the Celtic gods developed here on Earth, there's nothing to say that local gods couldn't have developed uniquely on other planets. These types of religions seem to have the least to lose from the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Hinduism already teaches the existence of other worlds besides the one in which we exist, so very little about Hinduism would have to change in order to account for the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Different movements in paganism would have to react differently, but generally wouldn't have too much of an issue with broadening out their understanding in order to incorporate other intelligent beings on other planets. Of them, I think Wicca would have the hardest time reconciling itself to this development, but it would still only require very minor changes to Wicca's over all theology and teachings.

Somewhere in the middle would seem to be religions like Buddhism which, though large parts of their theology may have to be reworked in order to bring them in line with the new knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, their general teachings would not have to change very much in order to be reconciled with this new knowledge.

Anyway, I thought I'd just throw this out there and let you all run with it. Since we have no idea what sort of religions and cultures intelligent life on other planets might have developed, it's a purely theoretical scenario with no real right answers. Still, I think it's worthwhile to think about as it presents a new way of thinking differently about our religions here on Earth and our approach to them.

  The second and third books of the Ender Quartet by Orson Scott Card are probably one of the best explorations of this idea, although not in a conventional manner.
  Speaker for the Dead
  Xenocide

  This involves the exposure, conversion, and reaction of aliens called pequininos to Catholicism, and of course the reaction of the Catholic Church to the aliens.
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« Reply #12: March 21, 2011, 05:55:43 pm »

Quite true. That's one of the reasons why I think that those sorts of religions would have the easiest time adjusting. They could either ignore the new information and carry on as usual, or, if we somehow learn about the gods of these alien creatures, could even take an approach similar to the Romans who simply associated all foreign gods with their Roman equivalent.

The LDS church kinda EXPECTS to find life on other worlds.    Due to the concept of Exaltation and plurality of gods concept.
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« Reply #13: March 21, 2011, 07:58:25 pm »

  The Buddha taught the existence of other world-systems with their own suns, moons, and oceans, harboring other intelligent beings.  He said that our world is included in a system of 10,000 worlds, one of an infinite number of world-systems.  He went on to say that Buddhas just like him sometimes appear on these worlds and teach the inhabitants the Dhamma (objective spiritual teaching and absolute Law).  Sometimes they do not appear at all and the inhabitants suffer greatly for it, living through what is called a dark cosmic aeon.
  Buddhist cosmology would be a helpful reference to this question.  And here I will be careful to make the distinction between the cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism and the cosmology of other countries that adopted Buddhism, and the cosmology presented by the Buddha.  It's also important to note that the Buddhistic sects also honor and consider the original cosmology to be legitimate.

Very true. Since Buddhism evolved from Hinduism to a certain extent, much of what Hinduism teaches about a plurality of gods and the existences of other worlds apply to Buddhist thought as much as it applies to Hindu thought. For that reason, I placed Buddhism in the sort of middle ground between the two extremes because, as you've said, a large part of Buddhist thought would remain largely unaltered, though various Buddhist sects might have more difficulty than others reconciling their specific teachings to the new reality. Still, most of these changes would probably be fairly minor and wouldn't necessarily change the doctrines and theology of the religion to any significant degree.

As to the various comments people have made about Judaism, I can't really debate them one way or the other. There's a significant conflict between what Jews traditionally believe to be true and what modern efforts in archeology, Biblical criticism, genetics, and other related fields seem to show about the history of that religion. I personally believe science over theology in this regard, but anyone who accepts the traditional view of Judaism to be true is going to discount any evidence that doesn't support traditional orthodox views on the history of the religion, so there's really not much room for debate except, perhaps, amongst the most liberal Jews within movements like Reform Judaism or possibly Jewish flavored Neo-Pagan movements who accept some of the traditional views espoused by the Torah and the oral law, but also accept many of the claims of scientists as well.

Heck, I bet my sister, a hard-core Catholic, would have trouble with the first Commandment that you mentioned;  that no other gods existed. To her, they'd be "Demons."

That's an interesting statement because it's not a reaction I originally considered, but I think it's definitely spot on. Many very conservative Christians probably would have that exact reaction. That is how many conservative churches already react to things on Earth that don't fit their world view. Fossils that provide evidence that evolution is true and the world is much older than the Bible says? Must be the work of Satan and demons. Archeology disproves the historicity of the Bible? Must be the work of Satan and demons. Evidence for other gods and/or the validity of the beliefs of other religions? Must be the work of Satan and demons. Evidence that ghosts exist? Must be the work of Satan and demons. It raises an interesting point that seems very relevant to this topic. Religions, especially the more conservative variants thereof, can develop various coping mechanism to deal with things that are outside of their worldviews. We can even observe this is religions like Wicca. The more traditional varieties of Wicca still tend to accept most of the belief that Wicca is the modern remnant of a pan-European witch cult. History and archeology doesn't seem to agree, but some Wiccans refuse to accept that and will occasionally go to almost absurd lengths to invent historical connections that seem to still support this idea.

So, ultimately, it is very difficult to anticipate how a particular religion might react to anything, which, I think, is very relevant to the topic at hand and makes speculation of this nature very difficult, but also very interesting.
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« Reply #14: March 21, 2011, 08:01:58 pm »

The LDS church kinda EXPECTS to find life on other worlds.    Due to the concept of Exaltation and plurality of gods concept.

Yeah, I'm familiar with this belief amongst Mormons, but I've never read anything into it so I'm not clear on where these ideas come from and what evidence is put forward to support them. If you happen to have some knowledge of this, feel free to go into some detail about it. I think it's pretty interesting and have been meaning to look into the topic more.
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