Mike Wall has an article at space.com about the problem (or lack of one) the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would pose for the world’s religions. The gist of his essay is that he doesn’t expect that there would be a significant impact on them, largely because many religious people have already embraced the notion that there is life on other planets.
I think that’s a reasonable assumption, but let me tell you about the other side.
Two years ago I was teaching Sunday School to my fifth grade class. We were talking about how God created the universe, and I asked the kids if they’ve ever wondered if there is life on other planets. Now I’ve asked this question many times before in different forms to Sunday School kids, elementary kids, and so on. Immediately you expect their faces to light up and think: Star Wars! Star Trek! Men In Black! and so on, and then dive deep into speculating about what life on other planets might be like. Most of the time as a teacher I’d have to manage the discussion so kids won’t talk over each other.
Not this time.
This time when I asked them if they thought there was life on other planets, I got silence. Dead silence. Then slowly, they all shook their heads. And it wasn’t the kind of head-shaking where they sensed that they were supposed to shake their heads because maybe Mom and Dad wouldn’t approve of them talking about aliens and outer space. It was numb, indifferent head shaking. It was like I had asked them if they knew what the higgs-boson particle was.
I jumped in, my face full of shock. “Haven’t you ever wondered if there are aliens out there? Maybe with green skin or six arms or scales instead of skin?” My voice was bright and joyful to show them that this was something that was fun to think about.
Again, heads shook. “There is no life on other planets,” one of them said with supreme confidence. Others chimed in with similar statements. Their responses weren’t defiant; it was simply a fact to them that earth was alone. They could care less about speculating over something that wasn’t true.
I tried to drill them on movies and tv shows they had surely seen or read about. None of them had seen any of them. Not even comic books that dabbled in science fiction. I’ve never been a Star Wars fan, but I wanted to whip out that bar scene from one of the earlier movies with all the different aliens hanging out together. Forget science; I wanted to wow their imaginations.
I didn’t need to ask their parents to know what was going on. Some fundamentalists – not many, but some – see astronomy as just as dangerous to faith as biology, if not moreso, since the logistics of explaining distance and time in space makes it much harder to defend a 6,000 year old earth than evolution does. So they shut down any secular ideas about outer space the same way many parents forbid their kids to read Harry Potter. Except usually the kids who aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter know that the series exists and that Harry Potter is “bad” because of witchcraft. These kids (mind you, they were 9 and 10 years old) didn’t even know that Star Wars or Star Trek were things that existed in our universe, pop culture or otherwise.
As a friend of mine put it, those parents should have been arrested for killing their kids’ imaginations.