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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Discovery of Extraterrestrials May Have Little Short-term Impact on World Religions

We may not be more than a few decades away from discovering proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. Various people have speculated on what the cultural effects will be of such a discovery. A common idea is that if we finally discover some other intelligent life out there in the universe, it will be a shattering event for traditional world religions. The idea is sometimes suggested that the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrials might cause a sudden collapse in confidence in long-standing world religions, causing a large fraction of their followers to abandon their faiths.

But such an idea may be unfounded. Rather surprisingly, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence may not have all that huge an effect on the world's traditional religions, for several reasons I will now explain.

Reason #1: Ideological Inertia

In physics inertia is the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion, proportional to the object's speed and mass. We can use the same idea to identify a kind of ideological inertia – the resistance of a person to a change in his beliefs. People all over the world of many different viewpoints have a huge amount of ideological inertia, including both believers and total non-believers. The longer a person has been believing in some particular doctrine, the more ideological inertia he will tend to have. We can visualize ideological inertia as kind of like a great big boulder that is very hard to move unless a gigantic force is applied.

It seems that people will be unlikely to change long-standing beliefs unless something incredibly dramatic happens to them – a “knock you over the head with a 2 by 4” kind of event. If we were to discover some unmistakable signs of extraterrestrial intelligence in some far off solar system, that probably would not be sufficient to cause that much of a belief change in people who have held old-fashioned religious beliefs for decades. It might be that such a discovery should cause people to reassess many of their beliefs, but it probably wouldn't.

Reason #2: People Would “Mentally Minimize” the Discovery

Many old-fashioned believers would not at all want to suddenly leap to a very different new outlook on the universe in which man is a mere minor player in the universe rather than the center of creation. So people would use various mental tricks to minimize whatever discovery was made. One little mind trick people would use is the little trick of “avoiding the implications.”

For example, imagine if we were to discover positive evidence of intelligent life in some distant solar system. Many people would attempt to minimize this discovery in their minds by thinking along these lines:

Before we knew there was one intelligent species, mankind. Now we apparently know that there are two. No big deal – two is not much different than one.

Of course, this type of thinking involves a little mind trick. Given a galaxy of billions of stars, and the existence of billions of galaxies such as ours, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence should really cause us to conclude that the universe is full of intelligent life, and that there are billions of intelligent species. But through the trick of “mental minimization,” a person can avoid such an implication, and just think thoughts such as “two is not much different than one.”

Old-fashioned believers could use a similar trick to kind of pretend that any extraterrestrial civilization discovered far away is “irrelevant,” because of the difficulty of communicating with it, or the unlikelihood of it visiting our planet.

The Fireworks Galaxy (Credit: NASA)

Reason #3: People Would Explain Away the Discovery or Dismiss It As a Deception

People of all viewpoints (both believers and skeptics) show an almost limitless capacity for explaining away or dismissing things they don't want to believe it. If extraterrestrial intelligence were discovered in a distant solar system, I imagine that the defenders of old-fashioned viewpoints would come out in force, and pull out every argumentative trick in the book to cast doubt on the discovery. They might argue that the discovery was a misinterpretation of the data, or that the discovery was just some story being put forth by astronomers eager to get more funding for their pet projects. The only type of discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence that would prevent such a maneuver would be if giant alien spaceships were to appear in the skies of many of our cities.

If people didn't buy the explanation that the discovery of aliens was a misinterpretation or a plot by fund-seeking scientists, defenders of old-fashioned religions could always use the last resort of arguing that the evidence for extraterrestrials is all just a deception by Satan and his cohorts. Outsiders would cringe and laugh at such an explanation, but within a particular religion such an explanation might seem plausible.

Reason #4: People Would Try to Squeeze-fit the Discovery into Their Own Doctrines or Scriptural Analysis

It also seems that whatever was discovered in terms of extraterrestrial intelligence, old-fashioned believers would try to somehow make it seem compatible with their own religious beliefs or scriptures. It's been said that you can find a Bible verse to support almost any opinion. That may be an exaggeration, but no doubt after the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, people would scour the Bible looking for some verse that could be cited as a prediction or foreshadowing of such a discovery. Never mind the fact that the Bible makes no mention of extraterrestrial life. Scriptural enthusiasts would probably find some murky passage that they could claim was a prediction or foreshadowing of the discovery.

We can also imagine that old-fashioned believers might try to squeeze the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence into their own traditions by saying that the discovery is a sign of something mentioned in their own traditions. If we discovered signs that stars far away are being manipulated by some higher intelligence, Christians might say, “It's not extraterrestrials doing that – it's angels.” Hindus might say, “It's not extraterrestrials doing that – it's one of our many gods.”


There are all kinds of defense mechanisms that old-fashioned believers could and probably would use to minimize the shock of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. So in the short-term (say, 5 or 10 years), such a discovery might have relatively little effect on the world's major religions. But in the much longer term, after people had many years to reflect on the implications of the discovery, the impact might be much greater.