ROME -- A little more than a half-mile from the
Vatican, in a square called Campo de' Fiori, stands a large statue of a brooding
monk. Few of the shoppers and tourists wandering through the fruit-and-vegetable
market below may know his story; he is Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance
philosopher, writer and free-thinker who was burned at the stake by the
Inquisition in 1600. Among his many heresies was his belief in a "plurality of
worlds" -- in extraterrestrial life, in aliens.
Though it's a bit late for Bruno, he might take
satisfaction in knowing that this week the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of
Sciences is holding its first major conference on astrobiology, the new science
that seeks to find life elsewhere in the cosmos and to understand how it began
on Earth. Convened on private Vatican grounds in the elegant Casina Pio IV,
formerly the pope's villa, the unlikely gathering of prominent scientists and
religious leaders shows that some of the most
tradition-bound faiths are seriously contemplating the possibility that life
exists in myriad forms beyond this planet. Astrobiology has arrived, and
religious and social institutions even the Vatican are taking note.
Yet, as Bruno might attest, the notion of life
beyond Earth does not easily coexist with the "truths" that many people hold
dear. Just as the Copernican revolution forced us to understand that Earth is
not the center of the universe, the logic of astrobiologists points in a
similarly unsettling direction: to the likelihood that we are not alone, and
perhaps that we are not even the most advanced creatures in the universe. This
may not "conflict with our faith," but it may conflict with the stories we tell
about who and what we are.
The Vatican's five-day conference is chaired by the
religious leader of the highly regarded Academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo.
Scientists (many of them nonbelievers) are offering presentations on subjects as
varied as how life might have begun on Earth; what newly found "extremophile"
microbes living in harsh places on our planet might tell us about possible life
on others; and how life forms might be detected in our solar system, or how
their bio-signatures might be found on and around the many distant exoplanets.
Having overcome the giggle factor of most things
extraterrestrial, astrobiologists are telling a scientific story to an audience
that may someday use it to defend -- or enhance -- its faith.
The Catholic Church isn't the only institution
preparing itself for what could be a world-changing event. For instance, NASA's
National Astrobiology Institute, established in 1998, sponsored a meeting of
scientists, ethicists, religious leaders and philosophers in February to
brainstorm about the societal implications of astrobiology, and it is preparing
a semiofficial "road map" of sensitive issues we'd need to address should the
presence of life elsewhere be established.
Initial extraterrestrial discoveries -- which many
scientists believe are on the horizon, if not yet in reach -- are likely to be
of microbial life just below the parched surface of Mars, in the waters of
Jupiter's moon Europa under its thick crust of ice or in the liquid plumes of
Saturn's moon Enceladus. Though it will be easy to dismiss extraterrestrial
microbes as unthreatening to anyone's worldview, cosmologists and
astrobiologists generally contend that the existence of two separate geneses in
one solar system would enormously increase the probability that life is
commonplace in the universe. And as we know, under the right conditions microbes
can evolve over eons to become dinosaurs, hummingbirds and us.
The possibility of extraterrestrial life is not much
of an issue for Eastern religions, which tend to be less Earth-centric. Islam
also has little problem with extraterrestrials because the Koran speaks
explicitly of life beyond Earth, as do some newer Christian groups such as
Mormons. It is in mainstream Western religious traditions, in which humans and
God are central, where astrobiology poses the biggest challenge.
"I think the discovery of a second genesis would be
of enormous spiritual significance," says Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist
and cosmologist from Arizona State University who is speaking at the Vatican
conference. He believes the potential challenge to Christianity in particular
"is being downplayed" by religious leaders.
"The real threat would come from the discovery of
extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the
universe, then Christians, they're in this horrible bind. They believe that God
became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not
dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets."
Davies explained the tensions within the Catholic
Church: "If you look back at the history of Christian debate on this, it divides
into two camps. There are those that believe that it is human destiny to bring
salvation to the aliens, and those who believe in multiple incarnations," he
said, referencing the belief that Christ could have appeared on other planets at
other times. "The multiple incarnations is a heresy in Catholicism." (As
Giordano Bruno learned.)
Many Protestant scholars agree with Funes, saying
that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would not pose a major challenge to
their faith or theology, especially if it was not intelligent or morally aware.
But on the evangelical side, there is a deep concern, one reminiscent of
the battles over evolution. "My theological perspective is
that E.T. life would actually make a mockery of the very reason Christ came to
die for our sins, for our redemption," Gary Bates, head of Atlanta-based
Creation Ministries International, told me recently in a critique of the Vatican
conference. Bates believes that "the entire focus of creation is mankind on this
Earth" and that intelligent, morally
aware extraterrestrial life would undermine that view and belief in the
incarnation, resurrection and redemption drama so central to the faith. "It is a
huge problem that many Christians have not really thought about," he said.
The big question involves intelligent life.
Astronomers say there are something like 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in
the known universe, and more planets are discovered orbiting some of them all
the time. (On one day last month, the European Space Agency announced the
discovery of 32 new extra-solar planets.) It is increasingly difficult to assume
that our sun and planet are the only ones capable of supporting complex and
evolved life -- the kind of life that Christians might assume would be in need
of salvation. Questions inevitably follow: Are Christianity
and, to some extent, other religions only stories about life on Earth? And if
they are not "universal" in a cosmic sense, does that diminish their
Thus the conference on astrobiology at the Vatican
-- an institution that got Copernicus, Galileo and other men of science wrong
and doesn't want to do that again. In the words of Pierre Lena, a French
astrophysicist and member of the Pontifical Academy who pressed for the
astrobiology conference: "Astrobiology is a mature science that says very
interesting things that could change the vision humanity has of itself. The
church cannot be indifferent to that."
Funes, an earnest priest-scientist with a wry sense
of humor, seemed a bit nonplussed last week about the worldwide attention that
his "brother extraterrestrials" comments from last year and the astrobiology
conference have drawn. Speaking to me from the new Vatican Observatory
headquarters outside Rome -- the church also operates a telescope in Arizona --
he didn't retract his statements or express regret about them, and said he has
not been chastised by higher-ups at
But he did emphasize that he was not speaking
officially for the church, even though his 2008 interview ran on the front page
of the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. The church, he said,
has no official position on extraterrestrial life or on theological issues it
might raise. Just as some people write science fiction, Funes said with a
mischievous smile, he is attracted to
"theological fiction" -- what might become important religiously if life beyond
Earth is discovered someday. "There's no need for the church to speak on this
point now," he said. "But yes, that could certainly change.
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