Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Would ­contact with extraterrestrial beings create a crisis of faith? David Wilkinson's 2013 book Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence examines the issues this might raise. Chris Oldfield reviews the issues raised.

To err is human!
So, we are a civilization founded on f**k ups!
And proud of it!
We are the human race, and we don't like being told what to do!

Faced with impending alien assimilation, this adorable scene of drunken defiance in the latest apocalypse to face Simon Pegg and Nick Frost[1] encapsulates something wonderful in the very human face of the key character Gary King: the embodiment of former glory. Perplexed by this spectacle of human nature, what Pascal called "the glory and refuse of the universe",[2] the intergalactic intelligence infiltrating the human race one chain-pub at a time decide humanity isn't worth saving and leaves, firebombing middle England in the process. Talk of Aliens has always been a way of reflecting on home, where we actually are, and asking the Psalmist's question, the pathos of which (of course) only increases the vaster and wilder the heavens appear:[3]

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have ordained,
What is man, that you are mindful of him?
And the son of man, that you visit him?
You made him lower than the heavenly beings,
Yet you have crowned him with glory and honour

Whether out of despair for the want of terrestrial intelligence, or the Hegelian hubris of homo sapiens' self-proclaimed genius, it is now 50 years since Frank Drake launched the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the height of late modernity. Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (184 pages, Oxford University Press, 2013) by the Reverend Professor David Wilkinson is an excellent and critical survey of SETI and the myths it is embedded in, for better or for worse.

For both scientific and theological reasons, Wilkinson stands with "Chrysostom, Athanasius, Basil, and Ambrose in the fourth century [who] had no problem with God creating other worlds, but were hesitant about whether he had done so".[4] The main foil for the book is the assumed plausibility of Thomas Paine's claim in The Age of Reason (1795) that ETI made it impossible to believe in the Christian doctrine that God had become a human being and died as an atonement for sin. Needless to say, there are many vocal disciples of Paine both within and without the church telling students of science that they must choose between Christian and academic faithfulness. Wilkinson's calm, informed spirit of curiosity is a gift to such sterile and inflammatory posturing. Noticing themes of cosmic loneliness, cosmic purpose, cosmic identity, cosmic fear, and hopes of cosmic salvation[5] among the SETI community, Wilkinson laments that "with a few notable exceptions, mainstream Christian theology has not engaged at depth, leaving much religious speculation to the writers of popular science"[6]. This is an occasional work with a clear concern for the quality of public discourse.[7]

Faith communities still working through relationships between Big Bang and creation narratives, natural selection and God's purpose, neuroscience, and what it means to be human, could be hit by a tidal wave of questions following indications of success in SETI. This book arises out of a conviction that the issues that SETI raises, whether successful in the short-term, long-term, or not at all, are fruitful rather than destructive for religious belief.

Readers from any perspective expecting a tidal wall of pre-fab defences will be surprised to find themselves on a much more interesting and open-ended journey. Adamant that "faith communities do themselves great disservice by not taking time to understand the science involved"[8], Wilkinson is as concerned that folk understand the science as that scientists recognise the theology in such luminaries as Carl Sagan, Christiaan Huygens, Simon Conway Morris and Sir Martin Rees. There is no room for bad science, and there is no a-theological space.[9]

David Bentley Hart describes the "greater scholarly range…"[10] required by theology, and Wilkinson has it in spades. Fellow of the Astronomical Society, Professor of Theology and Principal at St John's College, Durham, Wilkinson is a well-known figure in the dialogue between science and religion. He also makes an eminent guide, equally at home with Hubble, Drake, Hoyle and Davies as he is explaining historical and biblical theology, not to mention pop culture and the worlds of science fiction.

The most amusing section follows attempts to overcome the Fermi Paradox (if ETI exists, why haven't they come?) – whether by the 'zoo hypothesis'[11], the reply of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard that "they are among us, and are known as Hungarians!",[12] or even that Ezekiel's vision of the flying wheeled chariot of the God of Israel, "out of which stepped the likeness of a man"[13] was in fact a UFO! Wilkinson writes with a sense of humour (and frequent fond references to Star Trek), but this is not a work of idle chatter, nor mere reflections from a distance on the 'possibility' of 'dialogue' between 'science' and 'religion'. This is science and religion in dialogue, and a model of constructive contribution it is too.

The central question is what exactly we should be looking for. Referring to a piece in Time in 1996, Wilkinson comments "the media hype which built the possibility of life from the calculation of the temperature is rather like concluding that soccer is the national sport of a country after being told it has a lot of green fields."[14] This highlights a recurring theme in SETI which Wilkinson notes but would be worth exploring further – whether to reason from the possible (what can happen) to the actual (what did / does happen) or from the actual to the possible. Can we escape, that is, our actuality and particular history, or are we doomed to "carbon-life based imperialism"?[15] And theologically speaking, can we follow John Hick in his 'Copernican Revolution' and speak speculatively of 'God in the Universe of Faiths' apart from the scandalous particularity of the historical incarnation?

One memorable observation was that those optimistic about ETI in the modern period "tended to be astronomers and physicists", while pessimists "tended to be leading experts in evolutionary biology."[16] The rising field of astrobiology bears witness that much more work needs to be done here, but this does highlight how different scientific disciplines can 'disciple' us in divergent habits of mind and ways of thinking, seeing and expecting. Intelligence is not merely a matter of 'scientific' information but of 'sapiential' formation, and in reading this book I became very aware of my own locatedness and embeddedness in traditions and habits of mind I have received from my training in mathematical physics. Carl Sagan famously commented that "astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience…"[17] as in humility the mathematical physicist learns to be suspicious of any privileged position and to see nature in terms of expectation values. I would still be astonished to find that there wasn't life elsewhere in the cosmos, but it was a remarkable thing to consider the extraordinary evolutionary constraints, and that it is quite plausibly the case that we humans, frail and foolish as we are, may well be the only intelligent life in the observable universe. Indeed if ETI exists, it may well be extraordinarily like our own.[18]

In this respect, I was surprised to find so little critical discussion of the notion of curiosity with its not uncontroversial theological history.[19] Wilkinson is unambiguously pro-, but I wonder if Augustine's much maligned beef with curiosity might have less to do with the tyrannical past of modernity's reconstruction and more to do with our failure to pay attention to what is actually before our eyes, where we actually are – in that restless distraction Pascal called divertissement? If curiosity is indeed contemplation cut loose of its object, leaving us in endless, restless, speculations, then the suspicious eye trained in Christian wisdom might see the strident optimism that there must be ETI or other wild speculations such as the multiverse – as exercises in dis-interest. Our world, our history, our cosmos – our pale blue dot – can't finally be that interesting, can it? Ironically it's evolutionary biologists of all people, who are suggesting just so!

Last night I sat watching the Perseid meteor shower, as Earth flew through a cloud of cosmic gravel, while most of us slept through blissfully unaware. The more I consider the vast improbability of life, or the extraordinary protection of Jupiter, the more inclined I am to see those beautiful skies as a canopy thrown over us, a shelter from the wild, which makes this rock a home, lovely dwelling place, even something of a cosmic temple. In the words of Marilynne Robinson, "We are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view".[20] If "SETI may teach Christian theologians humility"[21], perhaps theologians of unexpected grace could teach the physicist to notice where she sits, and not to saw off the branch on which she rests.

Faced with Aquinas' captivity to Aristotle's geo-centricism (and "without Aristotle's Physics there would have been no Galileo"[22]), Nicholas of Cusa protested in 1277 that it was "not physical centrality that enhances the planet Earth and humans but their relationship to the Creator".[23] We find ourselves here, by no fault of our own, by no merit of our own, born into the genus which God has graced by becoming part of it forever. We are lower, maybe even less than the least of heavenly beings, and as brutal as any beast, and yet crowned by divine humility.[24] Theologians have even spoken of God's 'alien righteousness', not because it's far away, but because with it God surrounds us as he 'visits' his people. There's a lovely touch in the final scene of The World's End, where Gary's last stand is written into the apocalyptic background: "To err is human…" – but this time, clear enough to see but obscure enough not to notice, is learned wisdom: that "…to forgive is divine". David Wilkinson's volume is a wonderful reflection on what that might mean, and deserves wide readership.


[1] Edgar Wright's third film in the Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End.

[2] Pascal, B. Pensées 122.

[3] Psalm 8:3-6 (NKJV).

[4] Wilkinson, D. op. cit. ch.2, 'Speculating about a Plurality of Worlds: The Historical Context of Science, Religion and SETI', p.18.

[5] Wilkinson, D. op. cit. ch. 11, 'Be Not So Positive' , pp.174-177.

[6] Wilkinson, D. op. cit. 'Introduction', p.2.

[7] Wilkinson, D. op. cit. , 'Introduction', pp.2-3.

[8] Wilkinson, D. op. cit., 'Introduction', p.3.

[9] Milbank, J. 'Knowledge: The theological critique of philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi' in Milbank, Pickstock & Ward (eds.), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (Routledge, 2002), p.24.

[10] Bentley Hart, D. 'Theology as Knowledge' in The Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Eerdmans: 2008), pp.176-181.

[11] As cited by Carl Sagan, in Wilkinson, D. op. cit. ch. 7, 'Fermi's Paradox' p.103.

[12] In Wilkinson, D. op. cit. ch.7, 'Fermi's Paradox', p.109.

[13] As cited by Paul Davies, in Wilkinson, D. op. cit. ch.8, 'the Myths of SETI and Religion', p.120.

[14] Wilkinson, D. op. cit. ch.4, 'The Daily Planet', p.58.

[15] Wilkinson, D. op.cit. ch. 5, 'Genesis 2.0: SETI and Biology', p.79.

[16] Wilkinson, op. cit. ch. 3, 'Hubble and Drake: SETI and Cosmology', p.30.

[17] Sagan, C. Pale Blue Dot.

[18] Cf. Conway Morris, S. Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge University Press 2002).

[19] Cf. Harrison, P. 'Curiosity, Forbidden Knowledge, and the Reformation of Natural Philosophy in Early-Modern England' in Isis 92 (2) pp.265-90. Available online at

[20] Robinson, M. 'Austerity as Ideology' in When I Was a Child I Read Books (Virago 2012), p.36.

[21] Wilkinson, D. op. cit. 'The Value of Christian Theology to SETI' p.180.

[22] Heidegger, M. The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly, (Indiana University Press, 1991), 62-63.

[23] In Wilkinson, D. op. cit. 'Speculating about a Plurality of Worlds' p.19.

[24] Cf. Paul's letter to the Philippians, ch. 2.

© 2013 Chris Oldfield