Before tackling more serious subjects today (like my absurd backlog of theater write-ups), I wanted to briefly touch on Damon Linker’s latest column, about how “traditional religion” would adapt to the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life. In Linker’s view: not well.

Just as the scientific Copernican Revolution destabilized and downgraded humanity’s place in the cosmos by substituting heliocentrism for a geocentric view that placed the Earth and its inhabitants at the center of creation, so the discovery of advanced life on other planets would imply that human beings are just one of any number of intelligent creatures in the universe. And that, in turn, would seem to imply either that God created many equally special beings throughout the universe, or that God cares for us more than he does for those other intelligent beings. How the latter view could be rendered compatible with basic tenets of monotheism (including divine omnipresence, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) is beyond me. Did God create those other intelligent creatures, too, but without an interest in revealing himself to them? Or did they, unlike human beings, evolve all on their own without divine origins and guidance? . . . But I have an equally hard time accepting that believers would be capable of wrapping their heads around the possibility that God loves all intelligent creatures on all planets equally. Does God send Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed to visit other worlds to deliver the same moral and theological revelations? Or does he raise up analogous prophets — and in the case of Christianity, incarnate himself in extraterrestrial species — in order to spread his message to everyone throughout the universe who is capable of receiving it? I suspect that these puzzles are so corrosive in their skeptical implications that contact with intelligent life from other worlds would produce a rapid collapse of faith rooted in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Quran, with a rapid spread of atheistic secularism in their place.

I love topics like this, because they don’t matter at all – and, because they don’t matter at all, they may reveal hidden assumptions more effectively than subjects that actually do matter. In this case: assumptions about what makes religions tick, what drives their success or failure. Linker assumes, implicitly, that unpleasant or unexpected facts are a profound threat to traditional religion. But the evidence for this is surprisingly limited. Let’s begin with the non-Abrahamic religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religion, African animist beliefs, etc. It’s not clear that the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would pose any kind of challenge to these traditions. Indeed, the bulk of scientific discoveries about human origins and development are more readily compatible with these traditions than they are with Judaism, Christianity or Islam. You would think, therefore, that the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions would have already put the wind in the sails of these non-Abrahamic traditions, and hobbled the growth of Christianity and Islam. But precisely the opposite has been the case: both Christianity and Islam have continued to spread, and make converts across Asia and Africa. Next: let’s look at what Christianity specifically has already assimilated or resisted successfully. It has, as noted, survived overwhelming scientific evidence that humanity was not created immaculately in its current form, but arose through the process of evolution by natural selection – i.e., by surviving in a brutal contest for survival with other species. It has also survived the transition from a heliocentric worldview to one in which the Earth is an almost invisibly small speck in the corner of a galaxy that is itself only a tiny part of an incomprehensibly vast universe. But before that, it survived three more profound challenges:

  • The encounter with America. Linker thinks it would be devastating to Christianity to reckon with the reality of intelligent beings that either never experienced God’s love through revelation and incarnation, or who experienced those things through a separate revelation and/or incarnation. But Christianity had to reckon with that reality five hundred years ago. And it’s still here.
  • The rise of Islam. Which is a more troubling fact for Christianity: the possibility that the biblical account of creation is profoundly inaccurate, or the possibility that another religion has the true revelation? Well, when Islam swept over the Christian holy land, and went on to conquer much of the known world, Christians were faced with that question. Christianity has still not really formulated a coherent theological response to the rise of Islam, at least not in my view. But Christianity has survived and thrived despite that failure.
  • The death of Jesus of Nazareth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Christianity is founded on the prima facie absurd notion that when your leader and hoped-for messiah is captured, tortured, and executed, that this is good news. It is a religion founded on the complete failure of normal, rational expectations, and consequently a complete revaluation of the meaning of plain facts. That’s what Christianity was at its origins. And we’re supposed to believe that this religion wouldn’t be able to handle a few little green men?

Now, I’m not going to argue that any of the above “proves” that Christianity would have no trouble surviving an encounter with extraterrestrial life. But I do think it proves that we can make no easy assumptions about what might or might not pose an insurmountable challenge to any particular religious tradition. Religions do not grow and shrink in response to reasoned analysis. Their origins are mysterious and their subsequent trajectories are the function of too many variables to be easily teased out. Why did Mohammed’s conquests lead to the formation of a new world religion, while Genghis Khan’s did not? Why did Jesus beat out Mithra in the contest to succeed Roman paganism? Why was there any such contest in the first place? What, for that matter, do the Abrahamic religions offer that is so appealing that they continue to grow at the expense of non-Abrahamic traditions that, objectively speaking, require much less of a leap of faith, much less suspension of disbelief in the objectively absurd? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But they have more bearing on the prospective future of Christianity – and what that future will look like – than the possibility that Christianity will seem absurd in the face of this or that scientific development. Even so revolutionary a development as the encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence. UPDATE: For those of you unfamiliar with the book that the image above is taken from, here it is.