1 of 2
forplayday, Getty Images/iStockphoto
Reports say that less than a third of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.

Astronomers predict it's only a matter of time before advanced space flight missions discover biological life on other planets.

"It's very unlikely that, certainly in any of our lifetimes, anybody with funny-looking fingers will come down in a flying saucer," said David Weintraub, an astronomy professor at Vanderbilt University, with a laugh. "But there's a reasonable likelihood that we will detect the presence of biological activity on a distant planet."

And how will religious communities react to such a discovery? That's the question Weintraub explores in his book, "Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?"

Throughout history, religion has been a filter through which faithful people engage with scientific developments, such as the discoveries of the earth revolving around the sun, dinosaur fossils or mounting evidence of evolution. Finding extraterrestrial life on other planets would not just reorient a scientific understanding of outer space, it would also require believers to conceive of their place in the universe in new ways.

"I think if you walk down Main Street of any town in the U.S., you would find that many people believe in extraterrestrial life. But if you then asked them to explain if that life is compatible with their own religion, they would be pretty confused," Weintraub said.

By confronting that confusion, he hoped to make life on other planets a more comfortable possibility.

The science and religion divide

Over the course of four years of research, Weintraub used each religion's own writings to explore its compatibility with the discovery of extraterrestrial life, summarizing what faith leaders have already said about the possibility of life on other planets and predicting areas of potential conflict.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has spent the most time writing about the issue, Weintraub noted, and would be benefitted by its long history of adapting to scientific developments. Buddhists might be the most comfortable with life on other planets, as their religious texts offer no limit to the size of the universe. The evangelical Christian community stood out in Weintraub's mind as the most unprepared to deal with such a discovery, given its ongoing tension with science on the subject of evolution.

Although the phrase "extraterrestrial life" might call to mind the spooky, slimy aliens featured in science fiction movies, Weintraub said that his project was never meant to be sensationalistic. He simply recognized that religious communities do have a stake in what, if anything, is discovered on other planets.

"There's a great deal of overlap between the domains of astronomy and religion, at least in terms of the questions we ask," Weintraub explained, offering examples like "Are we alone in the universe?" and "What's our purpose here?"

The discovery of single-celled organisms, plant matter or some other form of biological life may answer scientific questions, but also challenge some religious conceptions of a divine creator.

Historically, shared scientific inquiry have led to conflict rather than camaraderie between religion and science. However, the tension might be lessening as religious leaders come to support peaceful coexistence over an antagonistic relationship.

"Religious Understandings of Science," a study published in February by Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, reported that less than a third (27 percent) of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. However, 20 percent of Americans believe that religious people are hostile to science and 22 percent that scientists are hostile to religion.

High-profile events like February's "Creationism versus Evolution Debate" between The Creation Museum's Ken Ham and Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") exacerbate lingering concerns over the conflict between religion and science. But Kevin Schmiesing, a research fellow with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, believes that there's more nuance to the discussion than there used to be.

More than ever before, there's room for debate about how religious communities should respond to scientific conclusions, he said. When guidance can't be found in the Bible or other religious text, it becomes a question of interpretation for individual believers.

"Faith tells you to find the answer," Schmeising said. "Then you have to decide."

Learning from the past

Schmiesing's Roman Catholic faith is involved in one of Weintraub's favorite examples of the often uncomfortable overlap between science and faith. It's the story of Galileo's assertion that the earth revolves around the sun and the church's decision to put him on trial for heresy.

Although Galileo wasn't the first scientist to posit the heliocentric theory of the solar system, he was likely the most assertive about it, Schmiesing noted, explaining that the trial was probably as much about Galileo ruffling the wrong feathers as it was about the belief that his theory was contrary to scripture.

Whatever the motivation, the trial was scandalous enough to warrant an admission, centuries later, from Pope John Paul II that Galileo shouldn't have been persecuted. According to Schmiesing, the episode can be summarized as a knee-jerk reaction to a misunderstanding.

Weintraub highlights the Galileo trial because it features the same elements that would be at play if biological life were discovered on a distant planet: traditional theological claims about the universe, new understandings of outer space and the perceived threat of change. Rather than offer a prescription for how to proceed in an age of space exploration, he simply wants to begin a conversation.

"What I want is for people to read the book and think," he said. "Most people haven't felt the need to think deeply about (extraterrestrial life) and I think they probably should. I think it's time to do so."

The evangelical case study

Although there are many compelling reasons for religious communities to begin discussing extraterrestrial life, Weintraub will likely be disappointed, explained Peter Enns, an affiliate professor of biblical studies at Eastern University. He said faith leaders have a reputation for being reactive rather than proactive in their response to scientific discoveries.

Enns has written extensively on America's evangelical Christian community, a group that Weintraub believes could have the hardest time reorienting their religious views to accommodate biological life on distant planets. Because of the group's commitment to a Bible-based worldview, discussion of the issue would be complicated by the fact that the Bible has nothing to say about space exploration.

"(The discovery of extraterrestrial life) would be an example of how an evangelical view of the Bible doesn't really have explanatory power for things that we see everyday," Enns said.

However, the evangelical community could begin to think seriously about when to expend their energy on scientific debates, noted J.T. Bridges, an assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Rather than spend time worrying about "what we may or may not discover" on missions to space, Bridges explained that evangelical Christians should learn to "understand the difference between central and peripheral commitments of their theology."

With a robust understanding of their theology, evangelicals would grasp that the existence of extraterrestrial life is no more threatening to the idea of God as creator than was the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun, he said.

"It wouldn't mean that large ecosystems could pop into existence from nothing," Bridges said. "Every contingent thing demands something that sustains it."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

You may also be interested in these stories:

NASA searches for extraterrestrial life; religious believers struggle to make sense of it

5 must see answers to faith's biggest questions