Friday, July 14, 2017

Weintraub, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life (2014)

David A. Weintraub, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How will we deal with it? Springer-Praxis, 2014. Pp. xiii+234. ISBN 978-3-319-05055-3. $34.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Weintraub’s Religions and Extraterrestrial Life is a work of popular astronomy and theology, written by an academic astrophysicist and published by an imprint of Springer, one of the large academic publishing multinationals that dominate the market. The core thesis of this volume is that we are within a generation at most of either discovering extraterrestrial life (if not intelligence), or learning that it is extremely rare, at least in our part of the universe. He then sets out to discuss how various major world religions will deal with this scientific knowledge, based primary on the foundation texts and/or mainstream theology of each movement, and ultimately concludes that most faith groups will be largely unshaken by the news (either way)—either because their tenets allow for non-human life, or because they are already in the business of denying science and so will have no qualms about ignoring it. As an astronomer, Weintraub’s chapters popularizing the detection of exoplanets and the possibility of astrobiology are extremely well-written, successful and useful; his forays into theology are more patchy, one-sided, and in many places disappointingly shallow. On the whole this is a valuable and interesting book, both thoughtful for non-specialists interested in extraterrestrial life, and a contribution to the critical discussion about religion and science.

One of the angles from which I intended to review this book was the interest that it potentially holds for the science fiction reader, and especially to authors and world-builders, who are in the business of speculating about societal reactions to world-moving future events and discoveries. Because of the focus on academic theology to the exclusion of the reactions of worshippers and populations, that I shall criticize further below, it may be of less utility to the SF writer that I might have hoped, but it is still very useful and informative on the status quo of religious positions on alien life.

Weintraub begins with two short chapters on this history of belief in alien life, pluralism in religious thought, and the Principle of Plenitude—the idea that an all-powerful god would be bound to fill space with life once he had gone to the trouble of creating it all. This discussion starts from Aristotle, and focuses on western theology and philosophy, and especially Enlightenment writers. Two further chapters discuss in great detail the detection of exoplanets, the science and mathematics behind identification of star and planet types, and especially the relatively few Earth-like planets among them (although the volume is now three years out of date and several times more Earth-like planets have now been recognized, Weintraub’s conclusions and predictions on this front are still pretty much valid). An appendix goes into further, exhaustive detail on the 167 exoplanets discovered up to 2013.

The bulk of the volume then, somewhat over half by page-count, is made up of a series of detailed accounts of how various major religions would deal with three core questions: (1) the discovery of extraterrestrial life or intelligence; (2) the conclusion that extraterrestrial life is absent or unlikely; (3) the question of whether non-human intelligent life could be converted to and saved by the religion in question—if applicable. The focus in these sections is on analyzing the texts and theological writers of major (especially historical) religious intellectuals and authorities, where the Judeo-Christian or Book religions are concerned. For the mostly Asian religions discussed more briefly at the end of this section, Weintraub largely restricts himself to discussing primary texts and mostly western interpretations of them. It is true that even historians and literary scholars in the western academy are guilty of writing about South Asian sacred mythology as if centuries of Indian scholarship on the subject did not exist (or even explicitly claim that western scholarship is superior, somehow more objective), and much of this work is not translated and accessible to the Anglophone scholar, but it is still a disappointing and imperialist imbalance to see different religions treated so unequally.

The conclusion of most of these chapters on individual faiths is that on the whole they would cope with either the presence or absence of extraterrestrial intelligence from the scientific consensus of the mid-late twenty first century. There would be very different responses to the question of whether extraterrestrials are “people,” and even more over whether or not they can or should be converted to our religions, whether they were “created in God’s image,” our salvation is for them, or indeed they have souls or should be considered our equals in morality. Some religions have no problem with the idea that the same (or different but equally valid) religious observations that are dictated for humans, might just as well save all intelligent beings with free will. Most such religions however are extremely geocentric, and most holy books specify that religious strictures, special treatment, and practices leading to salvation are for Earth-born humans alone—some allow the possibility that other arrangements have been made by God or gods for aliens. The exceptions to this general acceptance include Orthodox and other fundamentalist Christians, whose worldview does not include evolution, much of modern medicine and physics, and therefore would reject the assault on anthropocentricity that they would see in scientific claims of discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence or even plant life.

So far so convincing, and well-researched, reasonable scholarship (with the exception of the western-centrism already mentioned). I feel there are many more questions that could be asked with regard to religious responses to extraterrestrial life, a few of which I will touch on here. Some of what follows is a criticism of shortcomings of Weintraub’s book, but the majority may be taken as suggestions for further research, that would complement this useful start.

One rather obvious approach that would have contributed a lot to this book’s argument would be the comparison of how various religions have reacted to the encounters with peoples of other races, cultures, intellectual systems and faiths. As noted in the chapter on Anglicanism, C.S. Lewis was very aware that the colonial history of Christianity did not bode well for the religion’s ability to deal peacefully and respectfully with the encounter with alien life (122). One feels keenly the lack of more detailed discussion of how the religions covered (often, as I say, via historical texts and theological authorities) reacted to encounters with other faiths, how they went about the task of proselytizing initially uninterested populations (peacefully or violently), their willingness to accept other races as human—the slowness of such acceptance having allowed or even led to multiple great atrocities of history, of course, transatlantic slavery being but one of them. This history—and especially the consideration of how cultures and faiths have evolved since the crisis of global contact—would contribute to a discussion of how many of the world’s religions would react to an encounter with extraterrestrial life.

I am also unsure to what degree the opinions and reactions of intellectual theologians and religious historians is a good indicator of the reaction of the majority of follows, of a religion’s likelihood of retaining followers in the face of challenging developments, or the resistance of religious movements to change. One alternative approach to these questions might be to study how religions retain or lose active followers in the current environment: how do religious populations react to developments in science that might challenge the traditional tenets of their faith? How is religiosity affected by the level of education, especially scientific education, of a population? How do religions fare as populations become more prosperous? How do religions cope with social change, especially evolving attitudes to gender, sexuality, tolerance of other faiths and cultures, which will be an inevitable challenge on encountering non-human intelligence? Another approach to this question might be to investigate the beliefs, opinions and openness to change of rank and file followers, individuals, and current influential leaders of various religious communities—a range of sociological and anthropological methodologies would be available to a researcher interested in this angle.

A few minor points before I end. Weintraub discusses in some detail (although with uneven grasp of the literature) several major branches and minor descendants of Christianity, plus Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and the Baha’i faith—but I missed reference to animistic and spiritual religions. There may be no single cult with millions of follows that such a story could focus on, but there are probably hundreds of millions of religionists in this category worldwide, whose beliefs and attitudes to extraterrestrial life deserve attention. Another question that was not raised in this study was the possibility of new religions arising in response to the discovery of intelligent aliens—comparison with movements such as New Age and UFO cults, and even Mormonism and Scientology would contribute to this discussion. Finally, I would be fascinated by a study that considered how we would react if it turned out that extraterrestrial intelligent beings were themselves religious (even more so if they followed a recognizable version of an Earth religion!). This would of course be a new study, and there is no guarantee that we would agree on what is meant by “religion” with reference to a species and culture so utterly different from our own as aliens no doubt would be.

I have identified some shortcomings of Weintraub’s study: excessive focus on written theology, and asymmetrical attention to western religions. This is primarily a work of astronomy, however, not sociological or religious scholarship, and as astronomy it is rigorous, accessible and entertaining. Although there are many—especially social—questions that must inevitably remain the purview of speculative fiction, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life will contain much valuable inspiration and education for an SF writer setting out to write about some of them.

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