Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

St. Paul's Letter to the Klingons

In an investigation of wasteful government spending, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has publicized the fact that the Pentagon sponsored a seminar (at the cost of $100,000) called "Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too?"

I wish I was making this up, but if you don't believe me, here's the source.  All of this rather undercuts Governor Romney's contention that we can't cut military spending without jeopardizing American national security, doesn't it?  Especially given that the folks at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) that sponsored the event hired noted astrophysicists LeVar "Geordi LaForge" Burton and Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols as keynote speakers, and had a gala "Come As Your Favorite Alien" dinner party afterwards.  One speaker, an unnamed philosophy professor who was called upon to address the topic brought up in the title of the event, concluded that Jesus only died for humans; the Klingons are on their own, sin-forgiveness-wise, not that they probably care.  I suspect that any priest who was brave enough to tell Gowron he had to say ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers because he'd told a fib last week would soon be missing important body parts, so it's probably just as well.

It is not the overall silliness of the workshop that I want to address here, nor the bloat in the Pentagon's budget.  What I'd like to look at is the central contention of the workshop -- which is what would happen to organized religion if intelligent life were found elsewhere in the universe.

It's probably facile to say, "Nothing.  There being life elsewhere wouldn't change belief in a deity here on Earth."  But think about it; almost every major discovery that science has made in the past thousand years has had the effect of moving humanity further out of the center of the universe.  From Copernicus (the Earth isn't at the center), to Kepler (the planets don't move in idealized perfect circles), to Darwin (humans evolve just like everything else), to Mendeleev (everything is made of the same set of elements), to Watson, Crick et al. (all organisms, including humans, encode genetic material the same way), everything we've found has led to the view that we're not really very special at all.  Humans are just one more animal species, made of the same stuff and behaving the same way as other animals do, on a little spinning ball of rock around a quite ordinary star in a quite ordinary galaxy.  The recent discovery of thousands of extrasolar planets, some of them fairly earthlike in characteristics, makes it seem like even what we have here on Earth may not be all that unusual.

Now, myself, I think all of this is wicked cool.  I love it that our systems work the same way as other animals; not only does it explain so much about our behavior, it also means we're inextricably connected to the natural world.  I think any blow to our species' ego is far outweighed by the fact that these discoveries are just downright fascinating.

But think about how antithetical that view is to the basic view of Christianity and the other major religions.  The mainstream religious view -- and I realize that there are individual people, and probably sects of religions, who do not believe this -- sees humanity as something special, something unique in the history of the universe.  In fact, Christianity's central tenet is that humanity is so special that the all-powerful, omniscient deity incarnated his son as one of us. 

So, what would happen if we were to discover intelligent alien life?  My sense is that a lot of folks with a strictly religious worldview would have a hard time incorporating it.  If you remember the wonderful movie Contact, which looks at just such a situation, recall that the ultrareligious wingnut who had been harassing the main character did have exactly that reaction -- to the point that he sacrificed his own life (taking out a great many other people with him) to protect the purity of the religious message.  While this movie is (of course) fiction, I don't think that such a thing is outside of the realm of possibility.  The discovery of intelligent alien life would be, in a way, the ultimate pulling-out-of-center for the human race, and one that I think some worldviews couldn't handle.

On the whole, I think the question is an interesting one to consider.  So even if DARPA probably shouldn't have spent 100 grand to throw their big Star Trek-themed party, it's an idea worth investigating.  I would, however,  be more interested to hear what Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku have to say on the matter than LeVar Burton and Nichelle Nichols.


  1. It's always seemed to me that people are very good at denying any part of reality that happens to be inconvenient to their preferred belief system. We have Holocaust deniers, moon landing deniers, climate change deniers by the millions, and those are all things happening on our own planet. It's easy by comparison to refuse to believe something whose source is a few scientists with a huge radio dish that the average hobbyist can't afford. Scientists are shady characters anyway, wanting us to believe in evolution and all that crap.
    Unless the aliens show up in person -- and even then, I mean, come on, those are costumes.

  2. I should also mention, I know a lot of people of faith who practice it without ego -- people in SF fandom, for instance, and just ordinary decent folks. If they've thought about it (the ones in fandom have, of course) they already assume that intelligent life must exist elsewhere, since there isn't any here, and would welcome its discovery. For them, the ETs are also God's children. Whether or not they've been saved.
    Certain religions would have much less of a problem with this, too -- Buddhists, say.

  3. Anecdotally, we're all God's children, but the J-man was his
    "son." Never understood this. He's the favorite son? The extra special son? Created in God's image (which we all are, apparently) and made human (like all of us)... so was Jesus like a homo sapien 2.0 or something?

    Kinda feel like I'm playing second fiddle to God's more favored son. That'll breed resentment in any household.

    24 children died yesterday as collateral damage from the rockets exchanged between Israel and Hamas.
    If they had been given ice cream cones, everyone would "praise the lord!"
    Instead, they got murdered, so "the lord works in mysterious ways."