During your lifetime, astronomers will likely uncover solid evidence for the existence or the extreme rarity of life in the universe. In my new book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?, I discuss the discoveries of planets around other stars, the possible discovery of life on those planets in the very near future, and the potential impact of those discoveries on our many different religions. Climb on board this 21st century astronomy discovery train, folks, because the ride will be profound and mind-blowing.
Why now? In the 1990s, astronomers began to perfect the tools and techniques for finding planets around other stars. Then they began to find planets. Now, they're pretty darn good at doing exactly that. NASA's Kepler mission identified thousands of extrasolar planets. ESA's GAIA mission, launched in 2013, is expected to find tens of thousands more. The number of projects and space missions dedicated to and planned for finding planets is in the hundreds. By the end of this century, astronomers will have put together catalogs that include the celestial locations of millions of planets.
Finding extrasolar planets is the appetizer. Studying them is the main course. And what are we serving for dinner? Perhaps the most important discovery in the history of human exploration: the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
And for dessert? Simply the meaning of life and the opportunity to probe our religious theologies for new meanings in the context of recognizing that the God who created humans on planet Earth also created Klingons and Wookies in other parts of the universe.
When most people think about extraterrestrials, they think about ET phoning home. What about ET praying? Could ET practice your religion? If you could hitch a ride with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon and arrive in a distant part of a galaxy far, far away from Earth, would your religion still make sense?
Let's look at one theological example. You are a member of the Islamic faith and therefore have certain religious obligations, the pillars of your faith. These include facing in the direction of Mecca while praying and undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca. These religious duties are challenging on Earth, as the place where you live might be separated from Mecca by oceans and mountains and deserts across a wide expanse on the curved surface of a spherical planet. But they are manageable. For sentient beings living hundreds of millions of light years from Mecca, fulfilling these obligations would almost certainly be impossible.
Many Muslim scholars agree that extraterrestrials can and likely do exist and that those sentient beings would submit to the will of Allah; however, these extraterrestrial Others would not be followers of the prophetically revealed religion of Islam. On their own worlds, they would have their own prophet, their own pillars of the faith, their own religion.
Another example: The soul of a Jain could transmigrate to the body of a physical being anywhere in the universe, thus allowing Jainism to be a universal religion, no matter the size of the universe. Life as humans on Earth, however, is the only opportunity for Jains to shed their karma and escape the cycle of death and rebirth. So for Jains, the Earth appears to be of unparalleled importance.
Some other religions have their own earthly biases, while certain religions appear to be more universal in nature. Thinking about whether a particular set of religious practices or beliefs would make sense on a different planet might be a valuable exercise in understanding ourselves.
David A. Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, is author of Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?