February 22nd 2017—NASA reveals the stunning discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a nearby ultra-cool dwarf star. Three of these worlds reside in the Goldilocks Zone, where the distance from their star is just right for these planets to host liquid water. The nerds responsible name this solar system TRAPPIST-1. It’s in the constellation Aquarius, only forty light years away, which means that if we invent light speed travel, it’d take forty years to get there.
It’s unlikely we’ll develop spacecraft able to transport humans at this speed in our lifetime, although my Greek uncle told me he can make it happen, pointing to his modified Commodore as proof. The very first sign of alien life, if we ever get it, will probably come instead from looking at the planets’ atmosphere. If we can photograph the sun’s light as it passes through a planet’s atmosphere, we can analyse its make-up and draw conclusions based on what we know about life on Earth. Finding high amounts of oxygen mixed in with methane in a planet’s atmosphere is a strong hint of life. Other clues to search for include the existence of water vapour, and ozone. Soon after TRAPPIST-1’s discovery, a NASA scientist called it “the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”
Let’s say we detect oxygen and methane on one of these planets. And not only that, but we confirm—undoubtedly—that intelligent life exists on this planet, perhaps through intercepted radio waves carrying clearly distinguishable language. While scientists cheer, historians tremble, and Trump turns the wall blueprints into a dome, my burning question is this: what then happens to our relationship with God? Would contact with extraterrestrial intelligence contradict the tenets of humanity's prominent religions? Would our religions collapse? And if the answer to these questions were yes, but people still desperately cling to their faith, what does that reveal about the power of religion over the mind?
These are some of the questions I asked in interviews with theologians, astronomers and the Vatican in the months following TRAPPIST-1’s discovery. Thought experiments on the theological implications of extraterrestrial life form the basis of ‘exotheology’—a term that’s only a few decades old, but a field that’s challenged thinkers for centuries. Thomas Aquinas reasoned in thethirteenth century that there’s probably only one world of living creatures. A generation later, both the Bishop of Paris Étienne Tempier and the French priest Jean Buridan separately argued that God could make several worlds.
The debate has continued, and evolved. Of course, scientific discoveries have confronted religious beliefs before. As seemingly oppositional means of finding truth, they’ve sparred throughout history: Galileo’s heliocentric view of the Solar System versus the Catholic Church’s geocentric one; Charles Darwin versus Genesis. But any Christian theologian worth their cross today can incorporate the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution into their understanding of God’s creation.
Even if you’re not a theologian, asking yourself if there’s an almighty creator—and if there’s extraterrestrial life—is a thought-provoking exercise. These questions have implications for our place in the universe, and on why you’re conscious and reading this essay right now.
Themiya Nanayakkara just finished his PhD at Swinburne University looking into how galaxies formed after the Big Bang. He’s not extremely religious, but he grew up in the Buddhist faith.
“Through the scripture, it always says there are aliens and different levels of beings,” he explains. “Any being can become a Buddha. There are multiple Buddhas, even in the same time in different worlds around us.”
The Mahayana branch of Buddhism is seemingly more astronomically accurate than that of any religion in the West. (There’s no clear reason why—it could be they were more imaginative, though Buddhists might argue it’s simply because the sacred writings are true...) Until Galileo, most people falsely believed the universe was just a sun and seven planets revolving around Earth. In Religion East & West, the Buddhist scholar Professor Ron Epstein explains that scripture written by one of Buddha’s disciples, Mahā-maudgalyāyana, “shows that 2,500 years ago, Buddhists were aware of a vastcosmos filled with suns and planets and sentient life... [In the Maharatnakuta-sutra] we are presented with a cosmology that seems much closer [to our current scientific view of the physical universe] than the Western pre-Galilean view.”
Themiya says that many cutting-edge scientific theories of our universe are found in Buddhist scripture: “When I was growing up, I was interested in aliens, but as a Buddhist you’re kind of expected to be. Especially in Mahayana traditions, you have the concept of parallel universes.”
"Wait, what? Parallel universes? What’s next—you can be reincarnated as an alien?
“Yeah,” Themiya laughs. “We expect that anyway.”
He explains the only things that would challenge his religious beliefs would be if aliens could prove that there’s one supreme being who created the world, or disprove reincarnation. So it’s not the discovery of aliens on TRAPPIST-1 that troubles his relationship with Buddhism, but what scientifically superior aliens might enlighten us about the origins of our universe.
This piece is published in full in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Every time Nick Taras finishes a paragraph—usually about space, aliens, God, comedy or American Football—he plays "This Is How We Do It" and takes a bath.