02 November 2010

What to do with Jesus when the aliens arrive?

"Is there anyone out there?" was the title of today's lunchtime lecture at St Bartholomew's Church on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast. The lecture was given by the Rector, Dr Ron Elsdon. Ron is a good guy with a keen mind and a love for the quirky. A fully qualified geologist, he has no truck with creationists (which means that he is in my good books), and indeed one of his previous lectures was entitled "Rescuing Genesis from the Creationists", in which he took the view (as most people with anything between their ears at all do) that creationism is bad theology as well as bad science.

Full credit to Ron, he played this one with a very straight bat. There is no longer any doubt that there are likely to be many many places in the Universe where life could exist - the extremes under which life can quite happily frolic on our own wee planet demonstrate that the survivable zone is so wide that even in our own solar system there are several areas where life can survive. It is a different question whether those areas would be suitable for life to arise in the first place, and then evolve, but it seems that Goldilocks is a lot less fastidious than we used to think. So much for "fine tuning".

A lot hinges on the infamous Drake Equation (of which I am not a big fan), which is supposed to help us estimate how many civilisations our galaxy might contain, but produces answers so wildly dependent on guesses pre-loaded at the get-go that you might as well just look up and pick a number, any number. Cosmologist Paul Davies reckons that intelligent life is part of a self-organising complexifying principle in the universe; Ron contrasted this with a "random" view of evolution; I didn't quite get the drift of this - no-one thinks evolution is *random* - natural selection imposes a direction, but that direction is local and small-scale. It's only when we look back over large periods of time that we see the journey.

Has u aksepted Jebus into ur heart?
But what of the theological implications? This is where I need to be charitable - in my view, the discovery of alien intelligence (or its discovery of us, yeah?) will hammer the bejibblets out of "rational" theology. It probably won't affect people's belief, because that's not based on reason anyway. But it will cause a serious problem for some theological standpoints, and slap it up them if they can't cope. Ron is not worried, and I think he's right. They're either there or they're not - why should that matter to human religion? Heck, Father Joe Coyne, former Vatican Astronomer, says he'll baptise Zorgon (presumably if Zorgon wants to, and isn't a methane-based lifeform to whom liquid water would be perilous - maybe he could be baptised with liquid nitrogen or something).

Anyway, we'll keep waiting for ET to get our number, and when/if he/she/it does, we'll just have to deal with it. Unless they are cosmic Jehovah's Witnesses or some such. Imagine that knock on the door...


  1. "Unless they are cosmic Jehovah's Witnesses or some such. Imagine that knock on the door.."

    We have to write that film. Gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species appear above New York, Los Angeles, and Washington. Attempts to communicate with the craft are futile. Then, suddenly, without warning, vast quantities of tracts float down onto the city below - each with proving from the humble banana that Earthlings must convert!

  2. In the meantime, I think my Church should have a lecture on the compatibility of Christianity and zombie plagues.

    And possibly Poltergeists. Because I love that movie!

  3. What a fantastic blog.... oh how I laughed. Ron gets my thumbs up too, and I'm really sorry I missed this talk.

    Great GREAT pic & caption... as for baptism with liquid nitrogen, I see Heston Blumenthal had that experience last night on the Graham Norton show. Could he be an Alien? He professes an interest in eating AND science so maybe he's got the credentials...