In that my dad has just started watching Ancient Aliens (I know, I know, but it gets him thinking), we’ve been discussing the implications of aliens for religion and humankind. It happens that there is a new column from the God Squad rabbi about such things. Someone wrote to ask Rabbi Gellman what the implications of the possible discovery of thousands of “goldilocks”, aka “good for carbon life”, planets has for religion. What do the major religions say about aliens and would this compromise the supposed status of human beings as a god’s “chosen people”? (the person supposedly asking the question said “Cinderella” not “goldilocks”. I suppose they have bad stepsisters?)
The rabbi starts with claiming that if there are other conscious beings that can rise to “comtemplate God”, God loves them too. Gellman states that there is no “biblical” reason to think that being made in the image of God is limited to only humans. There is a problem with stating that since Jews, Christians, etc, can’t agree on what the “image of God” means. Some are quite certain that their god is of a certain sex, has a set of gluteous maximi, and that humans are made to look just like him. Others are sure that the “image of God” has nothing to do with actual physical characteristics but we are mentally or spiritually like this god. In either case, those of us who have read science fiction know that we can postulate all sorts of aliens that have different mores, gods and lack of gods. Indeed, just watch some Star Trek: The Original Series, to see how just one milieu dealt with aliens and gods.
The rabbi then states a rather curious thing that in the very first sentence of the bible there “might” be evidence that this god of his has created life elsewhere. This depends on the usual theist claim that things might not be interpreted “correctly”. Most everyone is familiar with the first sentence of the bible “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We got to hear it a lot on the popular media this December since those words were read when the first humans orbited Luna back in 1968. The words aren’t quite as enthralling when one translates them as Gellman say is the “correct” way. “In the beginning of God’s creating this heaven and this earth…” The closest I can find to this particular translation is in Young’s Literal translation “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth “ (which also has God “fluttering” around). One can guarantee that other theists will have some problem with Gellman’s claim. We also have no more word on what other religion say about aliens, just what you would expect from religions that were from cultures that didn’t even think about such things because they were sure the stars were just points of light on a dome. Again we see that for a supposedly clear and magical book that reveals truths, it is anything but.
Gellman does bring up an interesting idea. Is consciousness required for having some kind of spirituality? And if a being is conscious (the definition of this is still debated), has this consciousness led aliens to “conceptualize a God [sic] in which they believe.” One can immediately see that the rabbi is still sure that monotheism is correct though he has no evidence of such a thing. However, this idea that consciousness gives rise to an idea of a god is nothing new and definitely doesn’t mean that gods are real. If consciousness allows one to “conceptualize” e.g. form an idea about something, it does not support that gods are actual beings. It could simply be a side effect of intelligence, the debated tendency of humans to see agency behind everything or the need for humans to be credulous at least as children so they obey authority and don’t get eaten by tigers. God, and the supernatural, can be, and indeed seem to be, completely human ideas with no more reality to them than the idea of Russell’s Teapot which can be imagined but does not have to actually exist.
The rabbi wonders “would they have independently evolved a moral code like ours or would they have grown into a people with no freedom, justice or love?” Well, if one assumes it’s a god like the rabbi believes in, there is no reason to think that there would be a different code, considering that the rabbi must believe that his god interferes with humans constantly if he agrees with his bible and that this god is some constant. Of course, there could be a god that is just toying with mortals, but that’s not God.
Unsurprisingly, the rabbi appears to use an old theist bit of nonsense, the assumption that no one can have “freedom, justice or love” without his god. But, he appear to try to give a sop to those of us without gods. He is sure that “do unto others as you would have done unto you” is a “universal moral truth accessible through both reason and revelation”. So, we have that the rabbi admits that one does not need his god at all for morality. I rather doubt he intended this, but there you have it.
Of course, he backpedals furiously from this claim that human (or alien) reason can lead to a morality in the very next paragraph. He asks whether “Could another species of intelligent life violate rational and religious moral truth in their speculations?” He is sure that they could not. And why is he sure? Because Judeo-Christian God simply must exist and thus “do unto others” must be from this god. Yes, it’s that silly, and again shows how Sophisticated Theologianstm are no more gifted in reasoning than your average one. We first have an admission that one does not need a god to teach morals, but then we have that only this god of Gellman’s can teach morals. Sigh. We also get a de rigeur invocation of Nelson Mandela and Dr. King of how this universe “arcs toward freedom”. Alas, no one got the memo until humans decided that slavery was wrong. There was no voice from on high that ever declared this, certainly not the Judeo-Christian god.
Finally, Gellman decides that it is possible for us to be the only ones that this god gave “both physical and spiritual grace”. Now, that does scare me but doesn’t surprise me at all. If we can decide that aliens haven’t been given this “grace” then we can decide that they aren’t worthy (see Curse of Ham to see how myths are used to justify nonsense in all sorts of odd ways. Also take a look at how things can change with other claims that are still around: Annio da Viterbo). If they can be declared to be soulless monsters, isn’t it easy to decide that we can do with them what we want?
It seems that again we have another very good reason to eliminate the ignorance and arrogance that most, if not all, religions are based on. Of course, we do have to hope that the aliens have done the same thing…
9 thoughts on “Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – the possibility of extraterrestrial beings and religion”
Excellent piece, Club. I think it’ll only be with the discovery of intelligent alien life that the majority of people on this rock will finally jettison superstition.
Just one point to our learned colleagues: Sadly, this universe does not “arc toward freedom,” rather tyranny.
indeed. without a lot of hard work, freedom wouldn’t be.
and indeed, most of the concepts of freedom as we conceive of it today are from the Founding Fathers and Enlightment thought. Enlightenment thought is as about as diametrically opposed to religious thought as you can get without going into the realms of logic and science. Even though Patrick Henry seems to have combined the two, and frankly just comes off as a little off his rocker.
Reblogged this on Anthropology .
Thanks for the re-blog!
Aliens would only have a morality similar to humans if they evolved as pack cursorial hunters. Mentally/Morally speaking our closest relatives on earth are dogs, not apes. Though apes and cats are more or less tied for second.
I’m curious. can you explain a bit more about why you find dogs the closest and not apes?
Because Apes do not have a high communication needed pack style of hunting…only dogs and humans do. We are so similar in our pack structure and hunting style that the human raised by wolves/domestication of wolf/Dog has happened throughout history. Apes…not so much.
I can see that, but I think you run into a chicken/egg problem in the idea of communication and the way we get food.