Religion and aliens

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Religion and aliens

Most religions, understandably, revolve around humanity and life on earth. How would these teachings respond to the discovery of alien life?

The continuing search for life

With the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on December 25, 2021, scientists gained another powerful tool for studying the Universe. Come summer 2022, the telescope will provide unprecedented insight into the early Universe and assess the habitability of distant planets.[1] [2]

Once operational, the telescope will become one of many recent and planned outer space projects that could discover extraterrestrial life. NASA’s Perseverance is currently searching the Martian surface for signs of water and life.[3] In 2022 and 2024, ESA and NASA will launch two separate missions to look for signs of life on Mars and Jupiter’s Moon Europa.[4] [5] Some believe it is only a matter of time before discovery of extraterrestrial life is made, especially as the discovery and observation of new planets continues to increase exponentially.[6] Unsurprisingly, the ramifications of such a discovery would be immense. Society on all levels would be affected – including religion. What would it mean for the world’s faiths if life existed beyond earth?

Princeton’s NASA-sponsored ‘exotheology’ team

In anticipation of the eventual discovery of extraterrestrial life, Princeton invited 24 theologians to grapple with these very questions. The programme was entitled: ‘The Societal Implications of Astrobiology’.[7] Princeton’s Center for Theological Inquiry (CTI) hosted the project, which was heavily funded by NASA and the Templeton Foundation, an organisation that explores the intersections of science and religion.[8]

Using a term coined by Professor Ted Peters of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, many refer to this theoretical work as exotheology or astro-theology.[9] Others have voiced disapproval at the fact that government agencies, like NASA, have funded what they see as purely religious matters that do not merit state funding.[10]

A forthcoming publication

Despite mild pushback, the research went on, leading to several publications. Amongst these publications will be the upcoming book Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, written by University of Cambridge’s Reverend Dr Andrew Davison, who was one of the 24 participants.[11]

In his research and the book, Davison, who labels his field ‘systematic theology’, explores the theoretical and doctrinal influence extraterrestrial discovery would have on Christianity.[12] [13] During his research, Davison found that discussions of astrobiology and theology have existed with decent regularity and popularity for at least the past 150 years.[14] However, previous inquiries, he feels, have not delved deeply into more substantial questions, such as: if there are other inhabited planets, did Jesus have incarnations there?[15]

Much ado about nothing?

Perhaps the most notable of Davison’s arguments, though, is that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would ultimately cause little consternation for Christians or Christianity.[16] Creation, whether on Earth or some distant planet, would be seen as emanating from the same God. Any fear that religion would be unable to handle extraterrestrial life ignores the challenges – like heliocentrism[17] and evolution – that have come before. Non-religious people, Davison believed, tend to overestimate the genuine implications for the religious.[18]

Davison does not stand alone in these beliefs. In a recent book exploring astrobiology in Islam, Jörg Matthias Determann argues that many Islamic traditions treat the idea of extraterrestrial life supportively.[19] Additionally, others look to quotations from the Quran that describe Allah as creator of all the heavens and Earth, leaving open the idea of other planets:[20] [21]

“And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and all moving
Creatures that he has scattered therein…”   (The Study Qur’an 42:29)[22]

Similarly, Jewish religious authorities, like Canadian Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and Dr Jonathan Romain, Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, have argued that Judaism also readily allows for extraterrestrial life.[23] [24] Freeman has alluded to Dr. Velvl Greene, a Jewish bacteriologist, who sought religious support as to whether he could assist NASA in searching for life on Mars. He was told that the endeavour would be completely fine, as God is described as having no limit: making the creation of extraterrestrial life perfectly consistent with previous understandings.[25] [26]

An alien-filled future

If, or as many believe, when extraterrestrial life is found, our world will be forever altered. In the inevitable philosophical, scientific, and social upheaval that would follow, religions look surprisingly well poised to weather and adapt from the challenge.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] The James Webb Space Telescope – Summary – ESA

[2] James Webb Space Telescope’s gold mirrors unfold to give a precious view

[3] Perseverance Rover Mission Overview

[4] Rosalind Franklin ExoMars Overview

[5] NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission

[6] If we made contact with aliens, how would religions react?

[7] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[8] NASA hasn’t hired theologians to study reaction to alien life

[9] If we made contact with aliens, how would religions react?

[10] If we made contact with aliens, how would religions react? Specifically citing actions of the Freedom From Religion Foundation

[11] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[12] Divinity academics research societal implications of astrobiology

[13] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[14] Divinity academics research societal implications of astrobiology

[15] Divinity academics research societal implications of astrobiology

[16] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[17] Heliocentrism was the theory (now proven) that Earth and other planets revolved around the sun, not vice versa – heliocentrism

[18] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[19] Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life – Abstract

[20] What does Islam say about aliens? A look at Quranic verses and Hadith

[21] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[22] Nasr, S. et al., eds. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.

[23] Heavens above: Nasa enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery

[24] Is There Life on Other Planets? The Jewish view on UFOs, aliens and extraterrestrial intelligence

[25] The Rebbe and the Scientist: Looking for Life on Mars

[26] Is There Life on Other Planets? The Jewish view on UFOs, aliens and extraterrestrial intelligence

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