A question asked not infrequently is whether or not there might be intelligent beings on other planets. Some religious people are very dogmatically opposed to such a notion. Many such people seem convinced that the Bible leaves no room for Vulcans and Romulans. Agreeing with these religious people, many of the non-religious skeptics have argued that finding life on other planets would create serious problems for earthly religions and might destroy some of them.
Both positions are nonsense. As human beings, we like to have all the answers to everything. Too often, people make the mistake in imagining that the Bible must have an answer to every imaginable question. They suppose that surely the Bible must say something that would be incompatible with life existing elsewhere in the universe. But it doesn't. The Bible simply does not have all the answers to every question that someone might ask. It doesn’t claim to. It doesn’t try to. It is odd how many people imagine that it does, even though none of them would start flipping pages in their Bible to solve a problem they’re having with their computer. The Bible simply does not address what goes on elsewhere in the universe. The writers of scripture didn’t even know of the existence of other worlds, let alone concern themselves with such notions.
Someone asked Jesus once what the most important commandment might be. Jesus’ response was that the most important commandment was to love God and to love each other. He then commented that this was what the Bible was all about. The apostle Paul would later argue the same point. Thus, I find it hard to fathom how finding life elsewhere would contradict those two central commands or render religion obsolete.
So what are the chances of life beyond Earth? Our space exploration has made it certain that there is no other intelligent life in our solar system and, until recently it seemed unlikely that there was any life elsewhere at all, even on a microscopic level. Mars in the past may have had life, according to the findings of a team from NASA in 1996 working on a meteorite discovered in
Antarctica. And the European space probe Mars Express has detected evidence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, which some suggest might be a signature of bacterial life. Just this past week NASA announced that the rover Curiosity has also found evidence of methane. Thus, there remains some small chance of finding life—though very primitive life–on Mars today, or possibly in a place like Titan or Europa—though in the case of Titan or Europa, the life wouldn't be quite as we're used to it. But considering some of the peculiar places life shows up on Earth (in the extreme cold temperatures of the Antarctic ice or the boiling, sulfurous vents at the bottom of the ocean), until further study is made, we cannot absolutely exclude the possibility of primitive life elsewhere in our solar system. What about outside our solar system? It used to be said that we couldn't even demonstrate the existence of planets beyond our solar system, let alone life. However, in the last decade that has changed. Nearly 2000 planets have been located around nearby stars and we now know that the planets in the sky outnumber the stars in the sky. It is hoped that by the end of this decade it will be possible to actually photograph earth-like planets around nearby stars. Since it is the case that planets are not uncommon, then simply consider the numbers: within the Milky Way Galaxy alone there are over one hundred billion stars. This is about the average size of galaxies. In the visible universe there are over a hundred billion galaxies. If only one percent of the stars have Earth-like planets (and that is an extremely conservative estimate) then in just this galaxy alone there are at least a billion stars with Earth-like planets. Of course, the sheer size of the universe answers another, possibly related question. Could we have visitors—space ships from other planets—visiting Earth? Very unlikely. First, the universe has so many stars in it that simply the chance that someone should have selected ours for a visit would be incredible. You're more likely to win the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes (remember, there's a hundred billion stars just in the Milky Way Galaxy). Secondly, the distances between the stars are so great that it is not probable anyone would have bothered to make such a trip. Star Trek is wonderful fiction, but it is only fiction. Unless Harold "Sonny" White’s experiments for NASA actually work and he can create warp bubbles, getting to the stars will be journeys that take too long. Suffice it to say, that traveling to just the closest star, at the fastest rates that any human space craft has traveled at, would take more than three thousand years in travel time. Hardly practical. The point of this little exercise is to demonstrate something. The universe is an extremely large place. So the question: why is it so large? Of course, it would be begging the question to ask: would it need to be so large if humanity were the only intelligent life that there is? On the other hand, it could very well be, for whatever reason, that life like us could exist only if the universe were this size. The scientists wonder how easy it is for intelligence to develop. They suggest that it is possible that the events which conspired to produce us might be so rare and so unusual that we would be unique. Therefore, if the universe were not as big and complex as it is, then there would not be enough chances for all the random elements to come together to make us happen. Of course the theistically minded would argue that it was not random chance, and so the question remains, would God make the universe as big as it is if we human beings were the only ones to inhabit it? There's no way to answer the question apart from actually going out and checking. And even then, simply the failure to find anyone else would not in and of itself demonstrate there is no one else, at least not until we managed to check every place.
So how will religion respond when and if extraterrestrials are found? Since the Bible says we should love one another, if we ever do find beings elsewhere the only religious question we’ll have to answer is this: “Does the biblical injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves apply to little green men?”
I don’t really think it will be too hard to figure out the answer to that question.