The Copernican Revolution brought with it the realization that there are other suns in the universe, which in turn paved the way to speculation that the planets orbiting them might be populated with intelligent beings. In no time at all, some began to wonder whether the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials (ETIs, to use the conventional acronym) was compatible with the Christian message. The political philosopher Thomas Paine (1737–1809) is perhaps the best known proponent of the incompatibility thesis. He was adamant that "the two beliefs cannot be held together in the same mind; and he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either."1
Paine, of course, was eager to find reasons to discredit organized religion. Paine was not, however, alone in endorsing an either/or position in regard to belief in ETIs and Christianity. Philosopher William Whewell (1794–1866), a Christian believer, also embraced this dichotomy. Whewell reasoned that the specialness of the human race (and planet Earth) would be lost if there were other planets inhabited by intelligent life-forms: [End Page 69]
The earth . . . can not, in the eyes of any one who accepts this Christian faith, be regarded as being on a level with any other domiciles. It is the Stage of the great Drama of God's Mercy and Man's Salvation. . . . This being the character which has thus been conferred upon it, how can we assent to the assertion of Astronomers, when they tell us that it is only one among millions of similar habitations?2
It has once again become increasingly popular to oppose a belief in Christianity to a belief in ETI existence. For instance, physicist Paul Davies maintains that "it is hard to see how the world's great religions could continue in anything like their present form should an alien message be received."3 And philosopher Willem B. Drees presents us with a dichotomy that suggests (paradoxically) that a loving response to extraterrestrials might require us to set aside traditional Christian beliefs: "But that is not to say that extraterrestrials are to be conformed to traditional theological schemes; Bethlehem does not have to be the center of the universe. It is more important to be open-minded, loving, responsible."4
Facile Solutions to the Compatibility Question
Of course, many do not agree that the existence of ETI is opposed to the Christian message. A couple of common approaches used to show that there is no incompatibility, however, fall short of their goal. One of them consists in noting that God is all-powerful and the universe an immense place, from which it is inferred that there would be nothing surprising about God populating other planets. The problem with this approach is that it passes over all the difficulties in reconciling the two beliefs, difficulties that led Paine and others to conclude that the two were incompatible. At a meeting held by the Pontifical Academy of Science on the ETI question, the science fiction writer Robert Sawyer criticized the response of one of the participants on this very score: "It was basically a spiritual as opposed to an explicitly Christian reply, and it [End Page 70] amounts to nothing more than saying that in this whole vast universe, sure, there might be other intelligences. The hard response would be to deal with the issue in explicitly Christian terms."5 Talk about the size of the universe and what God is able to do fails to address the doubts about ETI existence that arise from the Christians beliefs in the Incarnation, Redemption, and lordship of Christ.
Another common move in the ETI-Christianity debate is to point out that the purpose for which Scripture was written is human salvation and to conclude from this that Scripture does not say anything that has bearing on the...