The discovery of extraterrestrial life might not shake people's faith in their religious beliefs, but it could lead them to wonder if Jesus Christ had incarnations on alien planets, scientists and theologians say.
These speculations and more arose from researchers presenting at a meeting of the Royal Society in London last year addressing the potential impacts of aliens on society, who detailed their analysis this month in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.
In one of the studies, which were released Jan. 10, astrobiologist Chris McKay at NASA Ames Research Center noted the consequences that aliens might have on society depend on whether humanity discovered only extraterrestrial life or also extraterrestrial intelligence.
"The discovery of life could very well or would probably be of microbes and could perhaps be on Mars or Europa, while the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence would almost certainly be from signals originating quite distant from us," McKay told SPACE.com.
"The implications of extraterrestrial microbial life would be that we would know the answer to the question of whether life is common — we might find it twice in our solar system — and we'd be able to learn more about life on Earth by comparing it to life from elsewhere," McKay added. "The detection of extraterrestrial intelligence, on the other hand, would not only answer the question of whether extraterrestrial life existed, but also be such an amazing event that it would be very hard to try and predict all the impacts it would have on society."
Aliens vs. religion?
One impact that extraterrestrials might have on society is in the sector of religion, said theologian Ted Peters at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. For instance, aliens might lead religions to question whether a second genesis of life elsewhere belongs within the biblical understanding of creation. Might Jesus Christ have appeared more than once in the universe? [ 10 Alien Encounters Debunked ]
"It's been argued for a couple of centuries now whether one incarnation of God as Jesus Christ for the entirety of creation is sufficient, with some thinking that God would do so multiple times as appropriate for the capacity of any individual species to comprehend," Peters told SPACE.com.
To see what effects the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence might have on religion, Peters and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,300 individuals worldwide from multiple religious traditions, -- including Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists and non-religious groups.
They found the vast majority of religious believers — regardless of religion — were overwhelmingly confident that they wouldn’t suffer a collapse in faith in the face of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. In addition, roughly one-third of religious people thought that the faith of other religions would be threatened, while two-thirds of nonreligious people thought that aliens would sway the faith of the religious as a whole.
Can space change religious beliefs?
There are many open questions as to how people on Earth might view beliefs from space. Could advances that alien civilizations could bring be perceived much like a secular form of salvation? Might advanced civilizations and their perhaps equally advanced philosophies make our religions feel primitive?
Alien religions could draw converts, and if there are many points of agreement between religions on Earth and from space, one might see communication of ideas across species as well. "Greek philosophers never met the God of Moses, but there were people who said, 'Doggone, there seems to be much that coheres,'" Peters said.
Theologians will not find themselves out of a job — traditional theologians will have to become astrotheologians, Peters noted.
"One of the things that distinguish one religious tradition from another are the symbols that have developed over time — Christians have their set, much as Hindus have theirs," he said. "No doubt extraterrestrials have their sets of symbols as well, and theologians will have their work cut out analyzing them to see if there is any continuity of meaning."
In terms of the impact extraterrestrials might have on science, astronomer Martin Dominik at the University of St. Andrews noted that one could then begin to question what environments might prove most habitable in the universe.
"Is Earth really a typical place?" he told SPACE.com. "Other forms of life would really allow us to draw deep conclusions about our own origins and our place in the universe."