By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Reports in 1996 that a meteorite from Mars that was found in Antarctica might contain fossilized remains of living organisms led then-Vice President Al Gore to convene a meeting of scientists, religious leaders and journalists to discuss the implications of a possible discovery of extraterrestrial life.
Gore walked into the room armed with questions on notecards but, according to MIT physicist and associate provost Claude R. Canizares, he put them down and asked this first question: What would such a discovery mean to people of faith?
There was silence, and then DePaul University president Jack Minogue, a priest, said: "Well, Mr. Vice President, if it doesn't sing and dance, we don't really have to worry much from a missionary point of view."
Everyone had a good laugh, and then moved on to the serious business of exploring the consequences of such a historic and unsettling discovery -- a discussion that continued for two hours.
Most scientists now discount the meteorite as evidence of Martian life, but preparing the public for a more definitive announcement continues. Several conferences and three major workshops have been held, the most recent sponsored by NASA, the John Templeton Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Its report, called "Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Implications of Astrobiology," was published last year.
"Any discovery of extraterrestrial life would raise some challenging questions -- about the origin of life on Earth as well as elsewhere, about the centrality of humankind in the universe, and about the creation story in the Bible," said Connie Bertka, a Unitarian minister with a background in Martian geology who ran the workshops for the AAAS.
"The group felt strongly that the general public needs to know more about this whole subject and what astrobiology is trying to do," she said.
Stephen J. Dick, NASA's chief historian and a member of the NASA-sponsored panel and another private effort, said he thinks that all the Abrahamic religions would have to adapt, "because the relationship of God and man is so central, and the idea that man was made in God's image and put on Earth is so strong."
If life exists elsewhere, he said, then why would life on Earth be paramount to a creator? "A God that created the Earth and life on other Earths would still be majestic, but the logic of Him being someone to pray to and to get salvation from diminishes," he said.
University of Notre Dame professor emeritus Ernan McMullin, a priest and panel member who writes about religion, science and extraterrestrial life, said that the discovery of life beyond Earth would pose special -- though not insurmountable -- challenges to Christianity, with its message that God sent his only son to live on Earth.
"Christians and others have debated this question for centuries, and often more intently than today," McMullin said. "They've argued over whether and how Christ might go to other planets if life was there, and then there's the whole question of: How could life exist elsewhere if it isn't really mentioned in the Bible?"
Still, many religious people see the possibility of life beyond Earth as consistent with their views of an omnipotent and omnipresent God. Vatican chief astronomer José Gabriel Funes, for instance, told reporters in May that the Catholic Church sees no theological problems arising from that possibility, and spoke of the possibility of "brother extraterrestrials."
Bertka said that efforts to describe and explain the aims and implications of astrobiology are especially important in the United States, where religion remains a larger part of people's lives than in many parts of the world and where so many Americans say they feel a personal connection to God in their daily lives.
"We need to understand that any discovery of extraterrestrial life would not only be an important scientific moment, but an important religious and philosophical one, too," Bertka said.