Christianity and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

A review of <em>Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence</em> by David Wilkinson.

Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
David Wilkinson
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £25

In 1960 in West Virginia, the astronomer Frank Drake initiated the first systematic scientific attempt to scan the heavens for alien communication. Today, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), which requires significant investments of money and hope, remains the most daring attempt to settle the question of whether we are alone in the universe or whether, at some point in time, on some faraway, spinning extrasolar planet, other forms of intelligent life evolved.

For some, a single clear sign – a purposeful blip in the background radio hum of the universe – would be enough to change for ever their understanding of the universe and, in particular, the place of human beings within it. Above all, it is Christians whose belief system would require the most recalibration: they are devoted to a biblical understanding of man’s position in the universe and believe that the unique events of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection confirmed the special relationship between a creator God and His earthbound creation. The late-18th-century thinker Thomas Paine declared in The Age of Reason that anyone who believes himself to be both a Christian and a reasonable defender of the idea of the existence of other worlds has “thought but little of either”.

This book is a brave riposte to Paine. David Wilkinson, a professor of theology and religion at Durham University, is both an astronomer and a Christian. He holds PhDs in theoretical astrophysics and systematic theology. Here he undertakes to examine the consequences for Christian thinking of the latest developments in the search for extraterrestrial life. A Methodist, he scrupulously investigates the science involved and offers a detailed reconsideration of that science in the light of his and other Christian beliefs.

In the 3rd century BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “There are infinite worlds both like and unlike ours . . . We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures.” For over 2,500 years human beings have speculated about life beyond our planet. The logic of infinity has seemed to require the belief that somewhere, whether in this or another, parallel universe, the purposeful (or purposeless) accidents that brought about our existence have achieved the same for little green men or other, unimaginable forms of life. As Wilkinson points out, philosophers and scientists in the Judaeo-Christian tradition have often been at the forefront of such thinking, their faith in a benign, all-powerful God leading them to assume an inherent order in the natural world and to exult in His capacity to encourage life extravagantly throughout the universe.

Set against this candid presumption in favour of extraterrestrial intelligence have been two lines of thought. Some Christians, attached to the biblical account of God’s special relationship with human beings, have considered it blasphemous to challenge earth’s central place in God’s plan (Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for his temerity to do so). From an opposing perspective, evolutionary biologists from Charles Darwin up to the present day have teased out the multitudinous improbabilities of the evolution of any life at all, let alone intelligent life. For some contemporary cosmologists, it has come to seem almost miraculous how perfectly aligned these chances have been in the case of our “goldilocks” planet – and therefore practically impossible that the same could occur elsewhere. As Wilkinson puts it, even if we were to find traces of primitive life on Mars, “It is a long way to proceed from archaea to an accountant.”

Wilkinson valiantly defends SETI from every corner, however. With one foot on the rock of science, he tackles the paradox, enunciated in 1950 by the physicist Enrico Fermi, that if earth is not special in having intelligent life, “Where is everybody?” With his other foot on the rock of faith, he explores how Christian thinkers have extended the reach of salvation to the furthest limits of the known and unknown universe while imagining hopefully that on other planets there may have been no apple, and so no sin.

The difficulty is that, despite this straddling, the book falls into two halves. The uneasy fit between evidence-based science and Christian apologetics is exacerbated by the unnecessary attention that Wilkinson gives to wacky theories about UFOs and other fantasies and by the absence of analysis of the perspectives of the other major religions. His argument is thorough rather than elegant and on some occasions he irritatingly fails to identify beyond the name the authorities he quotes, so that the reader has to check the position they occupy in the debate.

In keeping with the teaching of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who urged those eager to embrace the idea of extraterrestrial life to “be not so positive”, Wilkinson is carefully agnostic about its eventual discovery. However, it is clear that, for him, as for many Christians, “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces”, as Pascal put it, offers a greater existential threat than the demotion of earth’s centrality that the discovery of extraterrestrials would require.

Emma Crichton-Miller is a journalist and producer

Judeo-Christian philosophers have been at the forefront of the search for alien life. Photo : Beth Hoeckel (Main)

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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