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

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit