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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The good, the bad and the ugly: behind the scenes of the Brexit broadcasts

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television, and last weekend was even stranger than usual.

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television. You sit there, isolated from the rest of the news, hair full of Elnett and face caked in something approaching yacht varnish. Then you’re expected to chat away with an anchor as if you were old mates under dazzling white lights, while seven crew members stand around watching you. Worse, everything has irony baked into it: TV now happens in the lively expectation that it will be instantly giffed, memed and stripped for parts on Twitter. It’s like eating a pre-chewed meal.

We live in such a media-literate culture that politics has the same sense of déjà vu. Its tropes are so familiar from TV programmes about politics that living through them in real-time 3D feels profoundly dissociative. You feel lost in the meta. I once asked a researcher what election night was like. “The only way in which it wasn’t like The Thick of It is that on The Thick of It no one runs around saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is just like The Thick of It!’”

Two days after the Brexit result, I went to College Green in Westminster to record a live version of BBC1’s Sunday Politics. The atmosphere on the muddy lawn, tramped by a thousand assistant producers, was suffused with overwrought importance and high absurdity. Spread out across the grass were tents – “Why don’t you sit in the news gazebo?” a producer told me – from which shell-shocked generals would occasionally emerge, ashen-faced, fresh from rallying the troops through an interview with Radio 5 Live. All it was missing were pillars of smoke, the whump of artillery and a man in a Hawaiian shirt with a cigar. Instead, we had a new shadow cabinet resignation every time we went off air for ten minutes.

That pandemonium compensated for referendum night, when all the channels were at their most sober. Inevitably, David Dimbleby was presiding over a stately galleon of a BBC show, on which things were so serious that Jeremy Vine wasn’t even allowed to dress up as a bendy banana. Over on ITV, Tom Bradby was doing his matinee idol thing (he always looks like someone playing a charming rotter in a detective drama)while Sky News had trapped Kay Burley at a series of parties where she couldn’t make anyone cry. It all reeked of gravitas.

Not so, the rest of the referendum telly. Take The Great Debate at Wembley, which BBC1 screened two nights before the vote. You know, the one that ended with Boris Johnson’s soulful invocation of “Independence Day” (never mind that many countries have an independence day and usually they’re celebrating independence from us). Between speeches from the main panel, led by Johnson and Ruth Davidson, the cameras flicked over to a second panel of people perched on those boy-band-doing-a-ballad high stools. For a moment, I thought that some form of panel Inception had occurred and there would be an infinite regression of panels, each marginally less famous than the last. In the best tradition of light entertainment, possibly the next one would have featured children who looked like Tim Farron and Priti Patel, offering faux-naive zingers.

The contest for the most surreal offering ended in a dead heat. The night before the vote, Channel 4 locked Jeremy Paxman in a room with an extraordinary collection of politicians and random Nineties celebrities. (Biggest surprise of the campaign: Peter Stringfellow is for Remain.) To put it in perspective, this was a show that Nigel Farage the attention vampire blew off. Poor old Paxman isn’t used to coping with luvvies. I thought he might throttle Sandie Shaw when he asked her about security and she started talking about “spiritism”. Someone with a cruel sense of humour should give Paxo a fluffy talk show. “TELL ME A BETTER SELF-DEPRECATING ANECDOTE FROM THE SET,” he’d thunder at Hugh Jackman. “AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT.”

The joint-weirdest bit of EU telly was ­Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on Channel 4’s The Last Leg, a show for which the pitch was surely “Top Gear but for sports”. He turned up in a white fur coat and a Bentley for the opening gag, confessed to feeling “seven and a half out of ten” about the EU and essayed a similarly nuanced answer about whether he’d rather have a knob for a nose or a nose for a knob. “You’re really stuck on this whole binary choice thing,” he said, gnomically. Then Russell Crowe turned up to exude his usual low-level petulant menace, crushing any possibility of fun.

Having watched a huge amount of television over the campaign, I have come to five conclusions: 1) our prosperity is assured if we can patent whatever David Dimbleby’s bladder is made out of; 2) no man has ever looked sadder in victory than Michael Gove on Friday morning; 3) Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Anna Soubry should get more TV bookings; 4) the Leave campaign had so many versions of the same middle-aged, bald, white man that I began to wonder if it was a trick, like three kids in a long coat; 5) Versailles on BBC2 – full of frocks and fireplaces and men with hair like Kate Middleton – is the only thing that kept me sane.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies