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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem