From September 18-19, 2014, NASA and the Library of Congress are hosting a symposium on how society can prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Leading astrobiologists from around the world will convene at the Library of Congress in Washington DC., to discuss the latest scientific theories and developments in the search for extraterrestrial life. Presenters will discuss the implications from recent scientific breakthroughs in discovering the existence of exoplanets, new theories of the conditions under which extraterrestrial life can flourish, and how to communicate with them. In addition to broad discussion of the societal implications of discovering alien life and how to prepare for these, two of the presenters will discuss the theological implications. More specifically, Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit from the Vatican Observatory, will discuss “Would you Baptise an Extraterrestrial?” Consolmagno’s topic suggests that the Vatican approves viewing preparation for the discovery of intelligent alien life as an opportunity for gaining new recruits to the Christian faith.
The full title of the Symposium is “Preparing for Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Implications of Finding Microbial, Complex or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.” The Symposium describes recent scientific advances in finding conditions suitable for extraterrestrial life, and what this means:
Beyond Earth, science has identified more than 1,400 exoplanets. That life thrives in multifarious conditions, coupled with these potentially habitable exoplanets and the detection of life-giving elements on numerous moons on asteroids, means we must face the possibility that simple or complex organisms may be discovered beyond Earth. How might we prepare for such a discovery?
The main goal of the Symposium is then described as exploring “how we prepare to face new knowledge that may challenge our very conceptions of life and our place in the universe.”
Steven Dick, the Symposium Chair, will set the stage for discussion of the societal implications of the discovery of alien life in his talk on “Astrobiology and Society.” He will then be followed by a panel session titled, “Philosophical Impact: How Do We Comprehend The Philosophical and Theological Challenges Raised by Discovery? A total of five presenters will discuss philosophical and theological implications. Robin Lovin will discuss “Astrobiology and Theology,” and set the stage for Consolmagno to discuss alien baptism.
It is not surprising that the Vatican views preparation for discovery of intelligent alien life as an opportunity for gaining new recruits to the Christian faith. What is surprising is that NASA and the Library of Congress are providing a forum for discussion of the theological implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life when important political, national security and economic implications are not considered by any of the speakers. For example, would it be justified to cover up such a discovery on national security grounds, for how long, and has this already happened? It’s hard to understand NASA’s reasoning for including theological considerations unless it thinks that it will benefit from the US Congress and Vatican supporting Christian missionaries seeking to baptize visiting or off world aliens.