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Theological Implications of SETI
by Douglas A. Vakoch, Ph.D. (vakoch @

I'm currently in the midst of a psychological study of the impact that religious beliefs have on views about ETI. What follows is a brief literature review that might prove of interest to SETI League members.

Many theologians over the centuries have considered the implications of ETI existing. These theological speculations are important for at least two reasons. First, they give us clues about the ways that religious beliefs can influence openness to SETI. This has very concrete implications for funding of SETI. Second, they help us anticipate one factor that may influence people's reactions if we do receive a message.

Most theologians who have tried to imagine what ETI would be like do so by using theological frameworks developed for human beings. For example, an orthodox Christian account of human nature is that humans were originally "elevated," that they "fell" into sin, and that they have been given the opportunity to be "re-elevated." There was a flurry of writings on religious views of ETI in the years following the launch of Sputnik, particularly by Roman Catholic theologians, that used such a framework. For example, some theologians imagined races that had never been elevated, or races that had been elevated but that had never fallen.

The Roman Catholic theologian Clifford J. Stevens took a very different approach in his book Astrotheology: For the Cosmic Adventure (Techny, IL: Divine Word Publications, 1969). Stevens is the only theologian I know of writing in the latter half of the 20th century who expressly said that we should not try to fit ETI into frameworks that were designed to understand the human condition, and that instead ETI should be understood in terms of their own theologies. He believed that theology as humans know it could expand markedly if contact were established with ETI.

Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, played an important role in emphasizing the compatibility of SETI and the theological search for understanding. In fact, Hesburgh paid a visit to Frank Drake at Green Bank during Project Ozma, and he continued to play a role in promoting SETI, e.g., by serving on the Editorial Board of Cosmic Search. His Preface to NASA SP-419 draws this conclusion: "As a theologian, I would say that this proposed search . . . is also a search of knowing and understanding God through His works -- especially those works that most reflect Him. Finding others than ourselves would mean knowing Him better."

Those interested in further theological views of ETI might check "Life beyond Earth & the Mind of Man," NASA SP-328. This book is an abridgment of a symposium held at Boston University in 1972, at which Krister Stendahl presented a positive view of SETI. His main argument was that SETI provides a means of gaining a better perspective on our place in the universe, which is consistent with theological goals. As Stendahl put it, "What is interesting for man is to know both his importance and that this importance should not be built up on the basis of illusions of uniqueness and absoluteness."

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