Religious Implications from the
Possibility of Ancient Martian Life
Christopher J. Corbally, S.J.
Vatican Observatory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721
Reactions to the announcement by Dr. McKay and his collaborators that they had found
evidence for primitive life in a meteorite from Mars have been intense. Some concerned
the scientific evidence, some the implications of extraterrestrial life, especially if
intelligent. Underlying these reactions are assumptions, or beliefs, which often have a
religious grounding. The two divergent beliefs, for and against the plurality of life in the
universe, are examined historically and through religious traditions, particularly the
Judeo-Christian. This examination guides the formulation of the right relation between
science and religion as one that respects the autonomy of each discipline, yet allows for
each to be open to the discoveries of the other. Based on this relationship, perspectives
from scientific exploration are developed that can help individuals to respect and cope
with the new phenomena that science brings, whether these imply that we might be alone
in the universe or co-creatures of God with the ancient Martians.
Thanks to Dr. Chris Romanek and the rest of Dr. David McKay's team, last August and
September were exciting months for "exo-scientists". People's reactions to the
announcement of evidence for primitive life in a meteorite from Mars were intense, and
the media rightly played to this public interest. Some reactions concerned the science;
others concerned the implications, such as in this selection:
No doubt there are moral and religious implications in this.
(Rep. Jerry Lewis, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for the NASA
budget on National Public Radio)
There is no proof yet, but if there were, then it would cause some sort of rethink.
(Spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in The Boston Sunday Globe by
Every time science reveals one of these little mysteries, it says to me there is a
universal cosmic intelligence absolutely beyond my ken.
(Rabbi David Goldstein in The Times-Picayune by Bruce Nolan)
The news is fatally suspect because it rises out of a scientific view of physical
processes contradicted by the Bible.
(Rev. Rusty Tardo in The Times-Picayune by Bruce Nolan)
These reactions are rather like surface features indicating a deeper question. For
underlying them is the prime implication that I find coming from the announcement: the
reactions point to our need for the right relationship, or dialogue, between science and
religion. Six months after the announcement we have some increased perspective from
which to understand this relationship and so of approaching the possibility of Martian
and any other extraterrestrial life fruitfully. Frequently, though, our position on the
possibility of life is driven by premises derived elsewhere than from science, particularly
from philosophy and theology.
In the following I shall speak mainly from my own Christian tradition. If your religious
tradition is different, then please make due translation for yourself. Time does not allow
me to speak in the many `languages' of religions today.
II. Premise Driven Positions
"Examine your premises" has nothing to do with the state of your house, but with
uncovering your underlying assumptions. Steven Dick (1996, 12f) has convincingly made
the point that where each of us comes down in the extraterrestrial life debate has its
historical foundation in the two contrasting positions of Greek philosophers, particularly
those from the fourth century B.C., the atomists and the Aristoteleans.
There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. For the atoms
being infinite in number, as was already proved, are borne on far out into space.
For those atoms which are of such nature that a world could be created by them
or made by them, have not been used up either on one world or a limited number
of worlds .... So that there nowhere exists an obstacle to the infinite number of
(Epicurus, in Bailey 1926, 25)
Either, therefore, the initial assumptions must be rejected, or there must be one
center and one circumference; and given this latter fact, it follows from the same
evidence and by the same compulsion, that the world must be unique. There
cannot be several worlds.
(Aristotle, in Guthrie 1953)
Epicurus's philosophy of atomism (all matter is made up of microscopic atoms) leads to
a plurality of worlds; Aristotle's philosophy of absolute natural place (each element
earth, air, fire, water moves towards its natural place) leads to a uniqueness of the
known world. Thus, two philosophical understandings of the nature of matter, plurality or
uniqueness, lead to opposing perspectives on the universe.
When Aristotle's thought was rediscovered in the Middle Ages, and particularly his
rejection of many worlds in De caelo, his arguments were not uncritically accepted, even
though these were not for the most part contrasted with the atomists' standpoint. The
concepts of center, of void, and of natural motion became the objects of debate.
Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) approached the debate from the Aristotelian perspective,
but his main concern seemed to be to show that a single world would not compromise
God's omnipotence and that indeed, since perfection was to be found in unity, a single
world would be more in accordance with God's perfection (Aquinas 1952). For a time
then, perfection, the theological counterpart to Aristotle's uniqueness, rather than
plenitude from the atomists, dominated scholastic thinking about God and the world.
These were the foundations to the extraterrestrial life debate and its rediscovery in the
thirteenth century. For sake of brevity, let us jump to the nineteenth century, when
science was telling more about the universe, and to two figures who well illustrate the
two main premises in action. First is the truly fascinating person, William Whewell, a
prominent Cambridge theologian and scientist. Whewell was for many years a proponent
of the plurality of worlds, but he changed his mind and attacked it in 1853. What seems
to have happened, according to Michael Crowe (1986, 265ff), an historian at the
University of Notre Dame, is that Whewell came to appreciate the full significance of the
Copernican revolution that took humans from their place in the center of the universe and
threw them out among the billions of stars. For Whewell, that change of perspective was
an oppressive, desolate, and dark thought indeed. Further, it was a thought that raised
the theological problem of reconciling these many worlds with the fact that God had
intervened in human history in what seemed a unique way, through the incarnation and
redemption of Christ. Now, Whewell was living in the days before current science had
shown how finely tuned must the universe be to allow life and how actually its vastness is
needed for any life to appear. Such fine-tuning is the basis of the Anthropic Principle
(Polkinghorne 1995, 68ff) which, whether held in weaker or stronger forms, puts life as
the reason for why the universe is as it is. (In deference to possible aliens and to avoid
chauvinism, perhaps we should now call this the `Sapientic Principle'.) This Principle, in a
theological context, can restore us to the center of God's scheme.
The second nineteenth century figure is an astronomer who was not at all perturbed by
the Copernican change in perspective. This was Angelo Secchi (1818-78), a Jesuit and
a director of the Roman College Observatory. In 1856 he wrote: "it is with a sweet
sentiment that man thinks of these worlds without number, where each star is a sun
which, as minister of the divine bounty, distributes life and goodness to the other
innumerable beings, blessed by the hand of the Omnipotent." (Secchi 1856, 158) Secchi
conceded that these worlds may not be accessible to his telescopes, but by analogy with
the earth and the solar system he was well persuaded that the universe is a wonderful
organism, filled with life. So, even if Secchi's science failed him in proof, it fueled his
sense of the limitless wonders of the universe. This open enthusiasm for plurality was
remarkable in one so close to a usually cautious Vatican, but it will strike a chord in
those of us who have enjoyed the myriads of stars on a dark night.
In case anyone thinks that this is where history leaves us, with the debate settled in favor
of the extraterrestrial, I would mention one friend with whom I have enjoyed many a
luncheon. This is Dominic Caronna, who has recently published a book, Death of the
Bible? The question mark at the end of the book's title is important, for Caronna by no
means believes that the bible is dead. Instead, he believes that extraterrestrials are
`dead', since he focuses on `the unicity of God' (his term for describing unity,
completeness, and absoluteness in God) to show that it would be absurd for the events
of the bible, particularly the incarnation and redemption, to be repeated elsewhere in the
universe. Since Christ is unique, so must human beings be the only intelligent life in the
entire universe. Caronna, given his premise, makes arguments that are clear and sound,
as you would expect from a lawyer with a philosophical education. My role in the
lunchtime meetings was to try and place a "reasonable doubt" within him that his scientific
perspectives of the limitless universe (Caronna is one of the few people I know who
have read through Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time) might actually be saying
something about the Creator that would have to modify his understanding of `unicity'.
We are still friends, despite the sleepless nights he claims that I gave him, and we meet
regularly, so the contemporary debate continues as it perhaps does for you too.
III. Proper Relationship between Science and Religion
This brief historical review shows that philosophy and religion, working from their
premises, cannot prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. However, history also shows
that, where science fails to give enough evidence, premises such as plurality or
uniqueness will fill any vacuum that is left. This is what happens when we work "at the
limits" of science (Dick 1996, 7). There is nothing wrong in this; it is only dangerous
when this happens unawares to us or to others. A powerful guard against this danger is
to keep a proper relationship between science and other disciplines, particularly
philosophy and theology in this case.
A first step in this proper relationship is to recognize and preserve the limits of discourse
within each discipline. For instance, science cannot address the reason why something
exists rather than does not exist. Its methodology brings out processes among material
things, not purpose and meaning. So, the words "creation of the universe" when spoken
in scientific cosmology and when used in theology have to mean two different things: we
should be clear whether we are talking about physical interactions or about the work of
a non-physical, Prime Mover. This clarity is what Pope John Paul II had in mind when
he wrote, "both religion and science must preserve their autonomy and distinctiveness"
(John Paul II 1988, M8).
Yet for dialogue between religion and science, a second step is necessary. Each
discipline, while retaining its integrity must be "radically open to the discoveries and
insights of the other" (John Paul II 1988, M9). An ancient example of such fruitful
dialogue can be seen in the first chapters of Genesis, where the cosmologies of the Near
Eastern world were purified and assimilated into conveying the truths of the relationship
between Creator and created world (or even, worlds). Contemporary cosmologies are
needed for a similar service today, just as evolutionary theory, recognized recently by
Pope John Paul II as no longer just an hypothesis (1996), must also help. Right now it is
the turn of exo-science to dialogue with religion, so that the two may be "radically open"
to each other in thinking about the alien.
IV. Approaching the Alien
Some clearly approach the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life with fear and/or
disbelief. H.G. Wells's book, The War of the Worlds, is an early and good illustration of
this reaction (without accusing Wells of it himself). A current example will be found in the
Focal Point article of this February's Sky and Telescope, where George Baldwin writes
about "Keeping ET Away". The dominant premise behind such thinking is that of
uniqueness, which in a religious guise leads one either to take the Bible or other
revelation as literally true (unique or perfect in that sense), or to take doctrines as quite
fixed in expression. Any disturbance of this world view is to be feared or dubbed as
From my science I prefer another approach, while recognizing that it is ultimately
founded on the principle of plurality. This approach starts with the activity of
exploration. Exploration is vital to progress in the physical sciences, for without
curiosity in how things work there would have been no understanding of planets and
stars and galaxies, and further, no significant progress in technology. Exploration is also
needed in the `sciences' of theology and philosophy, so that the same urge to push back
the boundaries of knowledge can bring new insights into traditional doctrines and
This exploration is what I do daily in my scientific research when examining the
spectrum, or rainbow, from a star such as Vega. That spectrum is more than a band of
colors: there are places of relative darkness where part of a color is missing, and these
features characterize the star's physical conditions. When I look at a particular star's
spectrum, I look at it as a specimen: I try and let that star be what it is, without forcing it
into a classification category. It may end up being classified easily, and 95 per cent of
stars fall readily into the Morgan-Keenan classification system (Osterbrock 1994), but I
would loose potential insights if I jumped too readily to a classification for that spectrum.
I find that my preferred way of doing science is synthetic, starting with observations,
rather than analytic, starting with theory. So too, given an encounter with intelligent
extraterrestrial life, I would want to examine the alien by letting `it' be what it is, without
rushing for a classification category, not even presuming two genders.
Similarly, I would want to let the alien be what it is theologically, without rushing for the
baptismal water (after all, ammonia might be more appropriate!). Perhaps it is better to
speak of letting the alien "reveal" what it is, since Christians speak of the essence of the
Christ-event as the concentrated point of God's "self-revelation" to human kind
(Peacocke 1993, 315). We find the Gospel of St. John appropriately using "Word",
Logos in the Greek, to describe this divine self-communication. But while Christ is the
First and the Last Word (the Alpha and the Omega) spoken to humanity, he is not
necessarily the only word spoken to the whole universe.
There is a challenge to both science and religion in such a synthetic or specimen-driven
approach. This challenge is to provide us with the proper sense of self and the proper
sense of God which will provide the right foundation for our exploration. For first, if we
have a sense of our own worth, a God-given worth for the religious person that is
supported by the wonderful processes that cosmic and biologic evolution relate, then we
can be prepared for any outcome of our exploration. The finding that our universe is
filled with other intelligent species would not give humanity a sense of insignificance or
fear, but a sense of being an integral part of a cosmic community. We would discover a
`church' beyond the confines of the Earth and of any narrow interpretations of the Bible.
Alternately, if we find, as far as we can tell, that we on Earth are alone in the vast
universe, this would not bring hubris but a sense of awe and responsibility.
Secondly, the proper sense of God, derived in the dialogue between religion and
science, is needed if we are to avoid making God in our own image. For then there
would be nothing that exploration could reveal, except an inadequate view of ourselves.
If instead we allow the echo of the Infinite Creator to be heard in the vastness of the
universe that is shown through science, then we shall be open to those possibilities that
God through the universe wants to reveal to us. This openness, as we have found
from history, is one that tries to be aware of its premises. It is informed by past
experience and a structured knowledge (or well-winnowed wisdom, as some would
express it). What this correct partnership of the disciplines will give is the grounded
openness by which we can respect and cope with any new phenomenon that science
brings, whether this indicates we are in the end alone in the universe or are co-creatures
with, say, the ancient Martians.
From this perspective I close by inviting you to enjoy the vision that Alice Meynell
(1923) expressed in the last four verses of her "Christ in the Universe."
No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.
Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to tread the Milky Way,
Or His bestowals there be manifest.
But, in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The million forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.
Aquinas, Thomas, edition of 1952: In Aristotelis libros de caelo et mundo,
generatione et corruptione, meteorologicorum expositio, Rome, Lectio XIX, 94.
Bailey, Cyril, ed. and trans. 1926: Epicurus: the Extant Remains, Oxford.
Crowe, Michael J. 1986: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900, Cambridge:
Dick, Steven J. 1996: The Biological Universe, Cambridge: CUP.
Guthrie, W.K.C., trans., 1953, of Aristotle's: On the Heavens, Cambridge, Mass.:
Loeb Classical Library, bk 1, ch 8, 277a, lines 11-13.
John Paul II, 1988: `Message' in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: a Common
Quest for Understanding, Eds. Russell, Stoeger, Coyne, Vatican: Vatican
John Paul II, 1996: `Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences', in L'Osservatore
Romano, 30 Oct 1996, Vatican.
Meynell, Alice 1923: The Poems of Alice Meynell, New York.
Osterbrock, Donald E. 1994: `Fifty Years Ago: Astronomy; Yerkes Observatory;
Morgan, Keenan, Kellman', The MK Process at 50 Years: ..., San Francisco: A.S.P.,
Peacocke, Arthur 1993: Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming
Natural, Divine, and Human, Minneapolis: Fortress.
Polkinghorne, John 1995: Serious Talk, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity.
Secchi, Angelo 1856: Descrizione del nuovo osservatorio del collegio romano,
Tucson, February 1997