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.


I. Introduction

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

Chet Raymo)

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.



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Quest for Understanding, Eds. Russell, Stoeger, Coyne, Vatican: Vatican


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Tucson, February 1997