Today’s opening of the special-effects-on-steroids film “2012” and accompanying news media frenzy is a reminder of our morbid fascination with end of the world predictions. Now it’s time for me to make my own prognostication. Move over Nostradamus. Rather than being on the verge of an Apocalypse, we are on the verge of a Second Genesis.
I firmly believe it's a matter of when, not if, we will find life elsewhere in the solar system. Real science –- not mythology and superstition –- will give us a monumental cultural game-changer. If you find life once it's a miracle, twice, it's a statistic. If life originated more than once in our little corner of the universe, then it must be everywhere in space.
The eventual discovery will likely burst into our cultural consciousness not as benevolent or malevolent space aliens landing at White House – but rather as microbes. Science fiction author H.G. Wells called them the "humblest of God’s creations." They are anything but humble. They are the most tenacious of God's creations.
A number of remarkable discoveries and technical advances across scientific disciplines in the past twenty years have fueled our belief in life among the stars; from microbes that thrive on natural radioactivity, to possible methane-belching microbes on Mars, to complex molecules in interstellar space, and to the discovery of over 400 extrasolar planets.
Christian fundamentalists likely will immediately dismiss the news as a misreading of the data, or a conspiracy by secular scientists to undermine the belief in a Creator.
This point of view is already being put out there by the Creation Museum in Kentucky. In one publication, University of South Carolina astronomy professor Danny Faulkner wrote: "We expect the (NASA) Origins program will produce findings that yield no evidence for evolution. When that happens we can use the evidence ourselves to praise the Creator." I'm not sure how a null result is now "evidence."
But we are only talking about a small fraction of the world's religions. In Islam, the Koran speaks explicitly of life beyond Earth. Eastern religions likewise do not dwell on Earth as the only oasis for life.
This week, the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences held its first major conference on astrobiology (as reported by my fellow Discovery blogger
Irene Klotz). Presentations during the five-day meeting included: how life might have begun on Earth; what newly found "extremeophiles" microbes tell
us about possible life on other planets; and how the biosignatures of life might be detected in our solar system and around neighboring exoplanets.
In an interview in the Washington Post, Jesuit Father Jose Funes, Director of the Vatican Observatory, said that the possibility of "brother extraterrestrials" poses no problem for Catholic theology. "As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. This does not conflict with our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God."
Gary Bates, head of Atlanta-based Creation Ministries International is quoted in the same Post article as confessing: "It (life beyond Earth) is a huge problem that many Christians have not really thought about. Extraterrestrial life would actually make a mockery of the very reason Christ
came to die for our sins, for our redemption… intelligent, morally
aware extraterrestrial life would undermine that view."
In creationist literature Adam and Eve's misbehavior tale is interpreted as a death sentence for the entire universe. This is one hell of a guilt trip if their actions doomed little green men on distance galaxies too!
In the late 1500s, Giordano Bruno, who espoused the idea of "infinite worlds" saw this dilemma and proposed that Christ got frequent flier miles by being crucified on other planets. This got Bruno a one-way ticket to execution as a heretic.
The day we're convinced that life arose independently on another planet, it will rock the fundamentalist's belief system like an earthquake. But the revelation might even
cause their ideas to change, or rather evolve, just as those beliefs of the
Catholic Church have evolved since the time they burned heretics to death for