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Vatican Searches for E.T. and Other Signs of Alien Life

“Are we alone? Primitive life is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare.”
— Stephen Hawking

The Beginning of the End of Jesus as We Knew Him.

On November 10th, 2009, the Associated Press ran a story with the headline, “Vatican looks to heavens for signs of alien life.” It noted that:

The Vatican has called in experts to study the possibility of extraterrestrial alien life and its implication for the Catholic Church. “The questions of life’s origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration,” said the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory … Funes said the possibility of alien life raises “many philosophical and theological implications … If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs biochemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound.” Today top clergy, including Funes, openly endorse scientific ideas like the Big Bang theory as a reasonable explanation for the creation of the universe.

Earlier this year, the Vatican also sponsored a conference on evolution to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The event snubbed proponents of alternative theories, like creationism and intelligent design, which see a higher being rather than the undirected process of natural selection behind the evolution of species. Working with scientists to explore fundamental questions that are of interest to religion is in line with the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, who has made strengthening the relationship between faith and reason a key aspect of his papacy. Recent popes have been working to overcome the accusation that the church was hostile to science—a reputation grounded in the Galileo affair [persecuted 400 years ago as a heretic].

Tommaso Maccacaro, president of Italy’s national institute of astrophysics, said that astronomy has had a major impact on the way we perceive ourselves. “It was astronomical observations that let us understand that Earth (and man) don’t have a privileged position or role in the universe,” he said. “I ask myself what tools will we use in the next 400 years, and I ask what revolutions of understanding they’ll bring about, like resolving the mystery of our apparent cosmic solitude.”

The implications of this story are of astronomical as well as papal proportions. Interestingly, a recent movie and novel, Angels & Demons by Dan Brown, the author of the Da Vinci Code, is about the Illuminati trying to destroy the Church as revenge for Galileo. (The Illuminati is a name that refers to several groups, both historical and modern, and both real and fictitious. In modern times it is also used to refer to a purported conspiratorial organization which acts as a shadowy power behind the throne, allegedly controlling world affairs through present day governments and corporations. The Illuminati in Brown’s book is fictional.) It seems to me that scientific discovery is the real revenge for the persecution of Galileo.

I was watching a BBC News Channel program which aired a panel discussion about religion and the Catholic Church. The question was asked to the members of the audience, “Is the Catholic Church a source of good?” Before the debate, the vote was roughly 700 yes, 400 undecided, and about 1,075 no. After the debate, the vote was 268 yes, 34 undecided, 1876 no. The Church clearly lost face in this panel discussion and the discourse ended with a highly negative image of Roman Catholicism. It is sad in some ways that the Church which I attended every Sunday for at least fifteen years presented such a poor image of itself as it tried to articulate its position on a variety of matters. The bishop who represented the Church shot himself in the foot several times when he tried to explain and defend the Church’s position on sex and the use of condoms, as reported in Catholic Online news in April 2006.

The Catholic bishops of South Africa, Botswana, and Swaziland categorically regard the widespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms as an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV/AIDS for the following reasons. The use of condoms goes against human dignity. Condoms change the beautiful act of love into a selfish search for pleasure, while rejecting responsibility. Condoms do not guarantee protection against HIV/AIDS. Condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS.

This is all b.s. Condoms have been shown in study after study to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.

But perhaps the Church, and our perception of god, is due for a radical change. Our concept of god has changed over the millennium and there is no reason to expect that it will stop now. As Richard Dawkins said, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” I believe we are at an inflection point where a radical change in the view of the godliness of Jesus, and the overall perception of a god, is about to change. And I think that the Catholic Church is leading the way. This does not mean that I or the public at large will become atheists, such as Dawkins is. But note that a 2009 poll by Trinity College predicts 25% of Americans will identify themselves as not being affiliated with any religion in 20 years, up from 15% today and 8% in 1990. So, what will change the world’s perception of god? Why will we no longer accept in blind faith the divinity of Jesus Christ just as we no longer believe in the godliness of the planets or the sun? The answer is the Roman Catholic Church.

I do not expect that we will make alien contact during my lifetime. SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and the SETI Institute have been searching for E.T. and the existence of alien life since 1960. SETI is searching for nonrandom radio signals at 1420.4 MHz, the hydrogen line. The hydrogen line is the precession frequency of neutral hydrogen atoms, the most abundant substance in space. It happens to fall in the quietest part of the radio spectrum, what’s known as the “microwave window,” and is blocked from being used for human-based radio signals by the International Telecommunications Union. Individual atoms chirping away at 1420 MHz create a powerful signal, which is readily detected by even small radio telescopes. In 1959, Philip Morrison at Cornell University and Frank Drake at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory recognized that the hydrogen line would be a likely frequency for interstellar beacons. They reasoned that more advanced civilizations would reason that young civilizations (like ours) might already be listening there. However, we have been sending radio signals into space since 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated the first intercontinental wireless radiotelegraph. We have been transmitting “I Love Lucy” into interstellar space since 1951. However TV channels 2 through 13 are broadcast at frequencies from 54 MHz to 216 MHz in the USA. Thus if E.T. is broadcasting at frequencies similar to humans, then SETI is looking in the wrong place. SETI assumes that a beacon from E.T. would be sent at 1420 MHz for the reasons I have already discussed and it is thus only looking at a tiny part of the radio spectrum for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI, just like every other human endeavor, does not have unlimited resources. It cannot look everywhere to capture an E.T message saying, “Are you there?” Therefore, our best hope to determine if we are alone in the universe is to explore places where life might exist in our own solar system. And those places are Mars and two moons of Saturn, Enceladus and Titan. In all three places, evidence of liquid water has been detected. It is quite possible that life exists in one or all of these places when considering extremophiles. (An extremophile is an organism which thrives in and even may require physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to the majority of life on Earth.) We have found that extremophile life exists in the most inhospitable of places on Earth. Why not Mars? The actual discovery of signs of alien life is no longer the issue relative to the Church. The fact that it has acknowledged the potential for nonhuman life elsewhere in the universe has extraordinary implications. The Church has started a very heavy ball rolling downhill on a deep slope. It can’t be stopped. And it generates a scenario which excludes the divinity of Jesus.

The search for alien life is the beginning of the end of the Jesus movement as it is presently constituted. It was at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE that the Nicene Creed was written by an assembly representing all of the factions of Christendom. The Council created a unified Christian church, which was consolidated under Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor. Constantine can be considered in the same vein as the prophet Muhammad. He assimilated Christianity into a cohesive religion, just as Muhammad integrated Islam into one religion from the various Bedouin and other religions of the desert. The Nicene Creed stated that Christians believe, “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of god, begotten of the Father begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man.” At the First Council of Constantinople in 381 CE the Creed was modified. It added that Christians believe, “In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

The Nicene Creed has been partially obsoleted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church no longer advocates that the one and only path to heaven is through the “one baptism” of the Roman Catholic Church, or that one even has to be a believer in Jesus to gain salvation, if such a thing really exists. The Church now acknowledges that Jews, Muslims and Hindus can get to heaven too. Thank you Jesus! Who is in a better position to modify Christian theology or integrate religion and science than the Catholic Church? The Pope gets input from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a scientific academy of the Vatican founded in 1936 by Pope Pius XI. The Academy currently consists of 83 members including non-Catholics and nonbelievers, such as Stephen Hawking and Ed Witten. Its past membership included the following Nobel Laureates: Paul Dirac (atheist), Max Planck (Lutheran), Guglielmo Marconi (Anglican/Catholic), Niels Bohr (Lutheran/Jewish), Werner Heisenberg (Lutheran), Aage Bohr (son of Niels Bohr), Abdus Salaam (Muslim), Charles Townes (Christian), Otto Hahn (Lutheran), Ernest Rutherford (unknown) and Erwin Schrˆdinger (Catholic). This list reads like the Who’s Who of science. All of the past members mentioned above have won Nobel Prizes in either physics or chemistry.

The Catholic Church is the only religion which is willing to use its vast resources to search for nonhuman life. The implications of finding it are profound. Firstly, the Church has flatly rejected creationism and intelligent design as alternatives to Darwinism and evolution, even though it maintains that god had a hand in creation and evolution. But that hand is undefined. Its scientists have not written a manual explaining the theory—and I use the words jokingly—of “intelligent design” such as explained in Of Pandas and People, which is promoted by the Discovery Institute. And now it seeks E.T. or some other evidence that life exists on places other than the third rock from the sun. Even if scientists do not find that evidence over the short term, the Church’s alien search generates a whole new series of questions about its fundamental beliefs relative to Jesus and god. It makes us question, does the Jesus hypothesis really hold water any more?

Does Jesus morph from human to an alien? So much for god creating man in his own image. Does he travel from planet to planet throughout the universe to provide salvation for the souls of aliens? If Jesus emerges in alien form on other planets, he sounds like an intergalactic avatar. But wait, avatars are part of the Hindu tradition, not the Christian one. And how does he get there? Does Jesus violate the laws of physics laid down by his Father, “God the Father,” and travel throughout space at a velocity exceeding the speed of light? That would clearly violate Einstein’s laws of general relativity. Or does Jesus move from galaxy to galaxy by traveling through a hypothetical, and yet to be seen, worm hole. In physics, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of space-time that is fundamentally a “shortcut” through space and time. And even if wormholes really exist, they might permit high velocity movement of atomic particles, but not spacecraft and living beings. And if Jesus is morphing into an alien to provide salvation to aliens, when will he have time to return to Earth for his Second Coming? What if alien life is based on silicon and not carbon, such as all life is on Earth? Silicon is an interesting atom because, like carbon, it has four bonding slots. It might be possible for silicon to form long-chain, flexible silicon-based molecules like carbon does. Our DNA is made up of long carbon chains. How does Jesus change the chemical composition of his body from one which is carbon based to one which is silicon based? What is the process which adds electrons, protons and neutrons to the carbon-based molecules in the body of Jesus to morph them into silicon?

When man learned that planets were not gods, he stopped worshiping them. The discovery of alien life might propel us to rethink the man/god concept of Jesus since a human cannot be a true god in a universe filled with other life forms—unless Jesus is a master of morphing. Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico; I mean Jesus? Will he, in the future, be viewed as a messenger from god, or a prophet, instead of being god’s offspring? Like the Buddha, he could be the basis of a great religion based on his teachings, philosophy of life and how we treat our fellow man, and not based on his divinity. The Church needs to rethink who Jesus really was. The Church has opened up a floodgate of new and provocative questions just by searching for E.T. It will be interesting to see how it responds.

There is a final point I wish to make. Science is the great equalizer of humanity. It succeeds where religion fails. Science does not care about race, color or creed. When the Soviets lost the race to the moon during the height of the Cold and Vietnam Wars, it sent congratulations to the USA for its accomplishment of landing humans there. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was the last mission in the U.S. Apollo space program and was the first joint flight of the U.S. and Soviet space programs. That mission took place in July 1975. The International Space Station (ISS) is an internationally developed research facility currently being assembled in low earth orbit. The ISS is operated as a joint project between the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). The European Organization for Nuclear Research (in French: Organisation EuropÈenne pour la Recherche NuclÈaire) known as CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, situated in the northwest suburbs of Geneva on the Franco-Swiss border. It was established in 1954. The organization has twenty European member states. Six additional countries have observer status: the USA, Russia, Japan, Israel, India and Turkey. A partial list of nonmember states currently involved in CERN programs includes China, Australia, Canada, Iran, Brazil, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea and Mexico. Any country with a project which CERN believes will advance the science of nuclear physics can get access to CERN’s particle accelerators.

Scientists and engineers do as good a job as is humanly possible to minimize prejudice and work together in the search for knowledge. This knowledge will ultimately benefit all of mankind. I think religion can learn a great lesson from science. There are no wars fought in the name of science, as there is in the name of god. There are no scientific crusades where the other side is slaughtered. There is no competition in science about who can garner the largest congregation. Even the smallest player can make a monumental achievement in science. He need not come from a superpower or superreligion. Perhaps scientists should rule the nations of the world. The Noble Prize winning scientist Steven Weinberg said, “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution.” I could not have stated it better. Weinberg said it all. Amen Professor. I think science should be the new “religion.” It surely can explain life, the world and the universe around us better than can any religion.