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[Op-Ed] The Vatican and Alien Life

Posted November. 13, 2009 08:01,   


“If we are alone in the universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space,” said the late astronomer Carl Sagan. Looking at the night sky in a place with no noise and light, people probably agree with Sagan’s insight. When CNN in 2000 asked people whether they believe in extraterrestrial life, 82 percent said yes. The human desire to contact aliens in outer space has been portrayed in countless books and movies, and has led to the establishment of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence -- organization looks for intelligent life beyond earth.

Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938, also said he believed in extraterrestrial life. While discussing the topic, he abruptly asked his colleagues, “If extraterrestrial beings exist, where are they?” If aliens do exist, why have humans been unable to contact them or find their traces? This is called the Fermi paradox, the contradiction between the high probability of the existence of alien life and lack of contact with them. SETI has sought to find aliens by studying patterns of electric waves coming from outer space, but to no avail.

Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins, who uses logic to attack religion, caused a stir by writing in his bestselling book “The God Delusion” that humans would not distinguish between God and extraterrestrial life if a highly developed civilization existed in outer space. The Vatican has recently acknowledged the probability of extraterrestrial life. Its top astronomer Jose Gabriel Funes told an international conference on extraterrestrial life that if intelligent life exists in the universe, they are also God’s creation. This turnaround came 400 years after Galileo Galilei was put on a papal trial for his claim that the sun is the center of the universe.

It is difficult to define the relationship between religion and science. What is interesting, however, is that the person who pioneered the Big Bang theory was none other than a Roman Catholic priest. Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, a priest and physics professor at MIT, was the first to propose the idea, saying, “If the universe is expanding, a primitive universe might have been smaller and ultimately started off as a tiny dot.” His comment is in line with the Vatican’s effort to embrace the achievements of modern science. The acceptance of the probability of extraterrestrial life is by no means a denial of creationism. Both God and extraterrestrial life can both exist in the domain of faith.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)