God Didn't Say What's Kosher on Mars
What the possibility of alien life means for religion.
"You know what would make me eat lobster? Life on Mars."
A few weeks ago, while vacationing in Maine, my husband and I were enjoying lunch at a local lobster shack. Sitting at an old picnic bench overlooking the Atlantic, I happily cracked open a lobster tail while my husband unenthusiastically ate a fish burger. Sensing his disappointment with the soggy sandwich in his hand, I held up the tail meat, butter dripping between my fingers, and asked if he wanted a bite. "The tail is the best part," I explained to my shellfish-eschewing husband. Not particularly religious, but under his parent's influence, he has kept kosher since the age of five. His thirty-five year streak is something he takes great pride in, so I was sure the answer would be the familiar "absolutely not."
I was wrong. My husband decided that he would free himself from his pork-less, crustacean-less diet—as soon as humans discover extraterrestrial life.
One week later, NASA announced the strongest evidence yet of flowing salt water on Mars. While this could be an exciting preface to alien life, and possibly a seafood dinner reservation for my husband and me, it will also further advance a centuries-old battle between faith and reason.
The increasing potential of Martian life raises some important questions about religion. Why is the Bible so geocentric? If other sentient beings exist, why is religious scripture predominately focused on human beings?
What was once a unique relationship is now susceptible to becoming much less intimate
Back in the fifteenth century, when the complexity of the cosmos had yet to be realized, science and Christianity were on par with the ideology that the Earth was the center of everything. Due to limited scientific knowledge, people relied on their empirical observations to determine their truth. Day after day, they watched the sun and moon rise and fall, and stars circle the night sky. Religious doctrine further confirmed this geocentric worldview, stating that God created the heavens and the earth for mankind.
Along came Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, whose discoveries shook religious belief to the core, and over time, science began to prevail. As John Hart, Professor of Christian Ethics at Boston University, puts it in his book, Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science, and Space, these scientists "prompted biblical analysts and interpreters to reexamine the historicity, internal integrity, and scientific compatibility of Bible narrative."
Whether religious institutions like it or not, life on the Red Planet could present a modern-day Copernican Revolution and continue our ever-changing relationship with God. What was once a unique relationship is now susceptible to becoming much less intimate.
In 2008, Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome, insisted that the belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life did not contradict Catholic doctrine or the Bible, and during a Monday morning mass in 2014, Pope Francis proclaimed that if Martians ever visited Earth they would be welcome to be baptized.
"This is just another example of the increasingly arbitrary relationship between humanity and a once-exclusive God," said Yair Lior, visiting scholar in the Department of Religion at Boston University, referring to the Vatican's seemingly relaxed attitude toward future scientific discoveries. "Science has forced us to acknowledge that the explanatory frameworks that various religions provide are not inevitable."
While the Pope probably won't need to break out the holy water anytime soon, NASA's next mission could be what drives many people to a crossroads in their religious lives.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, about 16 percent of the world's population is religiously unaffiliated, and in a study earlier this year, they found that between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped by nearly eight percentage points, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. For those who don't believe in God, or find themselves on the fence like my husband, NASA's discovery could be the straw to break the camel's back, nullifying religious doctrine. But for those who firmly believe in God, their devotion will most likely hold strong with the help of religious commentary and religious leaders who can rely on the flexibility of faith and interpretation.
While NASA grapples with its next steps, specifically how to further explore Mars without contaminating its potentially life-friendly habitat, I will have my lobster pot ready to go. You could say that my husband is just patiently waiting for the other claw to drop.