Back in February this year, NASA announced that its Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star, about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, so relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. All of these seven planets could have liquid water. This is only the latest in a series of discoveries that make it increasingly likely that we are not alone in the universe. The cosmos is infinite, so in theory, it is mathematically certain that there is life out there, and because the universe is so old, we can be reasonably certain, that there is intelligent life – and indeed, civilisations more advanced than our own. It is unlikely we shall ever meet them because the universe places a limit (the speed of light) on how fast anyone can travel. However, mathematics is one thing; to actually see through a telescope examples of planets that could hold life is another. And for the freethinker, how supremely awe-inspiring that is. The Imam who recently announced that the world is flat is so missing out on the real wonders of the universe in his persistent determination to cling to his archaic world view. Even if he insists on seeing these wonders as the work of his deity, surely that would be a more stirring conception of an omnipotent deity, than one who obsesses about the length of a man’s beard or the height of a woman’s hemline. My wife’s mother was a lifelong Methodist. Her response to seeing the Swiss Alps for the first time was to break into a rousing chorus of ‘How Great Thou Art’ – surely a more appropriate response to God’s glory than strapping explosive to one’s chest.
But if you do believe that God made the universe then you have to believe that he also made the intelligent life forms that are out there. Do those intelligences have souls? I suppose they must do (if not, why not?). In which case, according to Christian theology, they must either be in a state of grace – they have never fallen into sin as Adam and Eve did. Or they are a fallen race like ourselves and like us in dire need of salvation. Are we to believe that Jesus died on the cross for them too? In which case, given the constraints of the speed of light, how can we ever get the message to them, let alone actually send missionaries to convert them? And without that message of salvation through faith, how can they be saved? Unless of course, God also required his Son to become incarnate on every planet where he has created intelligent life – and in an infinite universe, that is an infinite number of times the Son of God has to go through the whole crucifixion thing – or whatever equivalent to crucifixion is appropriate for four armed, six legged beings. C.S. Lewis, a convert to Christianity as an adult, famously wrote a parable of the Christian story in his Narnia books, where Aslan the lion dies and is reborn to save the land from evil. But less well known are the series of SciFi books he wrote, exploring the question of extraterrestrial salvation. His hero in these books is a man called ‘Ransom’ (geddit?), but glosses over the problem of the speed of light, as do most SciFi writers, relying as they do on wormholes, ‘jumps’, and ‘warp drives’, all of which are mathematically possible but physically unlikely on any timescale short enough to save an infinity of life forms from eternal damnation. Whichever way you look at it, all those intelligent beings are screwed. Meanwhile, back here on terra firma, the most sensible comment on the subject comes not from a crazy old Oxford don, but from the fine pen of Eric Idle who, having lampooned the whole messianic fallacy in Life of Brian, later offered the following comfort:
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!