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Astrobiology and the Religious Imagination

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Mars rover panorama
Panoramic mosaic of images taken by the Mast Camera on the NASA Mars rover Curiosity, October and November 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.

In December, NASA announced that its Mars Curiosity rover measured a tenfold spike in methane in the martian atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill.

Then last week, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft provided scientists clear evidence that Saturn’s moon Enceladus exhibits signs of present-day hydrothermal activity, which may resemble that seen in the deep oceans on Earth. This geologic activity could contain environments suitable for living organisms.

Does life–or has life–existed only on Earth? With each new discovery, the question grows harder to answer definitively.

No proof of life beyond our planet–microbial or otherwise–yet exists and many scientific questions remain. Yet the discoveries raise profound humanistic and philosophical questions. Were definitive evidence of life beyond Earth to be found, how would it alter human understanding of our place in the cosmos?

Theologian Robin Lovin pondered these questions in June of last year at the Kluge Center. During an event titled “Astrobiology and Theology,” Dr. Lovin explained that theology is an “interpretive and integrated discipline” that at its core attempts to make sense of the world presented to us by the sciences and other disciplines. The challenge is that world keeps changing. As Lovin said, “Theologians have tended to answer these questions, if you will, out of metaphysics, out of basic assumptions about reality. What’s happened in the modern world is, perhaps, we’re all a little less confident in our metaphysics than we once were.”

§ Watch: “Astrobiology and Theology: A Discussion (June 2014, at the Kluge Center)

Astrobiology research reveals that there is still much we don’t know about the universe, the diversity of forms life can take, and the unity of reality. With each discovery, religious traditions reconcile their beliefs with new scientific findings. Does a belief in the uniqueness of God’s covenant with humanity mean that there cannot be anything out there like us? Does a belief in God’s infinite creative goodness mean that surely there would be something better than us elsewhere in the universe? What about non-monotheistic religious traditions–what are the implications of a universe teeming with life for reincarnation, the existence of divine beings in the world, and a belief in the universe’s endless cycle?

Religion scholars and scientists are convening at the Kluge Center over the next two days to begin to unpack such questions. The seminar is the first of three Blumberg Dialogues on Astrobiology, part of the Kluge Center’s Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Program. The scholars will examine how recent discoveries about the origins and future of life in the universe may affect religious traditions and their various conceptions of humanity, the self, and our place in the cosmos. Scholars participating include:

  • Steven Benner – Distinguished Fellow, The Foundation For Applied Molecular Evolution, Alachua, FL
  • John Hart – Professor of Christian Ethics, Boston University
  • Susannah Heschel – Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College
  • Pamela Klassen – Professor, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto
  • Donald S. Lopez Jr. – Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetian Studies, University of Michigan
  • Jonathan Lunine – David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences, Cornell University
  • Ebrahim Moosa – Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame

At the close of the second day, we’ll host a public roundtable to discuss the scholars’ findings and insights. Titled “Astrobiology and the Religious Imagination: Reexamining Notions of Creation, Humanity, Selfhood, and the Cosmos“, the roundtable will take place at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 19 here at the Kluge Center. Both the seminar and the public discussion will be led by Derek Malone-France, associate professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Religion at The George Washington University, and John Baross, professor in the School of Oceanography and in the Astrobiology Program at the University of Washington.

This first of three Blumberg Dialogues will bring more scholars from the humanities and social sciences into the conversation around the humanistic and societal concerns raised by astrobiology research. This is what the Kluge Center’s astrobiology program aims to do: to encourage discussion and reflection on the potential impacts of discovering whether there is life beyond our planet.

The Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology is a joint project between the NASA Astrobiology Program and Library of Congress John W. Kluge Center. Learn more here.

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