Friday, 13 January 2012

Astrosociology and the Capacity of Major World Religions to Contextualize the Possibility of Life Beyond Earth

Given the steady advance of astrobiology in the last several decades, from the discovery of  extremophiles here on Earth, the likelihood of water in Mar’s past, to the discovery of hundreds of  exoplanets, the stage is set for a shifting worldview toward life as an emergent property in the universe. Like all great paradigm shifts, the absorption of this new understanding, should the evidence continue to accumulate, will take time, patience, and religious accommodation. As humanity’s quest for meaning, purpose, and place in the universe promises to begin anew, religion has the potential to mediate and broker this important discourse between abstract science and daily existence. People are likely to have very individualized reactions to astrobiology  and the evidence it produces; therefore any analysis of a given religious tradition to be viewed only as a starting point for scientific dissemination and public engagement.

 Based on analysis of the nineteen largest religions in the world, groups of religions can be arranged into the following categories:

1) Strong Anthropocentric Teleology (Conservative Christianity, Conservative Islam, Conservative Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Primal-Indigenous, and African Traditional and Diasporic Religions);  
2) Weak Anthropocentric Teleology (Liberal Christianity, Liberal Islam, Liberal Judaism, and Sikhism);  
3) Weak Teleological Detachment from Humans (Spiritism, Baha’i, Cao Dai, and Tenrikyo);  
4) Strong Teleological Detachment from Humans  (Chinese Traditional Religions, Shinto, Jainism, 
Rastafarianism, Unitarianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Secular/Non-Religious Traditions).    

 The model presented in this paper posits that the more anthropocentric a religious teleology is (i.e. placing humanity at the core purpose of the universe) the more potential  there will be for religious resistance to astrobiological evidence and the possibility of life beyond Earth. The reasoning behind this analytical framework is that religious detachment of human beings from the ultimate end purpose of the universe will provide more elbow-room when adherents are asked to share the cosmic stage with the possibility of life, past or present, elsewhere in the universe.

While a Western perspective has dominated the literature on religious interaction with astrobiology, what analyses that have been done concerning non-Western world religion lend credence to the theory of correlation between anthropocentric teleology and resistance to astrobiology. In a Workshop Report on the Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Implications of Astrobiology, Dr. Francisca Cho compared Eastern and Western thought on the topic of astrobiology in a paper entitled, “An Asian Religious Perspective on Exploring the Origin, Extent and Future of Life.” While the paper focused primarily on the (E.M. McAdamis /Physics Procedia 20 (2011) 338–352 351) Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, the methodology of the paper asserted that these perspectives were representative of some central differences between Eastern and Western religious thought, namely how Eastern religious thought on “the nature and creation of the universe often avoids or neutralizes the tensions that characterize science and religion in the West” ([14], p. 208). For example, the existence of the world, and all operation of things in the world, is taken for granted by Indian and Chinese philosophy, and thus are not in need of a creating and intervening god ([14], p. 209).

 Perhaps most germane to this study, Dr. Cho explains that in Eastern thought “heaven represents a conscious and moral agent, though never an anthropomorphic deity or a creator god” ([14], p. 210). For example, in the Buddhist tradition the “world is a monistic, continuous cosmos in which human activity and life is not significantly different from other existing things … [which Dr. Cho found to be in contrast with] the Western privileging of human life, particularly of human reason and intelligence” ([14], p. 210). “According to Cho, Buddhism would ask that we be skeptical of the distinctions we make between sentient and insentient life” ([14], p. 211).    

 In contrast, the body of literature working in the other direction addressing more Western, more anthropocentric religions identifies anthropocentric doctrines and raises concerns over their potential discord with the astrobiological endeavor. Addressing the potential for anthropocentric religious disharmony, Ernan McMullin summarizes the issue as follows: “… such a discovery [of life elsewhere] would challenge the belief that the origin of life on Earth required a miraculous intervention on God’s part. It would do so for two reasons. First, as we have seen, the discovery would strengthen the case for an evolutionary origin of the first life as a consequence of the ordinary processes of nature. Second, those Christians who believe that the first terrestrial life must have had a miraculous origin would be likely to link that life to the economy of earth, to human well-being” ([15], p. 157; see also, [16]).

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