(August 10, 1996) -- Would the discovery of life on Mars be a blow to the idea of biblical creation? Should the knowledge of alien organisms shatter faith in a God who was supposed to have created heaven and earth and life in a week?
As it turns out, biblical creationists have been touting the existence of aliens for years -- and Mars itself has featured prominently in their scenarios.
Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of "The Creationists," a history of this movement, was himself raised in a fundamentalist Seventh Day Adventist community where belief in life on Mars was no big deal.
According to the Bible, Numbers explains, Satan and his cohorts were thrown out of heaven, so the question arises: Where did they go? At his high school in rural Tennessee, Numbers was taught by his teacher, who was also a Seventh Day Adventist, that they were hurled to Mars. The famous Martian canals were cited as evidence of this habitation.
"For some creationists," Numbers said, "extraterrestrial life is almost a necessity." Here, inspiration comes directly from the great prophet of Seventh Day Adventism, Ellen G. White. In "The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets" (1890) White recounted the tale of Satan's conflict with God.
At a pivotal point in the encounter, she noted, it became "necessary to demonstrate before the inhabitants of heaven and of all the worlds, that God's government is just." For White, then, extraterrestrial life was a given.
Taking his cue from White, George McCready Price, the founder of "creation science," argued in the early 20th century that Genesis referred only to life on earth. Thus while earthly life is, according to the Bible, only 6,000 years old, other worlds may have older life forms.
Belief in extraterrestrials is, some creationists believe, also supported by the Bible. Genesis 6:2 says that "the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose."
McCready Price's disciple, Henry Morris,an engineer who founded the Institute for Creation Science in San Diego, has construed this passage to mean that evil angels from outer space were coming down to violate earthly women.
The problem for creationists -- whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic -- is not the fact of life beyond Earth, but what happens to life once it gets there.
Evolution, for most creationists, is not an option. If the Bible is taken literally, God created all life at once. Yet the evidence from the Martian meteorite then raises some awkward questions. The organic molecules detected so far are consistent with the presence of very simple bacteria. If God were going to put life on Mars, wouldn't He have chosen something a little grander than bacteria?
This is where more liberal Christian interpretations become necessary. They can accommodate not only extraterrestrial life but evolving life as well.
According to Robert Russell, who is a physicist, minister and the founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif., extraterrestrial life, Martian or otherwise, would be but "another manifestation of God's creativity."
Father George Coyne, the Jesuit priest and astronomer who heads the Vatican Observatory agrees: "In the Augustinian tradition that God is absolute goodness, there is almost a necessity for goodness to reproduce itself, to pour itself out."
In other words, mainstream theologians would not see Martian life as satanic. Nor are they averse to the possibility that it could evolve.
"Most mainline Protestant and Catholic theologians today would say that God creates via the processes of evolution," says Russell. Since the laws of evolution are universal, and since science tells us no place is more special than any other, there is no reason these laws might not be at work on other planets as well. Hence, Russell says, "it is not surprising that we would find life elsewhere."
What mainstream Christians have been worried about, however, is that classical Darwinian theory relies completely on chance. If life evolves only by a series of random events, there is no role for God as an active creator.
But even there, scientists and theologians may be less different than one might expect. At a recent international conference on God and evolution at the Vatican Observatory headquarters in the pope's summer residence outside Rome, Paul Davies, an English physicist who is also a recent winner of the Templeton Prize (for progress in religion), suggested how science and Christian theology are drawing closer.
The new science of complexity theory, he noted, suggests that the universe is not ruled by chance alone but by an "innate tendency to develop more complex structures."
From a theological perspective, this opens a door to God because, as Davies put it, "the universe now seems purposefully tailored to ensure the emergence of beings like us." Not humans per se, but some form of sentient creatures. It is evidence, he said, that God chose laws of nature which would guarantee the evolution of intelligent, self-reflecting beings. In such a universe, one might well imagine life evolving in many different places -- like Mars.
If the meteorite does indeed prove to be our first glimpse of alien life, both Darwin and God will thereby be enhanced. As Coyne notes, that discovery would provide a "beautiful opening in which to reconsider the rich theological tradition of God as goodness."
[Margaret Wertheim is writing and producing a television documentary about the relation between science and religion.]
Original file name: CNI - Bible Allow for Martians?
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