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NASA used religious experts to predict how humans may react to aliens

Story at a glance

  • Religious experts have examined how each of the world’s major religions may respond to news that intelligent life exists on other planets, one religious scholar has said.
  • The scholar, the Rev. Dr. Andrew Davidson, said his work focused on the connection between astrobiology and Christian theology and the prospect of there having been “many incarnations” of Jesus Christ.
  • Davidson says in an upcoming book that a large number of people would seek religious guidance should aliens ever be discovered.

Two dozen theologians participated in a program funded partially by NASA to research how humans may react to news that intelligent life exists on other planets, according to one religious scholar who says he was recruited.

The Rev. Dr. Andrew Davison, of the University of Cambridge, told the Times UK in a recent interview that he was among 23 other theologians in a NASA-sponsored program at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University from 2016 to 2017.

Davison said he and his colleagues examined how each of the world’s major religions would likely respond if they were made aware of the existence of aliens. His own work focused on the connection between astrobiology and Christian theology.

Will Storrar, director of the CTI, said NASA wanted to see “serious scholarship being published in books and journals” addressing the “profound wonder and mystery and implication of finding microbial life on another planet,” the Times reported.

In a statement posted to the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity blog, Davison said his research mostly concentrated on the concept of Christology, or the study of who Jesus was as both a human and divine being.


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“The most significant question there is is probably whether one would respond theologically to the prospect of life elsewhere in terms of there having been many incarnations, or only the one theologians talk about in Jesus,” he wrote at the time. “I have also been thinking about the doctrine of creation, especially in terms of how it deals with themes of multiplicity and diversity.”

Davidson added in the blog post that his research hasn’t been limited to religious texts, around which other research on the topic of extraterrestrial life has tended to center.

“In thinking theologically about life elsewhere in the universe, there has been a tendency to pick up mainly on passages from previous theological work where other life has been the topic under discussion. I want to move beyond that, and join the discussion to a much wider range of material and perspectives,” he wrote.

“Perhaps the main discovery I would report on to date is finding just how frequently theology-and-astrobiology has been a topic in popular writing for at least a century and a half: in monthly magazines for instance,” he added.

Davidson’s upcoming book, “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine,” set to be published in 2022, will cover part of his work with the CTI and NASA, the Times reported.

According to a portion of Davidson’s book obtained by the Times, a “large number of people would turn to their religions traditions for guidance” if aliens were ever discovered.

“Detection [of alien life] might come in a decade or only in future centuries or perhaps never at all, but if or where it does, it will be useful to have thought through the implications in advance,” Davison writes.

NASA’s Astrobiology program provided partial funding through a grant to the CTI in 2015, with the agency-funded portion of the project concluding in 2017, a NASA spokesperson confirmed to Changing America. NASA was not directly involved in the selection of researchers for the study.

Editor’s note: this story was updated to include a response from NASA.


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