Why science and religion come together when discussing extraterrestrial life

A recent visit to the Washington National Cathedral, started with a tour guided by its Dean Randy Hollerith, who showed me the fragment of a lunar rock brought to one of its windows in 1974 by Apollo 11. I was humbled by the remarkable architecture of the Cathedral.

The tour was followed by a fascinating Ignatius Forum about "The Future of Space," to which I was invited together with the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos and Durham University’s Theologian David Wilkinson.

The forum tackled various perspectives of space exploration, including science, national security and business. The common thread that ran through all the related conversations was the possible existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

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Hinting at that, Nelson and Haines were asked by David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “What is the most exciting project in your organization?.” They both replied: "It is classified."

Gladly, I was fortunate to represent the Galileo Project, which embodies a different answer to this question: "it is unclassified." Sometimes, I feel just like the child in the famous Danish folktale who noted that the emperor has no clothes, where the emperor in my case is the scientific mainstream that ignored the search for extraterrestrial equipment in space for many decades.

As soon as I entered the Cathedral, Dean Hollerith said, “I understand that you are not a person of faith.” I confirmed. But during my discussion with him and Rev. Wilkinson, I admitted that based on my studies of the universe as a scientist, I arrived at three principles that are common to many religions:

1) The first and foremost is a sense of modesty. The cosmic play started 13.8 billion years before we became actors in it. The realization that we arrived late and also that we are not placed at the center of the stage, implies that the play is not about us.

In an earlier conversation with Adi Ignatius from the Harvard Business School, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosDorsey's exit shakes up Twitter future The dangers of anarchy in space Health risks of space tourism: Is it responsible to send humans to Mars? MORE described the elation he felt by going to space recently. In my conversation with the reverends, I noted that Bevos lifted his body by merely a percent of the Earth’s radius whereas the universe is 10 to the 19th power (or 10 quintillion) times bigger than that scale. Showing off in space is an oxymoron.

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2) The second principle that guides me as a practicing scientist is curiosity. By studying the universe, astronomers wish to understand how humans came to exist on a rocky planet like the Earth near a star like the Sun in a galaxy like the Milky Way.

3) Finally, the cosmic perspective rewards us with a sense of calmness. We live for such a short time and there is no point in getting too attached to our transient ambitions, given the big scheme of things.

My convergence on these principles which bridge science and religion, may explain why Rabbi Rob Dobrusin gave a sermon to his congregation in Michigan about my recent book, “Extraterrestrial,” during the Jewish High Holidays this year.

Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict, as long as one is careful not to ignore the boundary between physics and meta-physics. Speaking with Rev. Hollerith and Rev. Wilkinson, I highlighted a scenario through which science and religion might actually be unified in the future.

In finding advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, religion might simply reflect advanced science with a twist. Traditional religions described God as the creator of the universe and life within it. They also suggested that humans were made in the image of God.  But these notions are not necessarily in contradiction with science. A sufficiently advanced scientific civilization might be able to create synthetic life in its laboratories — in fact, some of our terrestrial laboratories almost reached that threshold. And with a good understanding of how to unify quantum-mechanics and gravity, an advanced scientific civilization could potentially create a baby universe in its laboratories. Therefore, an advanced scientific civilization might be a good approximation to God.

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Humans are currently creating artificial intelligence (AI) systems in their image. In the future, our civilization will likely launch AI-astronauts into space. This would make more sense than sending numerous people into space, as envisioned by Bezos in this forum, since humans were selected by Darwinian evolution to survive on the surface of Earth and not in space. Energetic cosmic-rays and radiation pose health risks to biological creatures like us, more so than to electronic AI systems.

How can we unify religion and science? By finding AI-astronauts from a scientific civilization that is far more advanced than we are. The Galileo Project aims to search for extraterrestrial equipment near Earth.

The question remains: Did God — in its religious or scientific interpretations — create humans in its image or did humans imagine the concept of God in their mind? The Galileo Project can address the scientific context of this question.

Avi Loeb is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was the longest-serving chair in the history of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He serves as the founding director of Harvard's Black Hole Initiative, the director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and chairs and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project. Loeb is the former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the White House. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.