Note added September 2006 to this post: I track all my posts using the excellent (and free) service StatCounter. Since I posted the below nearly a year ago I have been astonished at how much traffic this post has generated by people Googling on the question "Can I be a Christian and believe that life exists elsewhere in the Universe?" Although I originally penned the post just to blow my own horn about being a high-ranked participant in the SETI@Home program, the comments I make lower in this essay answer your question. My suggestion is that if you've arrived here asking that question, please skip over the self indulgent bits and stick with me, I have something to say to you. Let me encourage you to post your comments, too. If the context of you needing to ask the question is because you hold (or disagree with) Young Earth Creationist belief, then you'll also get something out of my other article on this subject.
Original post follows:
For the next twenty-four hours, I am the SETI@Home/ BOINC user of the day, which is a one in 233,272 opportunity. This article is in commemoration of this auspicious occasion.
I have a lucky conjunction of circumstances. I work with computers, and I am a Christian. Why lucky? Two reasons: One is I have one more tool, prayer, in my kit when dealing with a balky LDAP servers or firewalls than mere mortal, faithless geeks. The second is that it allows me to indulge in a secret hobby that will one day change the entire course of civilisation.
OK, I should caveat that last statement with the proviso that recalcitrant computers are immune to prayer, being in the Dominion of the Evil One, although I got a Tractor going once by praying for it, and that was really cool. Nor have I got anything against atheists in the IT profession, the whole personal hygiene thing notwithstanding, but let's not go there.
Anyway, since 1998 I've been the admin of a modest network of 150+ computers and it's allowed me to participate in the SETI program. SETI, for the clueless, is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and for overviews of what that means you can go to plenty of links.
We run a background process or screensaver on some of our computers which quietly downloads chunks of radio telescope data from the Internet, processes it for a few hours to search for complex or artificial signals buried in the radio noise of interstellar space (via some funky Fourier Analysis that has the same mathematical basis as MP3 encoding), and then returns the results. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The SETI@Home program which does the work now goes by the name BOINC and is very flexible about when it uses the computer's spare processing power (we had issues in 1999 with the first generation screensaver because it kicked in at inappropriate times, but BOINC lets me run it with zero impact on any of our users during school hours, behind the login screen but not when users are logged in. I did some cool shell scripting to renice the process down to +19 on user login)
Why should this matter? Well, for one thing, the team I created, "The Wycliffe SETI Alliance" totally kicks butt and is the #1 team in Australia ranked by daily processing.
Since 1999 we've processed more data than 99.951% of all participants worldwide (currently ranked #115 out of all 233,272 users worldwide), and this massive contribution to a collaborative scientific project has cost not a cent.
What I love about the SETI program is that it represents the purest form of exploration. It is an exquisite juxtaposition that the exploration involves no physical motion on the part of it's participants, indeed the process itself occurs entirely in a computational, virtual space rather than the "real world". Yet the realms we are charting for the first time span light years, long eons, and very real star systems. I like to think of it as similar to a group of people kitting up with butterfly nets and pith helmets and setting off to explore the more dangerous reaches of the Mandelbrot Set. Only with SETI, the El Dorado of this undiscovered country is nothing less than the single most powerful revelation in the history of all civilisation.
I appreciate the fact that in my job as an I.T manager, I can play a part in that search. Should the program pay off, the world will change forever, and I can say I played a part. I went on that expedition. I helped find life elsewhere in the Universe.
As a Christian, and working as I do at a Christian School, we devote more time than many do into dwelling on matters of purpose and meaning. I really love working in an organisation where one of the major purposes of our existence is to sit down with young people and challenge them with the big questions like "Why do you believe what you believe?"
It saddens me that a very few, narrow minded and ignorant fellow Christians regard programs like SETI as a "godless quest".
Very many fruitful and thought-provoking discussions have been started over the years regarding Man's place in the Universe when students and staff have observed our participation in the SETI program. Our outstanding ranking in the program, ahead of big, big organisations like MIT, SGI and Sun Microsystems is a real reason for pride. The idea that our little school can take a part in leading edge global scientific research and human discovery is a privilege.
Ultimately, all our various human creeds must be prepared to evolve in response to the inevitable discovery of life elsewhere in the Universe, and the discussion SETI has generated is a step in that process.
If Christians are reactive to the idea of SETI, it is because the history of science since the enlightenment is one of unremitting change in paradigms. The Church has regularly taken the “established facts” of the natural world as proof of Man’s special place in Creation. The Earth was flat. The Earth was at the centre of the celestial sphere. Life was imbued with a vitalism that defied description by chemistry. Organisms do not evolve from common ancestors. If I were a Calvinist I would have gained great comfort in Newton's description of a clockwork, essentially deterministic universe, right up until the elaboration of Quantum theory would have pulled the rug from under me.
And so now, bonehead creationists confidently claim "Earth is the one planet, the only planet that contains the only life that has ever existed in a billion, billion, billion solar systems." Like my hero, Carl Sagan, said "If we're the only life in the Universe, it seems like an awful waste of space."
Or, as someone else has put it, "Either we're alone in the universe or we aren't. Proof of that statement either way would be astonishing and transforming to our worldview."
When these sacred cows get systematically overturned by scientific progress, Christians who pin their faith on these "facts" become lost, confused, and frequently, belligerent. I believe that participation in a program like SETI, far from being a Atheist's wet dream aimed at ridding us of God (religious troglodytes frequently believe that scientific enterprises are run by conspiracies with this agenda), is a noble quest and one of the things I am most proud of. It encourages Christians to challenge whether their faith is really based on natural "facts" that require material proof (which is also why the Intelligent Design movement will cause such harm to the faith of many people as its credibility as a scientific theory gets shredded.)
It's worth noting that there are some Christians who are happy to embrace the idea of other intelligent life in the Universe and who have issued a discussion paper on the subject. I wish them well. They are ensuring that Christians will have an answer when (or if) the news ever breaks that a signal has been detected. Young Earth Creationists, on the other hand, will probably all go and commit suicide.
Lastly, as a shameless plug to anyone who wants to join The Wycliffe SETI Alliance then go to this link and join us!
- Nathan Zamprogno