Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Can I be a Christian and believe in Aliens?

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


Joel Baltaks said...

In my mind, the question isn't so much "Can I be a Christian and believe in aliens?", but rather "Does my faith necessarily and fundamentally deny the possibility of aliens existing?" I don't believe in aliens, myself. But if there was found to be life or even intelligent life on another planet, that wouldn't change anything about what the bible says or whether I believe what it says.

The bible doesn't say anything about life on other planets. Whether God created life on other planets or not, He's still the one God over all of the universe. SETI is a valid scientific pursuit; whether you expect it to find anything or not is another question, and in some ways beside the point. Ultimately there are bigger things at stake in this world and it would be a shame to bicker about this scientific pursuit.

And congrats Nathan on getting your (school's) name in lights! Nanoo nanoo, we come in peace! ;-)

Justin Warner said...

My views run very simular to Joel's. Although I don't really know if aliens exist or not, if they do, then that's great. It doesn't affect my faith one way or the other.

I actually found it quite interesting that the sites you linked as being rather anti-SETI tended to argue that because we have Jesus, we needent search for alien life. Now, while I understand their points about people basing their search for aliens on finding meaning, purpose and perhaps immortality, they tended to ignore the fact that if there are aliens out there, it would just be plain cool to know about it. We're social beings by design, and yet we shouldn't try and find others like us in the universe? And hey, I assume that if we did by chance find other intelligent life in the universe, that it would probably be pretty much like us. And you know what? I bet God loves the aliens too. I mean after all - if they're there, He made them. :)

w00t for your SETI efforts Nathan. I'm just hanging out for them to pick up a 300 year old broadcast of some TV show simular to "Friends" from the planet Narf.

Joel Baltaks said...

Uh oh... Nathan, I hope you have your antivirus software up to date with the latest extra-terrestrial virus updates. Those signals from outer space could contain a VIRUS!!!!!

I love the idea of catching a virus from outer space. It would probably only affect Microsoft products though. ;)

Hermit said...

"bonehead creationists"? You're not a very nice person, are you? It won't be long and the truth will out, and when that happens I'd rather be a bonehead creationist than a Bible-disbeliever.

Tristan's dad said...

"and if there's life on other planets / then i'm sure that he must know / and He's been there once already / and has died to save their souls"
U.F.O. by Larry Norman 1973

Gary said...

hey hermit. bonehead creationists does sum it up. and I am a Christian. Read Genesis , carefully , it is helpful.

Mark said...

As someone who has done Seti crunching for a lng time (25,506 hours classic and 152,374 current credits), I have blindly processed without thinking for a loing time. I am a Christian, and recently two people gave me pause to think.

Recently, I was listening to a Mysterious Universe podcast which was a special episode where they interviewed Stanton Friedman. He gave (IMHO) a very cogent reply which suggested to me that the whole SETI concept may be flawed. Go have a listen and see what you think. Maybe the Astropulse program might be more appropriate?!

Secondly, as Mark Driscoll likes to say - "It's all about Jesus." I think that if Jesus was here today and had a computer to do some BOINC processing, he would rather choose something of value to mankind (ie "Love your neighbour") like Rosetta@home, World Community Grid or similar. Even if you prefer to do Einstein wu's or find primes, there is more benefit to mankind than listening for ET.

That's my thoughts. I look forward to hearing more from the rest of you.

God Bless,


annerose said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

Anonymous said...

The Bible is clear there are NO aliens. That is to say no human life forms. There are no technological advanced beings in the universe. There are angles and demons and other creatures created to serve God, but non-need iPods! And certainly will not appear in any space search of the universe. Scripture is clear 1 Peter 18 ‘For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’. There is no salvation outside Christ. As a consequence no other life form has access to Christ who died once on this planet, while the whole universe is tainted by sin as Satan was an angle of God and went ‘back and forth’ (Job 1:7). The Bible makes no mention of spreading the Good News past earth. This to my mind makes SETI just a waste of time and money. For Christians the effort should be placed in evangelism. In fact I personally believe that all the science fiction, new age alien cults, alien abductions, spacemen made the pyramids are linked to the turning of mankind away from Biblical truth. As there are many who hope some powerful alien force does exist and can help mankind with the many problems of earth and make things right. Yet the Bible is clear we must seek after God, our hope and life is Christ and NOT technology manufactured on earth or from the stars. It is all a distraction from the truth and is very surprising how many fall for the lie, even a well respected elder in my own church could not see the fallacy behind the universe is so big and the statistical possibility etc. The universe is small when compared to the power, ability and love of God. He controls everything in the universe Job 12: 10 In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. ‘Don't be deceived, my dear brothers James 1:16’ ‘We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.’ 1 John 5:20 Personally I know my hope and salvation will come, Rev 22:20 Yes, I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Blessings Tim.

Anonymous said...

[Scripture is clear 1 Peter 18 ‘For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’. There is no salvation outside Christ. As a consequence no other life form has access to Christ who died once on this planet, while the whole universe is tainted by sin as Satan was an angle of God and went ‘back and forth’ (Job 1:7)]

I clearly disagree with this individual. What he is doing is explaining the scriptures out of context and according to his own theological biases. It seems to be locked in the dark ages and similar to comparison as saying, "Women should not preach or the TV is the devil!".

Maybe he should read the context of his scripture first before quoting biblical texts out of context.

Katinka said...

I am a Christian, and I have absolutely no issue with the existence of other life forms beyond our solar system. In fact, a)it seems to be consistent with the Creative character of God, and b)it's consistent with scriptures (eg. various descriptions of paranormal beings in Revelation!).

In my opinion, attempting to limit God by saying that there is nothing else out there but space dust and emptiness is either evidence of ignorance, or is, in fact, a kind of blasphemy.

What are angels other than extra-terrestrial life forms with intelligence and free will, who were also made by and for God?

How they are judged or how they are accountable for their moral choices is a story that we have not been told. Irregardless, this doesn't nullify the truth of their existence.

Katinka said...

ps(Commenter Tim: what makes you think that other life forms would have need of salvation?

And why would other beings be necessarily measured against the same type of expectations or have the same kind of consequeneces set for them? Eg. scriptures seem to indicate that animals, angels and humans are subject to different kinds of accountability/ relationships to God.)

Lee said...

I am not sure you can be a Christian and believe in aliens, but you can certainly believe in God and believe in Aliens.
I do. But then I believe God was himself an alien.
I believe he created man in his own image after turning up here from outer space.
50,000 years later when it was all written down, the stories had changed because for 50,000 years they had been passed down by word of mouth. Not the most reliable form of history keeping. But certainly reliable enough to get the main point across. He created us, possibly from apes, since it was at this point we suddenly had the ability to speak and pass on a verbal history to subsequent generations it would have seemed like the creation of everything started then. Of course this is just my belief. I do not expect anyone to agree. As long as you do not expect me to agree with your beliefs. I am sure one day we will dig up his spaceship, probably in Africa somewhere and discover the truth. Until then we will have to all have different opinions on who or what God did or didn't do. Just remember, the people that first documented the bible were far removed in time from when those events happened. And no one wrote anything down at the time it happened. Because writing wasn't invented. Verbal histories are notoriously unreliable. You only have to look at 3 eyewitness reports to the same crime yesterday to see that. That's without getting the info hundreds or thousands of years later. Also bear in mind that if someone from two thousand years ago saw a television, let alone a space shuttle they would be so amazed. And yet to us these things are commonplace. They didn't even know the world was round and yet we are expected to trust their judgement on such huge matters as how the world was formed. Very strange to my mind, but the truth for you. We are all different and that is what makes us special.

Nathan Zamprogno said...

Commenter Lee (above) is entitled to his view of course, but this isn't my view at all. Until there is a sound theoretical framework through which superluminal travel becomes (even remotely) possible (even if still well beyond our engineering skills), then I've got to apply Occam's Razor and come down on the side of saying that it is unlikely that this planet has already been visited by "aliens" and even less likely that they acted as our prehistoric "Gods". That kind of Erich Von Däniken woo-woo was discredited years ago.

Lee said...

A hundred years ago there was no theoretical framework for a mobile phone and yet here they are. Just because we can't imagine something does not mean it can't happen. Where exactly is the theoretical framework for the making of a human being from earth, or for the making of the universe from nothing at all? And yet creationists are happy to believe that is what happened. That is the beauty of faith, you don't need a theoretical framework for it.