On the Hunt for Other Theologians in the Galaxy

To escape the mindless speculations of those on Earth

Humans have been hoping to find neighbors in the Cosmos for a long time. “Are we alone?” has been a haunting question. Are there other thinking creatures ‘out there’? It was astronomer Frank Drake who, in 1961, first proposed a formula to stimulate thought experiments on the matter. Known as the Drake Equation, it includes the factors we need to know in order to determine the probabilities: How many stars are there in our galaxy? How many have habitable planets? On how many of those has life actually arisen?

But then we would need to know what kind of life is on such planets. On most other worlds it might be microbial—or as one astronomer put it, ‘pond scum.’ Yes, that would be a neighboring life form, but not a very satisfying one. Earth itself was that kind of neighbor for the millions of years before life here made it above the level of microbes.

Hence, we would also like to know on how many planets thinking creatures have evolved. Many of those might be disappointments as well, if they are Neanderthal equivalents. The true thrill would be to find creatures who have discovered technology and communications—enough to be able to look at the sky and wonder, as do we, Is anybody out there? The final element of the Drake Equation is the ominous one: how long do such ‘advanced’ civilizations last? Earthlings mastered technology to the point of crafting nuclear weapons—and it’s not looking good for us.

But, back to “how many stars have habitable planets.” NASA was beside itself with joy to announce in February 2017 that a star with seven Earth-like planets (i.e., rocky, not gaseous)—which it dubbed TRAPPIST-1—had been discovered ‘only’ some 40-light years away. How close is that, really? Well, our majestic galactic twin, the Andromeda Galaxy, is about 2.5 million light years away—so 40 light years seems just around the corner. For comparison, the nearest star to us is Alpha Centauri (a 3-star system actually), is just 4.37 light years away.

All of this human stargazing commonly prompts feelings of our smallness—we are drifting along “lost in space.” After all, our galaxy has 200 to 400 billion stars. Edwin Hubble didn’t help matters when, in 1924, he made the discovery that the Andromeda Galaxy is another galaxy, not a swarm of stars inside ours. Suddenly, the Cosmos became vast beyond imagining—as if it weren’t already. One of the reasons that the Drake Equation focused on our Milky Way was that trying to calculate probabilities for other galaxies—so far way—was too daunting.

Do we really grasp what it means to say that a star is 4.37 light years away? Because Alpha Centauri is ‘close’ it has stimulated the imaginations of science fiction writers: could there be another civilization that close? Indeed, why doesn’t NASA aim a spacecraft at Alpha Centauri to go check it out? Well, here’s why: at the speed of the Space Shuttle (about 18,500 MPH) it would take about 160,000 years to get there. And the fastest spacecraft we’ve ever made clips along at about 36,000 mph; if we aimed that at TRAPPIST-1, the travel time would be about 800,000 years.

The main thing to appreciate from these figures, I would like to emphasize, is not how small we are, but how isolated we are. Way back when I was in seminary, I entertained the heretical thought that all of our theologies suffer from this profound isolation. Our experience of the Cosmos is pathetically limited. Here we are, on our tiny world, speculating endlessly about god(s) with no input whatever from other thinkers on other worlds. Yet we are so confident that we have come up with the right answers.

But there may be intellects on other planets—10, 50 or 1,000 lights years way—who have been probing/pondering the Cosmos thousands of times longer than we have been. Wouldn’t it be prudent to compare notes with some of these other thinkers before we make massively confident assertions about god(s)? I think it’s really a long shot, but if there are theologians on other planets, we should get their input—provided they could stop laughing at our human-centric concepts of God (please don’t show them the Bible!).

Theologians: take the hint. Here we are on our beautiful world orbiting a star that orbits the galactic center of the Milky Way every 235-million years. Before we can take your speculations seriously, you gotta tell us where—exactly where—you find your data about god(s). And all theists must agree that these are indeed reliable, verifiable, sources of data about god(s), i.e., isolated from the biases/distortions of our brains. There have been thousands of “one true religions” proposed by thousands of diverse theologians. It’s not a stretch at all that our profound isolation in the Cosmos renders their projects null and void.

In 1928, evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane offered this word of caution:

“Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy. That is the reason why I have no philosophy myself, and must be my excuse for dreaming.” (Possible Worlds, 1928)

Hey, our profound—maybe even absolute—isolation in the Cosmos is likely to last for a very very long time. Astronomers who have been looking for signals from “out there” have been asking, “Where is everybody?” And even if we picked up a “Hello” from one of the TRAPPIST-1 planets tomorrow, it would take forty years for our “Hi, how are you?” to get back to them.

Before we track down other theologians in the galaxy, the last thing we should do in the meantime is take the hordes of Earth-bound theologians seriously. They have bungled religion badly, offering inept, contradictory, dangerous guesswork for thousands of years.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.