Will contact with intelligent aliens change religion?

Television pundit Stephen Colbert put it best in an interview with Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno: “If we accept that there is alien life on other planets, doesn’t that totally blow Jesus out of the water?”

It is a question that has occupied theologians (and science fiction writers) of all stripes for years but has gained greater traction as we have ventured farther into our solar system and beyond. It picked up currency with the recent release of classified video showing U.S. Air Force pilots encountering “a fleet” of fast-moving, free-spinning unidentified flying objects near San Diego.

Increasingly, astronomers, astrophysicists and other scientists are joining theologians at conferences and think tanks to ask what it would mean if aliens have an idea of a god — or if they don’t. What kind of disruption would the discovery of alien intelligence mean to religion? To our understanding of what it means to be human?

This edition of ReligionLink examines the issues, conflicts and possibilities the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would have to our understanding of our place in the universe.


UFOs in the news



  • big history — the history not of Earth, but of the universe
  • exoplanet — planets outside our solar system that orbit stars
  • exotheology — speculation on the theological significance of extraterrestrial life
  • Fermi’s paradox — Physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question: Our universe is so vast, it should be teeming with life. But why haven’t we found any?
  • SETI — an acronym commonly used by scientists; it stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”

Religion and science organizations/associations

Religion and science blogs/websites

  • The Catholic Astronomer is a blog run by the Vatican Observatory and is written by its scientists and clerics.
  • Irtiqa is a blog focused on Islam and science, including astronomy and astrobiology. Salman Hameed runs it.
  • Judaism and Science is a website dedicated to the intersection of Judaism and science. Roger Price, a lawyer and science hobbyist, runs it.
  • Space.com is a news site for all things about the exploration of space and astronomy. It maintains a page of stories about SETI.


International sources

  • Jim Al-Khalili

    Jim Al-Khalili is a professor of physics at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England, and a frequent presenter of television programs about science for the BBC and Britain’s Channel 4. He is the editor of Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

  • Lewis Dartnell

    Lewis Dartnell is an astrobiologist and a science communicator at the University of Westminster in London. He gives frequent lectures on the search for intelligent alien life, what it might look like and want and how it might change us. He is the author of Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide.

  • Kathryn Denning

    Kathryn Denning is an associate professor of anthropology at York University  in Toronto, Canada, where she teaches a course called “Anticipating the Alien.” Her focus is on what it means to be human in the universe and she works with SETI on studying the way scientists search for aliens.

  • Nidhal Guessoum

    Nidhal Guessoum is an astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and the author of Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. As part of a panel discussion on the implications of finding other worlds at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011, he spoke about the potential impact on Islam. He is a Sunni Muslim.

  • Peter Harrison

    Peter Harrison is a former professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, and an expert on the dialogue and tensions between science and religion. He is the author of The Territories of Science and Religion. He is now director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

  • Michael Heller

    The Rev. Michael Heller is a Catholic priest, philosopher and cosmologist at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland. He has written numerous books and articles — mostly in Polish — about the nature of the universe, its origins and something he calls a “theology of science.” He received the 2008 Templeton Prize.

  • Alister McGrath

    Alister McGrath is a former atheist and now an evangelical Christian and a theology professor at the University of Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. He is a prolific writer and public apologist for Christianity and is author of several books, including The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern WorldIn the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, and The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, with Joanna Collicutt McGrath.

  • Florence Raulin Cerceau

    Florence Raulin Cerceau is a director at Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence and an associate professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. She is a historian of astrobiology and of the search for intelligent alien life.

  • Martin Rees

    Sir Martin Rees is a cosmologist, Astronomer Royal of the British Empire, a member of the House of Lords and the winner of the Templeton Prize in 2011. He contributed an essay on man’s place in the universe to Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In 2010 he said in an interview with Prospect magazine that SETI will be one of the most important challenges for science over the next 20 years. Contact via the Royal Society.

    Contact: +44 207 451 2500.
  • Dirk Schulze-Makuch

    Dirk Schulze-Makuch is a professor at the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Technical University in Berlin and the author or co-author of five books on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, including The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds.

    Contact: (+49) 030-314 23734, (+49) 030-314-23736.
  • Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti

    The Rev. Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti is an Opus Dei priest and a professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He previously was an astronomer and researcher at the Observatory of Turin in Turin, Italy. He is editor of The Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science, where he tackled the question of what the discovery of intelligent aliens might mean to theology.

    Contact: ++39 06681641.
  • Clément Vidal

    Clément Vidal describes himself as a “big questions philosopher.” He is a researcher and an assistant professor at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. Among his areas of study is the potential impact the discovery of intelligent alien life would have on society.

  • Michael Waltemathe

    Michael Waltemathe is the chair of practical theology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Bochum, Germany. Much of his research focuses on a “religious vision” of space travel and exploration.

  • David Wilkinson

    The Rev. David Wilkinson is a professor of theology and religion at Durham University in Durham, England. He is also an ordained Methodist minister with a doctorate in the study of star formation and the evolution of galaxies. He is the author of Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

National sources

  • James Matthew Ashley

    James Matthew Ashley is an associate professor of the history of Christianity and systematic theology at the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. One of his areas of study is science and theology.

  • Gary Bates

    Gary Bates is an evangelical Christian and young-Earth creationist associated with Creation Ministries International in Atlanta. He speaks frequently about UFOs and Christianity.

    He has said the discovery of extraterrestrial life would “make a mockery” of the doctrine of salvation.

    Contact: 800-616-1264.
  • Benjamin Blech

    Benjamin Blech is a rabbi and a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York City. He has written about what the discovery of intelligent alien life would mean to Judaism.

  • Nathalie Cabrol

    Nathalie Cabrol is a senior research scientist and director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. She is an astrobiologist and planetary scientist. She contributed an essay on SETI for the book Aliens: The World’s Leading Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

    Contact: 650-604-0312.
  • Guy Consolmagno

    Brother Guy Consolmagno is a Jesuit and director of the the Vatican Observatory, as well as president of its foundation. He is a frequent commentator on religion and science and wrote the pamphlet “Intelligent Life in the Universe: Catholic belief and the search for extraterrestrial life.” The observatory is in Tucson, Ariz.

    Contact: 805-901-6591.
  • David J. Collins

    The Rev. David J. Collins is a Catholic priest, a Jesuit and an associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with an interest in science, religion and space. He sometimes teaches a course on outer space, science and religion.

    Contact: 202-687-6058.
  • Paul Davies

    Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist and founder and director of Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in Tempe. His books include The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? In 1995 he won the Templeton Prize for work on science and religion. Contact via Skip Derra, media relations at ASU.

    Davies has suggested religious leaders have “downplayed” the threat that the discovery of alien life poses to religion.

  • Robert Lawrence Kuhn

    Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an investment banker, public intellectual and the creator of “Closer to Truth,” a PBS television show, website and series of videos and podcasts that examine the “big questions” of existence. Contact via his Facebook page.

    He wrote that the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrials would pose a bigger threat to Western religions than to Eastern religions.

  • Josh Larsen

    Josh Larsen is the editor of Think Christian, a website that looks at religion and popular culture from the Reformed tradition. Think Christian is based in Palos Heights, Ill.

    He has written that Christians should be interested in and supportive of space exploration “as an act of worship.”

  • Michael Shermer

    Michael Shermer is a noted atheist, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society. He has written several books, including How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design

    He wrote an essay for Scientific American analyzing data that may indicate the search for intelligent alien life may be linked to the religious impulse in humans.

  • Kelly C. Smith

    Kelly C. Smith is an associate professor of philosophy and a Lemon Fellow of the Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. He can discuss the philosophy of science and the role of faith and reason in science.

    He has spoken at a Contact Conference about the ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the search for intelligent alien life on other planets.

  • Matthew Stanley

    Matthew Stanley is an astronomer and a professor of the history and philosophy of science at New York University. In 2016, he gave a talk at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society on the question of whether we are alone in the universe, and if we are not, what would that mean to our sense of humanness. He is the author of Practical Mystic: Religion, Science and A.S. Eddington, about how scientists reconcile their religious beliefs and professional lives.

  • William Storrar

    Wiliam Storrar is the director of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, N.J., an ecumenical institute for interdisciplinary research in religion. The center designates several topics to study for a year or more and has, to date, focused on religion and violence, law and religious freedom, evolution and moral identity, among others.

    In 2014, the center received a $1.1 million grant from NASA to study the societal implications of astrobiology, including its impact on religion.

    Contact: 609-683-4797.

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