NASA’s recent announcement that it has discovered an “Earth-like” planet orbiting a nearby start is “bad news for God,” according to a recent article in The Huffington Post.
Jeff Schweitzer, a scientist, author, and former policy analyst for the Clinton White House, claims that the discovery of Kepler-452b is a watershed because it indicates that Earth-like planets are common, and by extension that extraterrestrial life may be common as well. And that, he says, means that religion is a dead letter.
“I would like here to preempt what will certainly be a re-write of history on the part of the world’s major religions,” he says authoritatively. “I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens.”
Despite pledging to stop religion in general from “contort[ing]” itself to accommodate alien life, Schweitzer actually ignores all other religions, from Hinduism to Zoroastrianism, in order to exclusively bash Christianity. The Bible, he says, is totally unambiguous that extraterrestrial life does not exist, and so the discovery of other life means that God is of course one big fraud.
Schweitzer’s means of proving his argument isn’t terribly complicated, and revolves around using a totally literal interpretation of the Bible.
From Genesis 1:1, we get:
“God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them.” [Note: This verse is actually Genesis 1:26, not 1:1]
Nothing in that mentions alien worlds, which of course the ancients knew nothing about. Man was told to rule over the fish on the earth, not on other planets. But god would have known of these alien worlds, so it is curious he did not instruct the authors to include the language.
The Bible, according to Schweitzer, would obviously have to mention in an aside that animals exist on other planets if it were really an authentic divinely-inspired text. Why exactly this is the case isn’t clear. The Bible doesn’t categorically rule out the existence of other planets, and even the wording of the passage Schweitzer quotes could be easily interpreted as apply to non-Earth planets without literally naming them.
Schweitzer has a follow-up ready to go, though:
There is also a problem with Genesis 1:3: And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. Well, the earth is only 4.5 billion years old, yet the universe, and all the light generating stars in ancient galaxies, are more than 13 billion years old. So when god said, “Let there be light” there already had been light shining bright for at least 10 billion years. He was flipping a switch that had been turned on eons before by the thermonuclear reactions in billions of stars that predate earth. That light bathed other suns and other planets long before the earth was a loose accumulation of rocks orbiting our sun. Since this is the story of all creation, these tidbits seem an important omission that will undermine the entire story when we find life elsewhere. We were late to the game of “let there be light.”
Here, Schweitzer appears to be making the assumption that the “light” is Earth’s sun, while all other stars are categorically excluded. But even if one accepts Schweitzer’s totally literal reading of the Bible, he is blundering spectacularly in a way he could have avoided by simply reading another few paragraphs. The “light” of Genesis 1:3 is all light, and is explicitly not that of the sun, because, according to the Bible, God creates the sun and stars on the fourth day:
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.
But most believers won’t have to nitpick Schweitzer’s reading of Genesis, because there is a simpler objection to be made: He is relying on an absolute fundamentalist view of the Bible, which holds that it must be 100 percent factual or else utterly false. While some Christians do hold to this view, many don’t. Early Christians actually argued extensively over whether to take Genesis literally, and that argument has continued throughout history. In Catholicism, no less an authority than the Pope has said that followers are free to interpret Genesis literally or not based on their own beliefs, with the church actually taking no official position. The approach to alien life is similar, with Catholicism taking no position at all. Similarly non-dogmatic approaches exist in Orthodoxy and many Protestant denominations.
Schweitzer has a ready-made response, though:
Now some say that these are not real days, but allegorical “god days” which could be millions of years each. But no, when god said let there be light and created life in six days, he tied these events to seasons on earth, which are governed by real days. So the Bible tells us that all life, in all the heavens, was all put on earth in six days, that is six earth days. Let us be perfectly clear that this leaves no room for alien life in this creation story. The discovery of alien life would therefore undermine the entire saga.
In other words, the creation story can’t be allegorical, because it doesn’t explicitly say it’s an allegory. Checkmate, theists! And even if it is an allegory, Schweitzer says that’s no escape.:
None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period. If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight. So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story. How could a convincing story of life’s creation leave out life? Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.
Of course, there are actually many things the Bible never mentions, such as computers, Baroque architecture, and Japan. Despite decisively asserting that a true god would simply have to specifically mention life on other planets, Schweitzer does not say why this is the case, or how a general account of God creating all life categorically excludes other planets simply because it doesn’t mention them.
Throughout the article, Schweitzer gives several indications that he doesn’t understand Christianity in much detail, or at least is unwilling to account for nuance in the faith. For instance, he plays fast and loose with Christian denominations. He cites Urban VIII’s condemnation of Galileo as proof of “the church’s” views on heliocentrism, ignoring that a Catholic pope could hardly speak for Protestant or Orthodox Christians (or even Catholics who disagreed with him, like Galileo himself). He speaks of the “66 books of the bible,” ignoring that the 66-book Bible is exclusive to Protestantism, with other denominations having more.
Some Huffington Post commentators attempted to correct Schweitzer, and made little headway. One commentator, for instance, pointed out that Catholicism never condemned Darwinian evolution even when the theory was new, earning a derisive “Please, please tell me you are kidding” from Schweitzer, who offered no rebuttal.
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