The big news last week was that astronomers (incidentally, some of them colleagues of mine) discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star. The exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-452b, was discovered by the Kepler space telescope and recently announced by its discoverers. It is 1,400 light-years away from Earth and appears in the constellation Cygnus.
It’s exciting news, and probably had more than a few nerds thinking we’re one step closer to the United Federation of Planets, but apparently the really big news is that the discovery of this planet was the death-knell for religious tradition.
In what I suppose is a serious commentary on the discovery Kepler-452b and not satire, Jeff Schweitzer, a scientist and former White House analyst, declares that Earth 2.0 is “bad news for God.” Why? Because Genesis doesn’t mention alien worlds. Of course, Genesis also doesn’t mention bananas, but to my knowledge no one has argued that the existence of bananas rocks religious tradition to its core.
Schweitzer’s first mistake was referring to Kepler-452b as “Earth 2.0.” This newly discovered exoplanet is believed to be Earth-like in terms of its size and proximity to its Sun-like star, and that’s sort of big news, because the majority of known exoplanets are Jupiter-sized or larger and very close to non-Sun-like stars. Kepler-452b is at just the right distance to its Sun-like star to permit liquid water on its surface (a necessary component for life). All this means is that we can’t rule out the existence of liquid water on its surface; it doesn’t mean there is water. And there are known differences between Kepler-452b and Earth: it’s estimated to be 60% larger than Earth (so it’s more like a “Super-Earth”), it’s about 1.5 billion years older than the Earth, it receives 10% more light from its sun than the Earth does from its Sun, its gravity could be anywhere from 80% to 300% of the Earth’s gravity, etc. We don’t know its composition. Is it rocky? Does it have a fluid core that would lead to a dynamo effect? Does it have an atmosphere? Plate tectonics? We currently don’t know the answers to these questions. We therefore have no idea exactly how Earth-like Kepler-452b is or whether it’s suitable for life. And it’s not the only known Earth-like exoplanet, nor is it even the most Earth-like. All good reasons why it’s absurd to call this particular exoplanet “Earth 2.0.”
Nevertheless, Schweitzer goes on to declare that we are coming “ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe.” That’s quite a leap from the discovery of an exoplanet about which we know very little. But never mind. His point here is to preemptively declare that the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would be a big problem for “the world’s major religions.” And by “the world’s major religions” he seems to mean Judaism and Christianity (and probably just the latter), since the Bible is the sole focus of his critique.
He begins his theological discussion thusly: “Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation:”
Let’s look at what the Bible unambiguously claims about creation, according to Schweitzer:
1. “the earth is the center of the universe”
He doesn’t mention which verse says this. Probably because there is no verse, that I’m aware of, that says this. Ancient Greek philosophy held that the Earth is the center of the universe, and this view was eventually adopted by the Church, whose philosophy was heavily influenced by Aristotle.
2. “only humans were made in the image of god”
Of all the creatures mentioned in Genesis, yes, only humans were made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, being made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, not being made in the image of God.
3. “and all life was created in six days”
No, all life was created in four days. Plant life appeared on Day 3, animal life appeared on Day 5, and human life appeared on Day 6.
4. “All life in all the heavens. In six days.”
No, all life on Earth. In four days. (See here for why six creation days are fully compatible with a billions-year-old universe.)
Notice that he does not support any of these claims with the biblical verses that supposedly “unambiguously” say these things. Instead, later in his piece, he quotes the Pope during the trial of Galileo on what the Church believed the Bible claimed at the time.
This is why you should never rely on what an anti-theist says about the Bible. Schweitzer is completely wrong. Which means his conclusion is completely wrong, for he goes on to say:
“So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications. But do not buy the inevitable historical edits: life on another planet is completely incompatible with religious tradition. Any other conclusion is nothing but ex-post facto rationalization to preserve the myth.”
Nonsense. What he’s attempting to do is use false assumptions and specious reasoning to justify his leaping out in front of this discovery before anyone’s had a chance to comment thoughtfully on it, and claim it as a victory for atheism. Dibs, everyone!
Is Schweitzer unaware that Christians have already commented on the topic of alien life in the context of Christian theology? C. S. Lewis not only wrote a well-known essay (“Religion and Rocketry“) on the topic, but wrote a science fiction trilogy exploring it in great depth (The Space Trilogy). (Incidentally, I wrote on this topic a few years ago.)
The rest of Schweitzer’s article is filled with theological analysis and reasoning of similar quality. For instance, he quotes Genesis 1:1 and then makes the following claim:
“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.”
One might reasonably ask how man could possibly rule over the fish on other planets, and therefore why it would be of any concern to him that there might be fish on other planets. (I seriously wondered if Schweitzer was having us all on at this point, but since this was The Huffington Post and not The Onion, I had to assume he was sincere.) (Also, what is it with the childish refusal of some atheists to capitalize the ‘G’ in God? Lower-case ‘g’ god denotes a lesser god. God is the supreme being, the God, which is why ‘God’ is capitalized. Spelling it correctly doesn’t mean you agree God exists, it means you understand the concept of a proper noun. It just makes you look like an idiot to refuse to capitalize the name.)
He then goes on some weird tangent about some verses in Genesis that shows he doesn’t understand that Genesis refers to the entire universe for the first two days, and then specifically the Earth for the remaining days. It was all so contorted and confused that it made my head hurt. He amusingly concludes this word-salad passage with “Let us be perfectly clear…”
Schweitzer ends his piece with the statement that, “none of this will matter upon life’s discovery elsewhere. Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible.” He’s right that this sort of poor understanding of the Bible and lousy reasoning are utterly inconsequential to any possible discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. As for whether the existence of life elsewhere is compatible with, even predicted by, the Bible, consider that the great biblical commentator, Nahmanides, inferred from Genesis that the universe was created with the potential for life built into it. Since he claimed this over 700 years ago, I’d say our side had dibs long before Schweitzer’s.