Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Last week, the English press got all breathy about the “hint” that Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, might have some microscopic critters crawling about on or under its surface. The hintiness of the evidence is very hinty indeed, but it was interesting enough to sell a little beer and shampoo (the true function of the media), so the editors went with the story and the commenters immediately came out of the woodwork to Tell Us What it All Means.
What fascinates me is how much exercise people get leaping to conclusions, constructing non sequiturs, and, of course, boasting about their superior faculties of reason (over religious people) or (a much smaller minority in the Country that Used to be England) promoting a simplistic biblical narrative that, in fact, has nothing to do with adjudicating the question of extraterrestrial life.
On the “We prefer to worship the Intellect rather than use it” side of things, you get priceless entries like this from people who anticipate the imminent destruction of Religion by the Juggernaut of Science:
Leaving religion out of it, how about a few facts! This Solar System including Earth is approximately 4½ billion years. The Milky Way Galaxy of which we are part of is about 13.5 billion years old and the rest of it is about 35 billion years old. Each star you see is a sun of another system.
I’m sure glad we’ve got science experts who know the score on the dating of the universe there in the combox to correct us dumb ol’ religious believers. As long as you burn a pinch of incense to Science and Reason, you don’t have to actually know that the whole universe is roughly 13.5 billion years old, not just the Milky Way. You just need a superior tone of voice. And you don’t have to know anything at all about Fr. Georges Lemaitre, the priest who first formulated the Big Bang Theory. Still less do you have to know about the previous generations of Intellect Worshippers who derided that theory as “theology” due to the fact that it looked uncomfortably like saying that the universe has a beginning as in “In the beginning”, veering dangeously close to invitations to think about You Know Who.
Still another intellect worshipper writes the following insightful syllogism:
Does other life but human life exist ?
You can’t tell, the facts say yes though. (we are the dominant ones on this planet)
Does god exist ?
You can’t tell, the talking snake and pregnant virgin said it does though.
Hmmm… does other life than human life exist? Boy, that’s a poser. I’ll have to put down my high school biology text, take my dog out for a walk and lay down under our alder tree to puzzle that one out. Are there any living things besides me and my fellow humans? If only I wasn’t religious and had the benefit of a truly true scientific mind like readers of the Daily Mail. You can tell they are hard headed thinkers whose views on “god” are sound because they speak dismissively of a Judaic myth about the Fall and the Blessed Virgin Mary, so clearly they have disproven the entire edifice of the Christian tradition. I just hope they can resolve the mystery of whether other life than human life exists for us dumb religious people.
Another Clever Person, of a more satirical bent, writes:
I’m quite outraged by this, it’s obviously a lie cooked up by those ‘science geeks’, just like that man walking on the moon nonsense! There is only life on earth, man is the only living creature that has ever been, it has been said by Him. I urge you all to get off the computer and read your bibles!
Religious people, you see, believe that no living things exist except for human beings. And that’s because the Bible says so in some unspecified chapter and verse. Those dumb religious believers—including Buzz Aldrin, who celebrated communion with Neil Armstrong after the Eagle landed—also don’t believe man walked on the Moon. Religious people are all stupid and ignorant of the most elementary facts, you see. The reason they are stupid is because they don’t worship the intellect. Instead, they often use it, which just confuses secular Daily Mail readers.
Meanwhile, from the US comes the six day creationist contingent, filled with a confused melange of right wing culture war and Talk Radio dogmatisms all jumbled up together:
The entire Universe and all that is in it was created in 6 Days; and after a short period of time the entire creation was under the curse from sin. The curse is of course decay and death. God “made the Earth to be inhabited” Nothing can come “of itself” ‘nothing! Also in a short time ‘When the Kingdom comes’ the curse will be lifted. Evolution is the biggest HOAX followed by Social Security and Global Warming ever perpetrated upon the populace! Jesus said it is foolish not to believe “all’ that the prophets have written. All scripture is divinely inspired; but God Wrote on the Tablets of the Ten Commandments (Divinely INSCRIBED) [Ex 20:11] “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day:” Don’t be fooled by Science falsely so called” ALSO INSPIRED 1TI 6:20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called:
While this may be an admirable expression of Fundamentalism and sundry culture war obsessions in early third millennial America, it has nothing to do with what Scripture actually requires of us, nor with what implications, if any, are to be gleaned from the presence of life on Titan.
From a Catholic perspective, the implications of the presence of life on Titan (assuming for a moment that it exists) are… not much (if by “much” you mean a challenge to the essentials of Catholic faith or the inspiration of Scripture). All it would mean is that the Lord, the giver of life, chose to create life on Titan, which he has every right to do if he feels like it. To feel threatened by that makes as much sense as feeling threatened by the presence of life around thermal vents at the bottom of the sea. In fact, several things would have to line up for the existence of extraterrestrial life to pose a challenge to the Catholic picture of the universe
First, it has to exist, which we don’t know.
Second, it has to be sentient. Alien oysters cannot sin any more than ours do.
Third, it has to have fallen. An unfallen race is not in need of redemption.
Fourth, we have to know that, being fallen, it has been denied the chance of redemption by God. How on earth (or Thulcandra) we’d ever figure that out beats me.
Fifth, we have to know that the redemption will be forever denied this hypothetically existent, hypothetically rational, hypothetically fallen race. After all, if you’d visited earth 10,000 years ago you would not have seen to many obvious clue that redemption was in the works for us. And since the only way to know that God has no plans to redeem them is to know the mind of God, this seems an especially tricky hurdle to get over.
Sixth, we have to know that redemption via an incarnation, death and resurrection of God the Son in this fallen alien nature is the only way in which God redeems fallen creatures and that such a redemption will never be granted such creatures.
As C.S. Lewis says, if our faith never encounters a bigger challenge than this, we are sitting pretty.
Man is an inveterate philosopher. He cannot resist the impulse to make grand pronouncements about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything on the feeblest provocation. The trouble is, he usually doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He incessantly goes off half-cocked. Both the secularists and the fundamentalists who hold forth with sweeping confidence in comboxes are typical specimens of postmodernity’s odd tendency to assume that our technological civilization somehow confers indiscriminately on all its citizens an automatic Ph.D on whatever they feel like pontificating about in a bar or a combox. Religious fundamentalists feel confident in sweeping aside the entire scientific enterprise (except when driving cars, flying in airplanes, using microwaves, or going to the doctor) in favor of a simple appeal to their favorite half-remembered bits of pseudoknowledge about the Bible. They don’t dismiss germ theory, but they are curiously confident that Genesis is supposed to be a science text. Meanwhile atheist fundamentalists are likewise uber-confident that they grasp Science and Religion completely, while they spout equally ignorant nostrums, dismiss all believers as Fundamentalists, and make fools of themselves with pronouncements about our 35 billion year old universe, all while touting their superior intellect, which they worship but seldom or never use.
We live in a time like no other: where more knowledge has been piled up than ever before (about both Science *and* about biblical revelation) and more and more partisans of each use it for little besides hurling fragments of it at one another like chimps flinging dung at one another at the zoo.