In 1945, Robert Oppenheimer and the planet’s best brains summoned hellfire from the lab and wrote intentional auto-extinction into the arsenal of human potential.
In his painting “Why We Explore,” artist Robert Bausch summarizes Earth’s evolution on a single canvas. In the left-to-right storyline, the third stone out is a barren wasteland getting hammered by space debris, and upchucking the molten contents of its crust into the sea. Single-celled organisms shimmy from the steaming prehistoric broth before their more complex incarnations migrate rightward across the watery blue. Their descendants crawl ashore into a lush Eden, where more recognizable plant and animal communities pave the way for the ascension of humans.
“But we’re not done,” insisted theologian Ted Peters in a June podcast critique of the Bausch piece, mounted inside NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Human life keeps … getting more intelligent until we end up where?” Peters guided his screen pointer across the image and to the summit of the mountaintop on the far right. “At the scientific observatory which connects heaven and Earth.
“And if you know anything about the history of religions, the shaman connects heaven and Earth – that’s the axis mundi. Now where are the religious people?” Peters issues a sardonic chuckle. “They’re probably down there making fire. Because science, of course, is more highly evolved than religion.”
Peters remembers then turning from the painting and putting a question to his tour guide, NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay: “I said Chris, let’s look at this picture together. Isn’t this a myth? Evolution is progressive, and it finally ends with you, the myth-teller, as being the Nth degree of evolution, and now you’re gonna connect us with a still higher form of evolution in the cosmic beyond?
“And he laughed and he said, ‘Well, real evolutionary scientists do not believe that evolution is progressive.’ Of course they don’t!” Peters exclaims. “But look at the image here, and that’s the astrobiologist.”
In fact, Peters goes one better. The emeritus professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Theological Seminary describes being invited to address an astrobiology conference a few years back. But efforts to get his multi-degreed listeners to confront and acknowledge their own mythology got little traction. “One guy was actually laughing, and he said, ‘We’ve got to tell this myth — that’s how we get our funding.’”
Until recently, Peters’ ruminations might’ve passed for just another skirmish in the age-old tensions between science and religion. But an influential order of secular humanism has expanded its contempt for religion to include eclectic forms of pseudoscience. The targets range from snake-handling cults and end-times millennialism to faith in psychic surgery and the panacea of crystals. But now that the most compelling disregarded reality in the Skeptics’ compost heap – UFOs – is being elevated to the national security shelf by U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, the schism between faith and atheism itself is due for an update.
Ted Peters is ahead of the core question: Could the confirmation of a far more advanced civilization – especially one trolling our own atmosphere or oceans – foreshadow the obsolescence of Earthly religions? Or might it point instead to an origin story? Having gotten “to live in the myth” of a classic early Cold War flying-saucer subculture, the ordained Lutheran minister looks ready to place his bets as the ramparts of the opposition show stress fractures.
Philosopher Sam Harris, author of the best-selling The End of Faith and a savage critic of organized religion, especially the atrocity-scarred Abrahamic traditions, is beginning to struggle with the evidence emerging from the Pentagon: “Whoever’s left standing when the music stops – it’s not going to be a comfortable position to be in as a super-rigorous scientific skeptic who’s been saying ‘There’s no there, there’ for the last 75 years.”
Harris shared his uncertainties in June with M.I.T. artificial intelligence researcher and podcaster Lex Fridman. Just how the struggle for hearts and minds plays out, Harris predicts, will likely depend on who tells the most “honest story about what’s going on …
“The difference between me and every person who’s defending traditional religion is, where do you want to lie to yourself? Or lie to your kids?” Harris ventured. “Like, where is honesty a liability? I’ve yet to find a place where it is.
“(Honesty) is so obviously a strength in almost every other circumstance, because it is the thing that allows you to course correct,” he said. “It is the thing that allows you to believe, or hope at least, that your beliefs, your stories, are in some kind of calibration with what’s going on in the world.”
As a kid growing up in Detroit, Peters himself was absorbed by one of those stories. Mom and dad had hopped on the George Adamski bandwagon. He remembers how jazzed they were upon returning home one night from a lecture downtown.
“I just sat on the living room floor, eating it all up,” he says today. “And I started reading, too. What I felt in terms of excitement was what I call the ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) myth, and it was awhile before I could look at it more critically.”
A self-proclaimed emissary of a Venusian UFO pilot named Orthon, Adamski described his ET liaison as a Nordic-looking version of Jesus, dispatched to warn post-war Earthlings about the existential fix their nuclear bombs had put them in. Adamski’s claims, books and photos would ultimately collapse under scrutiny, but the residual longing for the benevolent “space brothers” phenomenon he ushered in continues to shape at least some aspects of public perception of ETI today.
Peters would move on and immerse himself in theology. He would revisit the ETI realm in the 1970s, when Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” theories blew up and inspired the enduring ancient astronaut debates. For awhile, Peters chased the white rabbit as a MUFON investigator. And although he alluded to those connections in 2014 with UFOS: God’s Chariots? Spirituality, Ancient Aliens and Religious Yearnings in the Age of Extraterrestrials, the prolific author dismisses early ET intervention in human affairs, such as lending paranormal muscle to Bronze Age architecture, as anti-science hokum.
In hopes of figuring out where Americans are on the evolving ET controversy, the Pew Research Center in June announced a curious linkage between atheists and white evangelicals. When asked if military sightings of UFOs represent evidence of life on other planets, of the nine categories surveyed, those two diametrically opposed subsets were in a virtual dead heat in their skepticism. A mere 31 percent of atheists agreed with the statement, just four points lower than their religious counterparts. By contrast, 51 percent of Americans at large answered definitely/probably.
Thirteen years earlier, when UFOs were still under mainstream quarantine, Peters produced his own Religious Crisis Survey on how the confirmation of intelligent life on another planet would affect Earthlings’ belief systems. The questions were obviously a little different, and the sampling wasn’t scientific, Peters cautions. But some 1,300 respondents from at least seven major faiths weighed in.
The poll suggested that sweeping majorities in every category, including all Buddhists, would emerge from the discovery unshaken. By less decisive margins, respondents were not nearly as convinced that other religions outside their own could handle the news. Perhaps significantly, across the board, barely 20 percent agreed with the proposition that more advanced ETs “would be willing to come to earth to help us achieve world peace and ecological health.” Peters thinks such suspicions could be tied to each tradition’s “creation myths.”
“When I looked into that particular link, what I found was that the issue was evolution,” says the research professor for the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and co-editor of the journal Theology and Science. “Part of the ETI myth relies on the assumption that evolution is progressive. And the UFOs are demonic because they get us to believe in Darwin.”
Sounds familiar. Former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program director Luis Elizondo got the disclosure ball rolling in 2017 after resigning from the Pentagon. Among the reasons cited was that the UFO data he was attempting to push up the command ladder was being jammed by an unnamed superior who insisted the phenomenon was “demonic.”
“I would find it hard to believe that, in all the various levels of the Pentagon, you’ve got a lot of people who believe UFOs are demonic,” says Peters. On the other hand, considering how neither science nor faith has been able to extricate ego from the circular debates, the approaching showdown between binary choices could be illusory as well. Maybe the phenomenon will assert itself into the kerfuffle over evolution as a linear progression.
Thoughts and prayers: New Mexicans exposed to nuclear fallout from the atomic explosion at Trinity continue to rally for compensation outside the White Sands Missile Range security gate. Plutonium ash, which settled into the soil, water and food sources for residents living within 50 miles of ground zero, has a half-life of 24,000 years.
“So it goes from simple to complex, from stupid to intelligent,” Peters muses. “And therefore, you can speculate that a more highly advanced civilization on an extraterrestrial planet will be more advanced. What will they be more advanced in? Art? Poetry? Oh no, they’re going to be more advanced in science and technology.
“Gee, why is that? Well, because on Earth, the most advanced people we know are scientists and technologists. They’re the most intelligent people.”
I can’t wait for Ticketmaster to announce tour dates for the debates. Front-row seats for me. I’ll spring for the popcorn — you bring impartial referees..