Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Ted Peters, Martinez Hewlett
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , July
     502 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Little more than twenty years ago it was unknown whether there were actually any planets in the universe, outside our own solar system, among the myriads of stars in the sky. Today, everyone has heard about exoplanets and found circling suns other than our own. Will one of these planets prove to be a second Earth, harboring life? Could there be other civilizations out there in the galaxy? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project continues this quest, now privately funded. With cell phone companies launching satellites into orbit to use GPS data, the privatization of space exploration and mining, and talks of a moon village--Ted Peters’s voluminous collection Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life is a timely theological response to this contemporary challenge, a practical exercise in creative mutual interaction between science and theology as practiced at the Francisco J. Ayala Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, California. 

In fact, as a pioneer in the field, Peters’s own contributions account for 40% of the book’s 480 pages of content. He and his colleagues offer five sections, beginning with an introduction examining the “tasks of the astrotheologian,” which is the basis of the following four parts. Since the existence of extraterrestrial live is still speculative, a critical question arises: should theology even bother to consider the possibility? Still, we do not live in the pre-scientific era of the 18th century when William Derham coined the term “Astro-theology.” The voices of this volume answer that question in the affirmative, stating in unison “it is so likely,” or, as Peters states in his last chapter “if we side with the contact pessimists, then we would have no reason to speculate further” (422). This is a major drawback of the current collection: critical voices are missing. This is not to imply that the presentations of the chapters are naïve, only that the choice of contributors is biased towards an affirmative approach to the speculative question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI). 

Establishing this stance, the task of astrotheologians is to first reflect on the scope of creation, as this involves settling the issue of Geocentrism. Since Copernicanism, scientifically Earth is not the center of the universe. Yet for Christianity and other faiths, happenings here on Earth obviously play a unique religious role. Here, the discussion focusses on whether Christ has therefore been incarnated more than once. Justifiably, an entire part is dedicated to this issue, as it is the most delicate challenge for the Christian astrotheologian, and it is a strength of the book that several divergent positions and answers are presented. There is also section examining the reactions of the three monotheistic religions on the possibility of ETI: what will happen when we meet them? 

At some point, Peters is also committed to debunking the “ETI myth.” This remains a challenge—carried out in an ambiguous way—as Peters is drawing on the myth while criticizing it as well. For Peters, the core of this myth is not the assumption of the existence of ETI itself, but rather the conclusions and assumptions made regarding ETI’s elevated evolutionary status and its possibly liberating role for humankind. 

The book provides a general overview of the theological and ethical questions arising from the possibility of extraterrestrial life. However, for a negative view of this possibility, I recommend including other sources as well. With this possibility taken for granted, the human exploration of our solar system becomes a minor concern of the book; and the part on space ethics is certainly incomplete, though it does offer a general overview.

Those interested in a creative interaction between science (astrobiology) and theology will find the book full of useful material. However, the skeptic will find a deeper reflection on whether astrobiology is a science lacking—or whether theology should even join in the debate. This reviewer believes that there are good reasons to do so, and the book presents many of them, even if it does take its own assumptions for granted. In addition to that, it is a wonderful collection of ETI enthusiasts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andreas Losch is Adjunct Lecturer in the Theological Faculty at the University of Bern.

Date of Review: 
March 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ted Peters teaches systematic theology and ethics at the Graduate Theological Union.

Martinez Hewlett is Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona and Adjunct Professor at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union.

Joshua Moritz is Managing Editor of the Journal Theology and Science on behalf of the Francisco J. Ayala Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.

Robert John Russell is Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science at the Graduate Theological Union.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.