Feb 2, 2010

Could Religion Survive First Contact?

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

One could argue that shamanism has been surviving the discovery of Grey-like aliens going all the way back to the paleolithic era. But I don't think shamanism was what Ted Peters of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary had in mind when he conducted a survey on how religious people would weather the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Study participants were mostly Buddhists and Christians of various denominations.

None of the 70 Buddhists questioned thought that the discovery of ET would undercut their belief systems, although 40 per cent thought it could pose problems for other religions.

More Roman Catholics believed ET could pose a problem for their faith. Only 8 per cent of the 120 surveyed thought that their individual beliefs would be shaken, but nearly a quarter – 22 per cent – said it could adversely affect their religion. Even more – 30 per cent – thought it could threaten the beliefs of other religious people.

I should point out that the Vatican has already weighed in on this issue, and determined belief in aliens to be no threat to Catholicism.

The patterns were similar for the other Christian sects surveyed, including evangelical and mainline Protestants, but there was not enough data to draw firm conclusions about people of other religions, such as Hindus and Muslims.

What I find far more interesting than the question of how religion would withstand proof of alien life, is the total disconnect between what people can accept and what they think other people can accept. This disconnect becomes even more pronounced when we look at the next group; the non-religious.

Of the 205 people who identified themselves as non-religious (either atheists or those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious), only 1 per cent thought it would affect their atheist or spiritual outlooks. But 69 per cent thought the discovery of ET could cause a crisis for other world religions. An average of only 34 per cent of religious people shared that belief.

That atheists and others who have rejected organized religion would perceive churchgoers as fairly close-minded and resistant to dramatic change, shouldn't really come as a shock, I guess. But the whole thing is a fascinating commentary on the nature of tribal behavior or "group think." We are always either rejecting or bending to the collective will of our communities; and few of us seem comfortable rejecting it, outright. Most people choose conformity, because it makes them feel safe. One of the things I hear a lot from my clients is that they can't talk to their friends or neighbors about their spiritual beliefs -- or God forbid, that they consult a psychic -- because people would think they were crazy. Maybe they would. Maybe they wouldn't. I decided a long time ago not to get too invested in what other people think. It's exhausting. But a lot of people are controlled by it. This study is not the first evidence I've seen that suggests that people are capable of much greater flexibility, in their thinking, than we give them credit for. Many of them are probably just too scared to admit it.

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