Magazine article Free Inquiry

When Humanists Meet E.T

Magazine article Free Inquiry

When Humanists Meet E.T

Article excerpt


For all their differences, Christians and humanists agree on at least one thing: that humans are the most valuable form of life on the planet. Whether divinely crafted or naturally evolved, both groups consider humans to be the crown of earthly creation. Unlike the Christians, however, humanists are not committed to the view that humans, or any particular group of them, are God's chosen people. What's more, since humanists believe that life is a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon, they have no trouble admitting that self-conscious, intelligent beings may exist elsewhere in the universe.

Such an admission is not so easy for Christians, however. The Bible does not mention the existence of other planets, let alone intelligent creatures that inhabit them. (There are those, however, who believe that the miracles described in the Bible were performed by advanced aliens, not a supernatural god. See, for example, Larry Downing, The Bible and Flying Saucers, New York: Marlowe and Co., 1997.) So, if intelligent aliens were discovered, Christian theologians would have a lot of explaining to do. Not only would they have to explain why the Bible is silent about these creatures, but they would also have to decide whether and how they should be saved. Have the aliens sinned? If so, did Jesus's death atone for their sins? How can Jesus's blood wash away their sins if they have never heard of him? Must they wait until a message or an emissary from us reaches them? Or does God incarnate on every planet containing sinners? However these questions are answered, the discovery of extraterrestrials will require C hristians to rethink their theology.

Contact with extraterrestrials may also prompt humanists to reexamine their philosophy Humanist ethical theories are often based on human wants and needs. Something is good if it promotes human flourishing and bad if it leads to human destruction. But what if something that promotes human flourishing leads to the destruction of other creatures? Is it still a good thing? Does everything have a value only in so far as it can benefit us? Or are some things other than humans intrinsically valuable? Those in the deep ecology movement offer an affirmative answer to the last question. For them, the environment itself is intrinsically valuable. Humans are simply one species among many, and their needs cannot be considered more important than those of any other species. The needs of all species must be balanced against one another for the good of the environment.

Many find deep ecology deeply troubling. Surely, they say, we are more valuable than the other creatures on the planet. But why? What makes us so special? Why do we have a right to life but other creatures don't? Is it that we are more powerful than they are? Does our moral superiority rest on the principle that might makes right? Or can it be given a more plausible justification?

One significant difference between us and other creatures is that we are capable of making moral judgments and acting morally toward others. What makes this possible is that we are both rational and self-conscious. But being rational and self-conscious is not enough to make us morally responsible for our actions. This is the insight behind the McNaughton rule, which says that those who do not know the difference between right and wrong are criminally insane and thus cannot be held responsible for what they do. (It is worth noting that, before they ate the apple, Adam and Eve were criminally insane because they did not acquire a knowledge of good and evil until they ate the apple. …

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