A Chat w/ NASA-funded Italian Jesuit Andrea Vicini
Andrea Vicini was one of two dozen religious scholars who between 2015 and 2017 shared nearly $3M awarded jointly by NASA and the John Templeton Foundation (administered by the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton) to investigate how the religious community would respond to the discovery of life in outer space. As I’ve already reported, informants at NASA tell me we will not find life anywhere else in the solar system. So why blow 5% of the NASA Astrobiology Institute budget on such a project?
I spoke recently by phone with Andrea Vicini at Boston College about this matter. Our interview follows.
Suzan Mazur: Did you interview people from the religious community to find out how they would respond to life in the solar system outside of Earth? Or are you just speaking and writing from your perspective?
Andrea Vicini: Well, more than interviewing. It’s the result of our research last year. The team of our researchers involved in the research project at the Center of Theological Inquiry on the societal implications of astrobiology was composed of 10 theologians and one philosopher and one expert in management.
Suzan Mazur: But what I’m asking is did you go to the religious community, canvas the religious community and find out how it would respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life or was the research just conducted within the group of 12?
Andrea Vicini: Well, I would say I think there is another way in which we can explore what is in the religious traditions at least – to look at what is at the core of the various religious traditions. Christianity is not only—
Suzan Mazur: But did the funded researchers go to the religious community and ask: How would you respond to the discovery of life elsewhere in the solar system? Was that done or no? More.
The answer would seem to be, probably, no, or not much. Which feels odd, somehow. It wouldn’t be difficult to get a film night discussion going. Here is a list of ten science fiction films with religious themes.
Of course, it’s yet to be determined that most religious people have much invested in the matter one way or the other, relative to their irreligious neighbours. The bookish ones may have more ideas on the subject though and would be more likely to attend the film night.
Note: One of the twentieth century’s best-known Christian apologists, C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) was the author of an enduring trilogy about space aliens. Here also is his essay on the role of science fiction in literature:
It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or other stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand. As the area of knowledge spreads, you need to go further afield: like a man moving his house further and further out into the country as the new building estates catch him up.
“His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”
See also: NASA cares what your religion thinks about ET. One would expect that those world religions that care much one way or the other if NASA finds bacteria in space could fund their own examination of the question.
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