SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2001—The first of a string of UFO movies,
the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with a
flying saucer landing on the White House lawn. A military
patrol surrounds the craft and sets up a protective perimeter
with guns loaded and cocked. Out of the saucer steps an
interstellar diplomat named Klaatu, whose mission is to bring
peace to an earth threatened by nuclear war. But before Klaatu
can present his plan for peace, a nervous soldier shoots
The movie is fictional, but its depiction of human nature
is revelatory. Anxious and nervous, we assume that strangers
in our land are like us: Ready to invade, rob, pillage, rape,
destroy, and conquer. We become defensive, attacking before we
are attacked. This is xenophobia, fear of aliens or strangers.
If in the future we actually make contact, will we be
xenophobic about extraterrestrial intelligent beings?
When we imagine making contact with aliens, we tend to
think in terms of face-to-face encounters, rather than the
distant messaging that is the real-life work of SETI
scientists. Perhaps this appeals more to our human
sensibilities—and it certainly makes for better drama. The
question here, however, is not one of greeting UFOs, but one
of ethics, asking what we should do rather than what we are
able to do.
Mahayana Buddhism teaches a dramatic version of altruism,
wherein the bodhisattva demonstrates compassion by helping
others attain spiritual growth before completing his or her
own journey to enlightenment.
In the Christian tradition we find two versions of
altruism, caritas and agape. Caritas, or charity, similar to
the ethics of the family in the Confucian tradition,
recognizes the love within our families and then extends it
outward toward clan, tribe, city, and nation. Agape, the
self-sacrificial love taught by Jesus, mimics divine love for
the human race as exemplified in the humiliation of the cross,
and it follows Jesus’ command to love even our enemy as
Charity extends self-love for the welfare of others, while
agape places the need of the other first. Charity extends the
privileges of insiders to outsiders while agape erases the
line between insiders and outsiders.
Over the centuries, the two have been conflated in the
ethic of neighbor-love, Nachstenliebe, based on the Bible’s
Good Samaritan. In this familiar story, a Jewish man is
robbed, beaten, and left on the side of the road to die. An
anonymous Samaritan finds the victim, attends to his physical
needs, and pays for his medical bills. Then the Samaritan
disappears from the victim’s life without asking for any
reward or even an ongoing relationship.
Neighbor-love assumes we are helping someone close to us.
If we are good to our neighbors, they may be good to us. Such
reciprocal altruism is little more than enlightened
self-interest. But Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes
a different point: The person in need was a total stranger and
an ethnic rival. The Good Samaritan acted neighborly toward an
If anyone could be considered an outsider, certainly ETs
qualify, whether we meet them on their turf as we travel space
or on our turf when they visit Earth. Should the neighbor-love
ethic apply to extraterrestrials? If we on Earth unite in
self-defense, we become the insiders declaring the aliens
outsiders. Extraterrestrials will not be our neighbors, nor
will we be neighborly.
If the aliens are hostile, we are unlikely to turn the
other cheek. Rather, we are much more likely to form
international alliances to fend off a common enemy. Previous
rival groups will unite: Pakistanis and Indians, Irish and
English, Serbs and Croatians. We will enlist Earth scientists
to devise new, more effective weapons to meet the
extraterrestrial threat; and if successful, scientists and
soldiers will be hailed as heroes. Pundits and moralists will
affirm our right of self-defense and celebrate the earth unity
it fosters. We will unite terrestrial peoples by scapegoating
But suppose we say the ethic of neighbor-love should apply
to extraterrestrials. Suppose we try to affirm an ethic of
altruism and commit the populace of our planet to looking out
for the welfare of those we consider our new neighbors. If the
extraterrestrials turn out to be hostile, then reciprocal
neighbor-love—let alone agape—might be the road to Earth’s
defeat. But what if those we encounter are benign, or neutral,
or even mildly friendly? What would altruism look like under
If it is reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest
that guides us, we can expect interplanetary trade to develop.
In every society on Earth today, we find markets complete with
trading and socializing. We tacitly believe with the Scottish
philosopher Adam Smith that an invisible hand of providence
ensures that through trading, all partners will become better
off. With such an assumption, we could in good altruistic
conscience enter into trading relationships that make a profit
for Earth while sponsoring what we hope will be a benefit to
our space partners.
Yet neighbor-love would require more—that we attend to the
needs of someone in want, someone to whom we can be of help
without expecting help in return. What kind of need might
extraterrestrials find themselves in and how might we be of
service? This might be too much to imagine in this speculative
context, but a commitment to altruism would require that we
immediately ask this question upon first contact.
Now, reverse the scenario. Suppose the extraterrestrials
are altruistic toward us. Then what?
In three decades of studying the theological dimensions of
speculation on the significance of extraterrestrial life, I’ve
noticed an important yet almost invisible cultural phenomenon:
the UFO myth. As a myth, it is a form of interpretation
superimposed on anomalous experiences; it represents inchoate
earthly values that are unconsciously projected onto heavenly
beings. It is a distinctively modern myth that expands on the
theory of evolution and relies upon a secular, if not
It goes like this: Assuming the theory of evolution, we
imagine that on some other planet, either in our galaxy or
another, a civilization is evolving. Now to us, evolution in
life forms looks like progress in technology. So we mix them.
These extraterrestrial civilizations we imagine are more
highly evolved and, hence, more technologically advanced than
We earthlings are xenophobic. We
draw the line between insiders and outsiders, loving the
insiders and detesting the outsiders. Much of human morality
consists of redrawing the lines so that some outsiders become
insiders and thereby made lovable.
As if evolution and progress were unidirectional, we assume
these intelligent beings have developed spaceships that enable
them to travel to Earth for visits, surveillances, perhaps
even missions. What could their mission be? Perhaps, we
assume, if our visitors are more highly evolved and more
technologically advanced than we, they might also be more
Perhaps they have learned what we on Earth have not—how to
live in peace. Perhaps their mission is to give us what we
cannot accomplish—world peace. Perhaps the extraterrestrials
can deliver what the ancient religions promised—salvation.
Perhaps space visitors are our technological saviors.
But this is a myth. First, we have no empirical evidence
that such an extraterrestrial civilization exists. It is based
solely on our projections. Second, this scenario is packed
with values that reflect our human yearnings for a fulfillment
we desire but are unable to accomplish.
We yearn for peace, yet every generation spawns conflicts
and wars. Frustrated with ourselves, we long for an external
savior, a messiah, the intervention of God—or aliens. Because
science and technology have been so effective in improving the
human lot, we project a heavenly science and technology upon
imaginary extraterrestrial civilizations.
This reveals the ugly picture of human nature. We
earthlings are xenophobic. We draw the line between insiders
and outsiders, loving the insiders and detesting the
outsiders. Much of human morality consists of redrawing the
lines so that some outsiders become insiders and thereby made
lovable. Altruism, the ideal of some high-minded ethicists, is
seldom if ever actualized in its strongest form,
self-sacrificial love. About the best we’ve been able to get
is reciprocal self-interest through trade and alliance.
One of the decisive questions any ethicist could ask is:
What might motivate us to act altruistically?
- A Christian might answer that if the Holy Spirit places
within the person of faith the same love whereby God loves
us, then we would love others fearlessly and with total
devotion to the needs of others.
- A Confucianist might answer that it is the will of
heaven that we love our families and communities and serve
the common good so that shared prosperity is enhanced.
- A Mahayana Buddhist might answer that once the
bodhisattva has a vision of nirvana, this elicits compassion
for all sentient beings.
In each of these three cases, the motive is based in a
transcendent reality, in a reality that is divine and
inclusive of both the one loving and the one benefiting from
But with garden-variety reciprocal altruism, we can demand
a great deal less. We can get by on enlightened self-interest.
This is human—not divine—but it is better than war. Perhaps
godliness is simply beyond our human capacity, and we must
accept that. Only by the intervention of divine grace can some
among us love with agape. In the meantime, reciprocal altruism
may have to suffice as the best that humans can muster.
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the space emissary
Klaatu recovers from his gunshot wound and returns to the
White House lawn to deliver a speech. Klaatu puts his faith in
Earth’s scientists, rather than Earth’s religious seers, to
influence our political leaders to make the right decisions.
As Klaatu concludes, so do I:
“The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of
aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated.
There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now this
does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act
“Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern
themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We of the
other planets have long accepted this principle. We have an
organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for
the complete elimination of aggression. The result is we live
in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that
we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more
profitable enterprises... if you threaten to extend your
violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt-out
“Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or
pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be
waiting for your answer.
“The decision rests with you.”
Ted Peters is the Science and Religion Course Program
director at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences,
Berkeley, California, and a professor of systematic theology
at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Other stories in this feature package:
A Scientific Perspective