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The Noisy Epidemic

Faith and the Laws of Nature

Flesh Made Soul

Looking Back at the End of Science

The End of the World as We Know It?

Perchance to Dream

Selling God to Science

Towering Silence

Altruism: A Theological Perspective

Scientists don’t know whether distinct groups—such as humans and aliens—can be altruistic toward each other. Theologian Ted Peters proposes that our musings about extraterrestrials reveal our xenophobia.

by  Ted Peters

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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 him.

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 ourselves.

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 alien.

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 extraterrestrials.

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 these conditions?

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 anti-religious, mindset.

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.

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 progressive morally.

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 this love.

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 irresponsibly.

“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 cinder.

“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:
Altruism: An Introduction
Encoding Altruism
Altruism: A Scientific Perspective

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