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Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [Hardcover]

David Wilkinson
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Aug 2013
If the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe is just around the corner, what would be the consequences for religion? Would it represent another major conflict between science and religion, even leading to the death of faith? Some would suggest that the discovery of any suggestion of extraterrestrial life would have a greater impact than even the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. It is now over 50 years since the first modern scientific papers were published on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Yet the religious implications of this search and possible discovery have never been systematically addressed in the scientific or theological arena. SETI is now entering its most important era of scientific development. New observation techniques are leading to the discovery of extra-solar planets daily, and the Kepler mission has already collected over 1000 planetary candidates. This deluge of data is transforming the scientific and popular view of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Earth-like planets outside of our solar system can now be identified and searched for signs of life. Now is a crucial time to assess the scientific and theological questions behind this search. This book sets out the scientific arguments undergirding SETI, with particular attention to the uncertainties in arguments and the strength of the data already assembled. It assesses not only the discovery of planets but other areas such as the Fermi paradox, the origin and evolution of intelligent life, and current SETI strategies. In all of this it reflects on how these questions are shaped by history and pop culture and their relationship with religion, especially Christian theology. It is argued that theologians need to take seriously SETI and to examine some central doctrines such as creation, incarnation, revelation, and salvation in the light of the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (1 Aug 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199680205
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199680207
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.2 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 557,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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It should be in every school and college library, as an outstanding example of how science and theology can interact in positive ways. Theology [An] excellent book ... would be ideal for anyone interested in the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, I will be buying it for someone myself. Colin John Humphreys, Chemistry World the book is a fascinating read and is recommended for those pondering the place of humanity in our vast universe. Achintya Rao, Cern Among the new books dealing with astrotheology, this is the most delicious so far. Theology and Science The overview of the theological terrain, ancient and modern, given by Daivd Wilkinson [...] is particularly useful, simply because it is infrequently summarized. Mark Vernon, Times Literary Supplement This is a masterful study of the subject and I can think of no better guide to all the ramifications of the possibility of SETI than David Wilkinson. Third Way Wilkinson's background makes him an authority, and the perfect person to give insight into this complex topic. A brilliant analysis of the possibility that there may be other intelligent beings not easily recognised by us, for which one day evidence may be found through SETI. David Wilkinson has read widely and thought deeply about what the implications would be for belief in God. This is the science-religion dialogue as it should be. Andrew Briggs, Professor of Nanomaterials at the University of Oxford The church is fortunate to have someone of David Wilkinson's wide knowledge of both Science and Theology, and soundly based judgement to act as a guide. Sir Arnold Wolfendale, FRS, 14th Astronomer Royal A very readable and scientifically informed account of SETI and the intriguing issues it raises for theology. A superb example of the ways in which theology and contemporary science can interact in a positive way. Professor Keith Ward The question of whether there is intelligent extraterrestrial life is both intriguing and challenging. David Wilkinson's book provides a detailed and comprehensive discussion of the issues involved, physical, biological and theological, which many will find very illuminating. Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS Imagine we woke up one day to news that there is intelligent life beyond Earth. What would this do to our view of our own selves and of our place in the cosmos? What would it mean for our belief in God and our relationship with Him? David Wilkinson draws on his training in Physics and Theology to grapple with these fascinating questions in a thoughtful, informed and highly lucid manner. Carlos Frenk FRS, Ogden Professor of Fundamental Physics, Durham University

About the Author

David Wilkinson is Principal of St John's College, Durham University. He is also Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion. His background is research in theoretical astrophysics, where he gained a PhD in the study of star formation, the chemical evolution of galaxies and terrestrial mass extinctions. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. After this research he trained for the Methodist ministry, serving in a variety of appointments. His current work at Durham University involves the relationship of the Christian faith to contemporary culture, from science to pop-culture. He also holds a PhD in Systematic Theology where he explored the future of the physical universe. His most recent book is Christian Eschatology and the Physical Universe (T&T Clark, 2010) and he also co-edited Reading Genesis After Darwin (OUP, 2009). He is well known as a broadcaster and lecturer. He is regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressive scholarship 26 April 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book. The author impresses by the sheer volume and range of material that he has surveyed in order to produce it. Astronomy, astrophysics, biology, philosophy and theology are all drawn in to make a fascinating and thought provoking book. David Wilkison is mildly sceptical about the possibility there being 'life as we know it' elsewhere in the universe but thinks that the search must go on. He is among those Christians who consider that belief in extraterrestial intelligence is not inconsistent with Christian faith and argues his position with the help of an impressive array of theological, biblical, philosophical and scientific tools.
On alien abduction, although he brings in Susan Blackmore's 'sleep paralysis' theory to explain some of these experiences he seems unaware of the general area and wide study of false memory that show how these firmly held beliefs can arise when hypnosis and other suggestive techniques are used.
I would also criticise his use of C.S. Lewis's argument that Jesus must have been mad, bad or God and that because he was neither mad nor bad he must be God. There is another possibility, namely, that, like believers in alien abduction who may not be mad or bad, he could have been mistaken. I don't think Jesus was mistaken but it is an issue that needs to be recognised by Christian apologists and this is done, for example, by Alister McGrath in his recent biography of CS Lewis (p. 227).
Altogether, and excellent book in which complicated matters are made understandable.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book! 16 Jan 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent, well-balanced book. It sets out the scientific case very clearly both for and against intelligent life on other planets. As I read this book I found myself oscillating between these two viewpoints, which I had not expected before I read the book. It then discusses the possible significance for other religions, particularly the Christian religion, if intelligent life is found outside our planet. The author has world-class expertise in both science and theology. The book is aimed at the general reader, but astronomy specialists and Christian leaders would also find it of considerable interest. I have already given it to an astronomer! The book is very clearly written. I thoroughly recommend it.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thrilling read! 7 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A good book is always hard book to summarise! But several things really stood out for me.

First, the importance of placing the life, death and resurrection of Christ at the heart of how we see the world. It really removes the clatter when we come difficult issues. And this book has given me a deeper appreciation of that!

Secondly, the degree to which someone likes this book will depend largely on how they are able to tolerate a different reading of Genesis 1 than the one they may hold. Wilkinson unfortunately too readily assumed that Christians have signed up to Darwin, so he leaves many of the difficult questions around that unexplained. Doing that helps him to focus on ET but it will leave many dissatisfied. So I fear the people who will get most out of this book are those who have read widely on theological nuances. It also means that one should not immediately recommend this book just to anyone!

Thirdly, the book perhaps is 70-30 on science and theology. It would have been good to see a 50-50 balance of material to allow theological issues to be fully fleshed out. Also perhaps more disappointing is that there isn't much quoting from very strong contemporary orthodox theologians. But I suspect that is because they have not dealt with the ET subject. But I note that even for questions around the "image of God", sin, salvation and so forth, there's no reference to well know strong theologians in this area. Of course Wilkinson comes across very strong, but I would liked to see other voices besides old masters!

Fourtly, the book really throws down a gauntlet to other orthodoxy theologians to come forward and weigh in on the issues! This is too important a topic to leave to Jesuit priests only!
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best of New Books in Astrotheology 16 Nov 2013
By Karen DiFrancesca - Published on Amazon.com
I genuinely like this book. Among the tasty new books dealing with astrotheology, this is the most delicious so far. On the one hand, Wilkinson provides good reason for the theologian to savor the exciting new fare provided us by the space sciences. On the other hand, theology need not eat what science serves before testing its taste. A theological critique of the space sciences is called for, at least from time to time. Wilkinson concludes, "I suggest, therefore, that the Christian churches need to be active supporters of SETI" (134). So do I! Ted Peters.
5.0 out of 5 stars Human Significance 4 Feb 2014
By Edward A. Schroder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
David Wilkinson is an extraordinary person. He is Principal of my theological seminary, St. John’s College in Durham University, England and is both a theologian and a scientist. His background is research in theoretical astrophysics, where he earned a PhD in the study of star formation, the chemical evolution of galaxies, and terrestrial mass extinctions. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. After his research he trained for the Methodist ministry. He also holds a PhD in Systematic Theology where he explored the future of the physical universe. I try to read everything he writes, even when I can’t understand all of it!

His latest book is SCIENCE, RELIGION, AND THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE. He sets out the scientific arguments undergirding the search for ETI, with particular attention to the uncertainties in arguments and the strength of the data already assembled. Science fiction and movies imagine all sorts of scenarios for extraterrestrial life. Throughout history there has been much speculation about the universe and whether human beings are the only life-forms. Wilkinson reviews all the theories and relates them to Biblical teaching. What struck me was his description of how big the universe really is. The vastness of space is a real problem for encountering other life-forms if they exist. The total diameter of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which consists of some 100 billion stars, is 100,000 light-years. Some parts of the universe may lie outside the observable universe. Space travel is rendered improbable because of the vast distances and the span of normal human life. Our nearest neighbor in terms of star systems is Alpha Centuri. It is a mere 4.3 light-years away but it would take 72,000 years to travel there.

It seems that our Earth is uniquely created to sustain life as compared to other planets. We are situated in the Solar System so that the other planets protect us from being destroyed by asteroids and other cosmic particles. Human beings have a special though non-exclusive place within the creation. Psalm 8 rejoices in the place given to human beings by God. In order to understand human beings in the context of creation you need God’s revelation. Extraterrestrial intelligence does not pose a problem to Christian belief that men and women are special in the eyes of God. It may even increase the sense of awe at how great God is, who loves his creatures so much. Human beings are not at the center of the universe. God is the center of all things, and we are creatures given status by his love.

Current scientific insights lead Wilkinson to the tentative conclusion that we are alone as intelligent life in this Milky Way galaxy. It is hard to imagine that we are so special, but that seems to be the case. What God is doing in human history and in the cosmic salvation of Jesus Christ appears to be the only game in town. We may find evidence of life on other worlds since God is an extravagant creator of such a great diversity of life-forms, but it is likely to be primitive.

He recounts Buzz Aldrin’s description in his book, Magnificent Desolation of his landing on the Moon. Aldrin took some bread and wine from Webster Presbyterian Church, Houston, where was an elder, read from John’s gospel and took Holy Communion. Every July, Webster Presbyterian Church holds a “Lunar Communion Sunday”, where the tape of Aldrin on the Moon is played and Psalm 8 recited. The breaking of bread and sharing of wine is an affirmation of God’s gift of the physical world. It is an encounter with the risen Lord in the presence of his new community, the Church. It is a retelling of his death and resurrection and the offer of new life to all. And it is a foretaste of the new creation.

“The affirmation of the physical universe is a reminder of the importance of science. It is a reminder of humanity’s embeddedness in the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ, giving confidence that whatever the universe turns out to be, human beings are loved. It is an invitation to others to learn from such a story and take part in it. And it points to God’s purposes being beyond just this universe.”
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