I’ll be honest with you: I think it’s extremely unlikely that humanity will ever make contact with intelligent life from another planet. I possess no special expertise on the subject. It’s just that my inveterate skepticism tells me that the stupefying vastness of space combined with the relative rarity of evolution producing species capable of interstellar communication — let alone travel — will make such contact extremely unlikely.
My skepticism isn’t widely shared. Aside from the UFO industrial complex and the enormous number of science-fiction novels, films, and television franchises that imagine a universe teeming with technologically advanced civilizations, there are now a pair of books — and a number of essays about and reviews of those books — that reflect seriously on how the major religions of the world would respond to first contact with extraterrestrial life.
From this range of writing, a broad consensus emerges. Buddhism, as a nontheistic belief system, would be largely unshaken by the discovery of intelligent life on other worlds. Among Christians, the Vatican’s long history of adjusting itself to the findings of modern science would lead Catholics to be relatively unfazed. More literalistic Protestants — especially evangelicals of various stripes — would have a much harder time of it, while certain sects with origins in 19th-century America (Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons), which already have folk beliefs about the existence of life on other planets, might actually thrive.
Illustration by Lauren Hansen