God and UFOs

So some months ago, I was walking to the coffee shop with my colleague, and she popped up this question, “Do you mind if I ask you a question as an atheist?”.

I respond “No problem, ask ahead.”

So she says, “Do you, as an atheist, believe in UFOs?”

I am flabbergasted by the question and ask back,  “What does that have to do with atheism, or belief in God?”.   I then explain to her that her one question was really two questions, the first was “Do you think aliens have visited planet earth in UFOs?” Answer: I know of no credible evidence that such visits have occurred. The second question being “Do you think that there could be life elsewhere in the universe?”. My answer is “Sure, why not? Its possible”.

My colleague then explained how her question about UFOs related to atheism and belief. She explained that as a Catholic, now “non-practicing”, she had been taught that if one believed in God, one could not also believe in the (possible) existence of life elsewhere in the universe, since we (humans) are unique, and God created us in his image, etc., etc.

We drank the coffee, and went back to our desks.  I was figuratively shaking my head,  just an oddball question, and that was that, or so I thought.

So a few months later, I was checking out youtube links and ran into the 25 minute video of Jim Underdown, executive director of CFI, Los Angeles, guest speaking at Moment Church, in Irvine, on July 24, 2011.  After talking for a few minutes with the church’s pastor, questions from the audience were read to him: Here is what he was asked:  (at 7:51) “What is the atheist view of life on other planets?”

So what explains this obsession by some Christians with atheists’ views about aliens, UFOs or whatever? My colleagues question, and that question in Irvine happened around the same time. Is there some kind of a meme circulating out there?   I don’t recall that question coming up before!

Is that all?

Fast forward to early December: The Huliq News website (No, I never heard about it before!) wrote that “The Vatican scientists approve of evolution and alien life”.  Here is what  the Jesuit astronomer Father Jose Funes is quoted as saying:  “As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. This does not conflict with our faith, because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God.”  Maybe this is damage control by the Vatican designed to snuff the UFO meme circulating among their flock, but whatever reason it is bully for them.

A few impertinent but overdue questions about religion

In countries that uphold freedom of association as well as freedom of speech and expression, why does freedom of religion require special mention?

Let’s see how these are expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) and in the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution (1789).

So the Canadian Charter upholds freedom of religion and conscience, as well as thought, belief, opinion and expression and freedom of assembly and peaceful association. The older Canadian Bill of Rights proclaims the existence in Canada of freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and association; and freedom of the press.

By contrast, the First Amendment to the US Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

While the Canadian documents express the freedoms of religion as positive rights and the US document expresses the rights as  limitation on the rights of Congress to legislate in respect of religion, the question remains, why is religion plucked for special mention?

How can the freedom of religion be abridged except by also abridging freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of the press?

There are two possible answers to this question?

The first answer, is that freedom of religion is included for emphasis, because it is said, that religious freedoms are the first rights that are undermined. So declaring that freedom of religion must be upheld, is really a symbolic declaration, which though redundant, acts as a canary in a mine: Undermining the freedom of religion is an advance signal that other freedoms are in jeopardy.  This answer makes sense in many third world countries, where the freedoms of expression, assembly and association are routinely abridged.  The Pew Center recently released a study that catalogs how restrictions on religion have increased in recent years. But a careful reading of the report shows that in each case where religion was being restricted, freedom of association or expression was being undermined. Freedom of religion was precarious precisely because freedom of speech/expression and freedom of assembly and association are themselves in jeopardy. Unfortunately in many third world countries, religion resonates with the public more that other more intellectual modes of thought. So upholding freedom of religion is really a proxy for other freedoms.

The second is that there is something special about religion and that adherents should receive special recognition and privileges, eg special considerations in law, exemptions from generally applicable law, etc. In the context of advanced Canada, the United States and other free countries, this response doesn’t make any sense, and undermines equality before the law. It is not clear why religion must be accommodated and privileged. In the recent polygamy prosecution in British Columbia, the polygamists defended themselves by arguing that the regulation of polygamy was an infringement on their freedom of religion. The examples of the special accommodations of religion in both Canada and the US are too numerous to list.

The question to religionists then, is Why? What makes you think that your beliefs deserve  special accommodation and privileges that are not afforded to comparable secular philosophies. It is high time you explain yourselves, rather than assert a dubious entitlement to special consideration. This debate: Against Religious Freedom” inspired me to write this blog post. Read it!