Asteroids, Extinction, and Other Religious Issues

April 5, 2012 by Categorized: Science & Spirit.

artist rendering of a massive asteroid crashing into Earth – Don Davis, NASA

According to a story on Space.com, a “bus-size asteroid” came within 96,000 miles of Earth early on Sunday morning. It posed no threat – even if it had collided with Earth it would have burned up in the atmosphere.

That’s usually the case with asteroids that come near Earth – but not always. Some asteroids are big enough to alter the course of life. Scientific celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson (and that’s not an insult – I’m happy science has a celebrity ordinary people will recognize) posted this essay on Wired.com titled “We Can Survive Killer Asteroids — But It Won’t Be Easy.”

I won’t attempt to summarize it. It’s not long, and as with most of Dr. Tyson’s writing, you don’t have to be an astrophysicist to read it. Instead, I want to explore some of the religious implications of a major asteroid strike.

Once in about a hundred million years Earth is visited by an impactor capable of annihilating all life-forms bigger than a carry-on suitcase – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our oldest and strongest evolutionary instinct is for survival – for ourselves, for our relatives, and for our species. If we have adequate warning (and according to Dr. Tyson, we probably will) we can destroy, deflect or redirect a killer asteroid. We have technology the dinosaurs did not – presumably we will use it.

Unfortunately, another very old and very strong evolutionary instinct tells us to live for today because the future is uncertain. Eat all you can, because you never know when food will be available again… even if you live in a society where food is overly abundant. Reproduce as many times as you can as soon as you can, because your offspring may die and you may not around to reproduce later… even if you live in a society with low infant mortality or a society that can’t support more children.

Even if we have clear evidence of the approach of an extinction-causing impactor, many will choose to ignore it. Some will actively deny it, claiming any probability less than 100% means “they don’t know” and that attempts to prevent an impact are a “waste of money” or an “assault on freedom.” Others will find extinction doesn’t agree with their religious doctrines and will confidently proclaim “God would never permit it!”

Should that time come, it will be our job to out-debate, out-organize, and out-vote those who can’t overcome their evolutionary instincts to live only for their immediate desires.

There are those who think the extinction of humans would be a good thing. We’ve trashed the planet and continue to abuse our fellow creatures – the world would be a better place if we disappeared and made room for a new species to evolve. But any new species would be produced by the same evolutionary processes that produced us. A new species would share our instincts for survival, for living for today with no thought of tomorrow, and of favoring ourselves and those like us over those who are different. The elimination of humans would not be a “fresh start” so much as “restarting the clock.”

The best chance this planet has of evolving highly intelligent, self-aware and compassionate creatures is for us to grow up.

But even if we avoid or divert all killer asteroids, one day the Earth will die. At some point (I’ve seen estimates from 1 billion to 7 billion years in the future) our Sun will run out of fuel and expand into a red giant. It will engulf Mercury and Venus and even if it doesn’t swallow Earth, it will raise temperatures to a point that no life can remain.

Hopefully by then we will have developed the technology – and the willpower – for interplanetary travel. While the speed of light looks to be an inviolable limit, it should be possible to construct self-contained biospheres that will allow travel over many years, or if necessary, over many generations.

But this is not just a question of technology – there are also religious questions. When our planet dies, what will happen to the Otherworld, the realm of the gods and ancestors? Does it exist on its own, or is it inseparably intertwined with this world and one cannot exist without the other? Will rebirth cease to be a possibility, leaving union with The All our only option – whether we are ready for it or not?

Will our gods and goddesses, our ancestors and the spirits of this world travel with us to new worlds? Do they already transcend this planet? Will the label “Earth-centered” be replaced by “Galaxy-centered” or “Universe-centered”?

What land spirits will we find on other planets? If we find a planet with human-like life, will those people recognize deities similar to ours?

The thought of the death of our planet, the extinction of our species and of traveling to other worlds raises many religious questions. The only answer to most of these questions is “I don’t know.”

But I do have faith.

As a Pagan, I have faith that Nature is even bigger and stronger and wiser than what we see and experience on this planet. As a Universalist, I have faith that whatever becomes of our world will work out OK for all, eventually if not immediately. And as a Druid, whatever form Nature takes, I will study it, I will honor it, and I will tell its stories and sing its songs.

Blessed be Nature. Blessed be Life. Blessed be the Universe.

the galaxy NGC598, more commonly known as M33 – NASA/JPL-Caltech

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8 Responses

  1. >>Once in about a hundred million years Earth is visited by an impactor capable of annihilating all life-forms bigger than a carry-on suitcase – Neil deGrasse Tyson

    My theory: after the next one, evolution will arrange for the evolved, smarter descendents of raccoons to inherit the earth. Given that raccoons are already pretty smart, maybe they’ll be able to reach sentience without indulging in needless self-destructive pursuits like war, pollution, and the pursuit of capitalism.

  2. The Otherworld is tied to the Earth by the life that calls it home. If we leave, then we will spread it to the stars with us. Just as the old Gods came to the New World, they will travel to every world where they are remembered.

    Magic exists in the divine spark, and that spark is in all things. It concentrates in living things, and just maybe it is even more true for intelligent and creative beings. We have helped spawn new archetypes as the population and our understanding of the world have increased, and we will continue to do so for as long as we can imagine and discover.

    Ultimately, for better or worse, we are part of the Universe. We are not an invading pathogen or a poison. We cannot forget that. The Earth is our Mother, our home, and our fate is tied to hers at least until we grow up enough to be ready to leave home.

    But, no matter how far we roam, Earth will always be part of the Human race.

  3. Tyson is a lobbyist for diverting unspecified billions or trillions of dollars from environmental causes that will have immediate impacts for all of humanity towards his own special interest group of astrophysicists and related space sciences, and his case does not make any sense beyond that context. He even claims that the environmental movement sprung from the moon landing, using fallacies of logic that he knows better about. The real question is not whether we are going to think about the future, but how we are going to think about the future, and Tyson’s vision is both selfish and simply wrong.

  4. SD, the problem isn’t that space exploration gets too much of the research pie, the problem is that the research pie is too small, because those who hold the purse strings prefer to fund wars and tax cuts.
     
    We can debate their relative merits, but we should be funding environmental care and pure research.  Pitting them against each other masks the real problem.

    • It would be great if we could do both, and put more towards health research, and a multitude of other things as well, but there are limited funds, and this pitting of one against another is exactly what Tyson did in his Science Friday interview. In other words, “he started it!” :)

  5. SD: I think you are missing the point of Dr Tyson’s work; he isn’t trying to fund space for the sake of funding. Climate science would be impotent without space science, including imaging and communications satellites. Green energy got its biggest boost when NASA needed solar power. The most complex crystals for computers and sensory equipment are grown in space. There is even serious work being done on orbital solar collectors.
    As John rightly points out, science isn’t going to better because we picked our favorite fields. We need them all, because we never know which ideas will synergize to produce whole new lines of exploration.
    We can’t let the people who want to buy wars and power convince us that there isn’t enough money. Science deserves to be our primary goal. Yes, we need to preserve the Earth, but we need to realize tat, someday, we will fail for reasons we cannot control. We have to look at the big picture: Earth is all we have for the foreseeable future, but that will have to change if the Human race is going to go on searching for cosmic answers. The US Military budget could fund both.

  6. In regards to whether or not the otherworld will still exist after the earth is gone: I read about this idea that even though certain natural sites like groves and mounds and forests may no longer exist in a way that we can see that doesn’t mean they don’t still exist in ways that we can’t see. The spiritual/astral/whathaveyou form of these places still exist even if the forest has been clear-cutted or the mound has been dug up. Something that this post has brought to my mind. I wonder if the otherworld of the earth will still exist even after the earth has been obliterated.

  7. Catherine – I, for one, would like to see more thinking on this from the pagan community. A religion that’s centered around our natural world feels off to me unless it somehow acknowledges the inevitable destruction of that natural world. Physics tells us that entropy wins. Not only will our star one day go dark, but the entire universe will eventually return to a dark, cold, uniform state and remain that way FOREVER.

    The notion you describe, that things in this world give rise to spiritual forms in the Otherworld that persist even after their roots are destroyed, is a relief in this respect.

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