Past century destroyed our confidence in future

A few weeks ago, a scientific article about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe was reprinted in the Daily Journal. After I finished reading the article, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Even before reading the article, I was aware that more and more scientists have gone on record with their belief that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is likely. What I had not realized is that various respected scientists, including Stephen Hawking, are advocating a “non-dialogue” with outer space.

The position taken by these scientists is that humans should continue to use technology to detect intelligent life elsewhere, but we should refrain from letting the universe know that we are here. In other words, we should listen but not speak.

The rationale for silence is that intelligent life elsewhere is likely to be more advanced than we are. Should that be the case, these scientists fear that making our presence known could invite an attack by a superior species.

Of course, the opposite is also possible. A superior species might want to help us overcome our human tendency to war, solve the challenges of Alzheimer’s and cancer, and help us reverse climate change. Why have we decided to hide? Why do we assume that a boogeyman lurks in the cosmic darkness?

As the Vikings looked west across the Atlantic Ocean in the 10th century, did they fear encountering a more advanced society? Was Marco Polo in the 13th century instructed to stay home rather than travel to China?

What then causes us to fear rather than be curious about the unknown? Have scientists watched too many sci-fi films, seen too many spaceships hovering over world capitals or monsters popping out of human stomachs? No, that seems unlikely. Scientists depend on facts, and there is no scientific evidence that we will encounter a malevolent species in the universe.

I believe our paralyzing fear of the universe is grounded not in science, but in theology. Yes, theology. A hundred years ago before the beginning of World War I, the mindset in the West was decidedly different. Diplomats believed that humanity, with reason and science, would inaugurate a very bright future of cooperation and peace. Theologians of the time expressed their hope this way: Humanity had matured to understand that a loving God looks down on us, and all humans are brothers and sisters.

I believe that if history had progressed differently, so that humanity in 1915 had the scientific advances we have today, we would have confidently and loudly proclaimed to the universe that we sought contact with other intelligent life forms.

But the past 100 years have destroyed our confidence in the future. World War I occurred, destroying almost an entire generation of men in Europe. That devastating slaughter was followed by the Great Depression, the genocide of the Armenian people, World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, genocides in Southeast Asia and Africa, Sept. 11, the so-called War on Terror, and nearly constant tension and war in the Middle East.

Over the past century, human beings have lost the two key ingredients comprising hope. The first casualty was belief in God, not just behind the Iron Curtain but in Europe as well. The great cathedrals of Europe are almost empty on Sundays. More and more people admit to believing that a loving and caring God who oversees history and the universe is a fantasy.

Yet, the greatest victim of the bloody 20th century and now the beginning of the 21st has been belief in ourselves. We wish to be compassionate, but we are frequently selfish and greedy. We say we believe in human rights, but we justify invading other countries in quest of scarce resources.

No wonder outer space frightens us. We are afraid of meeting the most dangerous species in the universe — versions of ourselves.