Sciency Words: Exotheology

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


I was raised Catholic.  I went to Catholic school, and when I was very young I remember a religious instructor telling a group of us Catholic boys about how God made “all life on the earth.”  Naturally, I raised my hand and asked about life on other planets.  The instructor assured me (rather impatiently, as I recall) that there is no such thing.

This was not a satisfying answer for little me. It’s even more annoying to adult me.  So it was with great delight that I recently became acquainted with a new term: exotheology.

Appropriately, my first encounter with this word was in a book called Exoplanets, by Michael Summers and James Trefil. The “exo-” prefix in both “exoplanet” and “exotheology” means pretty much the same thing: something external to Earth or to our Solar System.  To quote from Exoplanets:

If there are living beings on other planets, questions—debated today in the relatively new field called exotheology—must be asked.  For example, did the Fall occur on every planet and for every race?  If it didn’t, was the Redemption needed for beings who had never experienced the Fall?  If the Fall is universal, did Jesus have to go to every world to die and be resurrected, or were the events on Earth enough to cover everyone?  If so, why is Earth so central?  Are there other paths to redemption on other worlds?  It’s not hard to see how this sort of theological questioning could go on forever.

Indeed it could.  No wonder that religion teacher didn’t want to get into this discussion with me when I was little!

Based on my subsequent research, it seems the term exotheology isn’t that new.  And lest you think this is a Christian only thing, it’s actually a Jewish rabbi who gets credit for the first usage of the term (or at least the first usage in print).

In 1965, Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote this essay entitled “The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life: A Jewish Exotheology.”  Based on what I could read of Lamm’s essay, it sounds like the term “exotheology” was formed by analogy with “exobiology,” the scientific search for and study of alien life.  The word exobiology has since been changed to astrobiology, but it doesn’t seem like exotheology has been updated to astrotheology yet.

As for the big questions raised by exotheologists, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  If we ever do encounter an alien civilization, what sort of religious beliefs might they have?  Would those beliefs match up at all with a Judeo-Christian worldview, or with any of the many other religious worldviews we have here on Earth?  I don’t know (but that won’t stop me from writing a Sci-Fi story about it!).

8 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Exotheology

  1. I didn’t go to a Catholic school but did have weekly catechism classes. It was immediately apparent the nuns were not interetsed in questions or discussion, only memorization. Being a good little girl, I shut up. But my mind kept working. I stopped going to church when my mother stopped dragging me. I sometimes wonder – what if I’d had someone to discuss religion with as a kid? It’s a fascinating topic. Perfect for scifi 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve actually become close friends with two former nuns. We’ve had a lot of conversations about religion, both the good and the bad of it. And there is plenty of good stuff to be had, but then some people in positions of authority come along and ruin it.

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      1. Power goes to a person’s head, and clerics have power. To be able to discuss your institution and theology openly is a good thing. For some weird reason, dominance and sex are linked in the mammal brain (go to a dog park if you doubt me) which I suspect leads to a lot of the abuse we’ve seen uncovered in religious institutions. But religion also builds community. If we could have to good and jettison the bad… ah, well.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I believe all sentient beings must pass through the anthropological phase in which the unknown facets of a world and nature are explained through deism of gods in their own image. At some point, if they survive the tangible hold a faith system has on hearts and minds, discovery leads them forward. We’d like to believe spiritualism transcends to individual inner journey. Can’t really say. We as humans have yet to experience it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would be interesting to know, and maybe someday we’ll find out for sure, if other civilizations went through the same kind of beliefs systems as we have. I’d like to think we’d have a lot of these things in common with extraterrestrials.


    1. Oh cool! Thanks for the link. I have to say one of the things I’ve always liked about the Catholic Church is that they’re generally pretty accepting of science. More so than most other churches I’ve had experience with.


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