NASA discovery of new form of life is catalyst for theological debate

  • post Type / General news
  • Date / 3 December 2010

Responding to the news from NASA that a microbe has been discovered that overturns previously understood paradigms about the nature of biochemistry, the American Humanist Association (AHA) highlighted the challenge to traditional religious accounts of life on earth. The discovery of a bacterium that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus is seen by many as potentially “redefining life,” broadening the scope of conditions capable of sustaining life on Earth.

Researchers at Mono Lake, California, have discovered the first known organism on Earth able to live and reproduce using arsenic, as opposed to phosphorus. Phosphorus, a chemical element within DNA and RNA, was considered an essential component to all living cells. This discovery will open new doors in a multitude of scientific fields.  The AHA pointed to the discovery as something that gives rise to philosophical and theological questioning, adding that this is likely to lead to greater skepticism of established, revelation-based religion.

“The polite thing to say is that discoveries such as this don’t really impeach the credibility of established religion, but in truth of course they really do,” said David Niose, AHA president. “The fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature, taken in context with what else we’ve learned in recent centuries about space and time, surely makes it less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing divinity.”

Humanism is a philosophy that approaches life from a natural standpoint, deriving truth claims not from ancient texts or alleged revelation but from observation and rational thinking.

“It’s unlikely that this discovery will change the minds of those who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible,” Niose said. “To them, the world is about 6,000 years old and evolution is a hoax, and no amount of scientific evidence will change that. For the rest of us, however, this discovery is indeed profound, and it adds to the mountains of evidence that already point to the humanistic lifestance as being our best hope.”

“This break-through not only offers the promise of a deeper understanding of Earth,” said AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt, “but it also poses a question to those doubtful of the world’s scientific origins: as science moves forward, shedding light on what religion masks in darkness, how can ignorance remain without sacrificing discovery, innovation, and most of all, a better world?”

The American Humanist Association advocates for the rights and viewpoints of Humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.

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