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Ask A-theist is a new column by Aaron Scheinberg, an atheist, and Stephanie Lam, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion. This week, Stephanie chose a question from your lovely submissions. Send us the burning questions you have always wanted answered by an atheist or Christian (or both), and we’ll tackle them!

Q: Why are humans so special? If there are other intelligent life forms or conscious beings in the universe, why aren’t they special, too?

Stephanie’s answer:

Every worldview has a starting point — how you view the creation of this world will influence where you assign “special” status.

In a purely materialistic worldview, all life is the product of random impersonal evolutionary forces. “Specialness” is nothing more than an arbitrary preference. We won the genetic lottery in our assortment of traits — such as intelligence and tool-making — that made us one of the most powerful species on the planet. Maybe that makes us special?

In the Christian worldview, God created the world, the plants, the animals, everything. But humans, especially, were created in His own image. That is what makes humans so special, not their intelligence, consciousness, morality, creativity, or any other quality we often point to as unique to being human. Rather than a mark of superiority, these are reflections of the good character of the creator God. In other words, humans did nothing to earn this special standing before God, they were made that way. It was something God bestowed in his sovereignty to all humans, even unlikable ones.

What about aliens? I’m skeptical they exist, but fundamentally, I don’t know. The Bible is unapologetically anthropocentric in its purpose and its account of the relationship between God and man — written for men, by men, inspired by God. But there is an intriguing quote from Jesus in the Bible: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Is he talking about non-Jews? Yeah. Aliens too? Why not?

If they existed, aliens would only be alien to us. God is the creator of the entire universe. Alien intelligence might be a clue that God has stamped his image on the species, but ultimately it is the species’ relationship to the creator, not external traits alone, that make it “special”. Regardless, from what God has made known to us, he loves, values and provides for all his creations, special or not. As his image-bearers, humans are accountable to God to do likewise, treating all his species with the highest dignity and respect.

Aaron’s response:

Do we really decide which life forms we value as “special” by looking at the creation of the world, as Stephanie says?

Of course humans aren’t to be valued because they are the dominant species that “won” evolution. That’s not how evolution works: we didn’t “win” evolution more than any other species alive today. No, I value people not for where their ancestors came from, but for what they are. That’s far from arbitrary.

In practice, we all determine our relationships with other life forms in the same way. By interacting with them, be they aliens, chickens, or Bostonians, we come to understand them. From there, we appreciate and value them, and hopefully diminish our egotistical sense of specialness.

In other words, it is our experiences that change what we consider worthy of particular value. Whether you believe in a god or not, there is no religious component to this process. The Bible doesn’t change. If you’re Christian, you could insist that your experience changed your interpretation of the Bible, which then changed your values — but you’d have to wonder, why the extra step?

If humans are special because a creation myth tells us so, I am concerned. Stephanie says that being made in Yahweh’s image doesn’t refer to intelligence, consciousness, or any other physically manifesting trait. All we supposedly know is that humans have it and animals don’t.

That leads us to an uncomfortable and eerily familiar template: based on origins in ancient history, one group has a “specialness” trait, but another group lacks that trait and is thus less valued. The trait itself is beyond our capability of identifying objectively, but luckily is associated with something we already “know” to be a marker of that distinction.

There is a danger of complacency when crediting our values to an unchanging book. When we do meet extraterrestrials, will we use our biblical mark of specialness, our homo sapiency, to determine that we are to be more valued than them? Perhaps that we should have “dominion” over them, as we’re told we inherently deserve over other animals? Burn them as offerings, the way Yahweh traditionally loves his animals? (It’s tough love.)

Or, just as we strive against racism, will we allow experience, reason, and understanding to overcome our prejudice and expand our conception of who is “special”?

Have a question? Submit it to worldview@the-tech.mit.edu or anonymously at http://worldview.mit.edu.