Astrobiology requires us to rethink what is “universal” and what is “particular.” The capacities and characteristics we have learned to regard as universally human – often after some effort to overcome the prejudices of our own race, culture, or class – may need to be viewed in a different light as we discover other possibilities for life in the universe. We may have to get used to thinking of the “universal” as particular to our own planet and species. This obviously applies to human biology, but it is equally true for our declarations about “universal human rights” and for philosophical ideas like “humans are political animals” or “all men are created equal.” These universals are deeply embedded in traditions of thought and social institutions, but they may take on a different meaning when viewed in relation to other possible forms of life and intelligence.
This challenge is especially interesting when we think about religious traditions, which already speak about human universals in a frame of reference that transcends time and space. Religion, like astrobiology, locates life in the universe. It gives humanity a place in relation to reality as a whole. Perhaps that is why theologians have long been interested in the possibility of life on other worlds (Crowe 1997). A theology that understands humanity in relation to God cannot but be interested in how other life might participate in such a relationship, too.
For the most part, of course, the problems of terrestrial life give people of faith and their religious leaders quite enough to worry about. Providing universal safety, security, and peace for the one form of intelligent life we know exceeds our present capacities, and debate continues about exactly what the needs of that life are, especially when we move beyond biological requirements to consider social and political relationships.
Thus, an important concern in recent theology has been to explore the moral implications of the human dignity that all persons share. We are not only made of the same stuff. We are “made in the image of God,” as some scriptural traditions put it. To be human makes us equal, and equal at a high rank that demands the kind of respect that modern politics formulates in terms of universal human rights (Waldron 2012).