I was watching the universe the other day and they remarked on interstellar clouds full of ethanol. It seems organic molecules are fairly widely distributed in the universe. This together with the spontaneous self organizing features of nature would make the assumption that life may be fairly common entirely rational.
Years ago, I got a book called The Intelligent Universe
by Fred Hoyle. He was a pretty famous cosmologist - actually I think he won a Nobel. This was one of the first books to seriously promote Panspermia (great word, eh?), based on exactly this observation. So - nascent planets are like ova, and comets full of organic material are like sperm, racing around the cosmos, 'fertilizing' planets and giving rise to early life forms which then develop according to the dynamics of natural selection (plus whatever else is pushing complexity
). Subsequently, further influxes of life-forming materials arrive frequently from space. Hoyle reckons this is where some viruses come from. I think he also suggested that maybe this was behind the Cambrian explosion (although it has been a long while since I read it).
Panspermia has not been written off. I recall seeing another story about it recently. I have always loved the idea. It has been suggested that the tardigrade genus might have hitch-hiked in on a meteorite, partly because:
Tardigrades are polyextremophilesabsolute zero
almost a century without water 
, and even the vacuum of space.
In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally, making these the only animals shown to be able to survive the vacuum of space.
and also because they are unlike anything else on earth.
Philosophically, though, the issue that is bugging me at the moment is how the idea of the spontaneous emergence of consciousness relates to the idea of causality. I still can't accept the idea that intelligence emerges from non-intelligence, unless there is a sense in which it was already latently present (i.e. 'latent becomes patent'). This is because I see intelligence as a characteristic of 'the causal realm' which always must be prior to 'the material realm'. Matter can't 'do' anything in my understanding; it is entirely passive. Still working on this....
---------- Post added 01-04-2010 at 10:14 AM ----------
Incidentally I have just seen Avatar which is an absolute knockout and very 'religiously' interesting in my view.