Are atheists who believe in aliens falling for one of humanity’s oldest brain biases? In a series of four studies titled ‘We Are Not Alone: The Meaning Motive, Religiosity, and Belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’, psychologist Clay Routledge and his colleagues discovered that participants who report low religiosity demonstrate a greater belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life existing out there, elsewhere in the universe. This tendency is particularly interesting to science writer and skeptic Michael Shermer, because let’s face it, he says, “religions have no more evidence for god than scientists have for extraterrestrials.” These two beliefs are as detached from proof as each other, yet both fill the all too human need to be comforted by the thought of another world—whether takes the form of moral and kind sky gods, or technologically advanced aliens. Is a belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life just another expression of our religious impulse? Michael Shermer’s new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.
Michael Shermer: So one of my recent columns in Scientific American was called Sky Gods for Skeptics, or as they used to call it, Aliens for Atheists.
Basically the idea is that aliens and extraterrestrials in our imagination—and we haven’t found any yet so they’re all in our imagination—are often portrayed as these almost god-like deities, you know, they’re super advanced technologically, scientifically, morally. They’ve somehow overcome war and poverty and these sorts of things. And so I got to thinking about this. It’s very similar to the religious impulse, which is that: we’re not alone. There is something out there more powerful than us who knows about us and cares about us; who loves us. That’s the kind of deep religious impulse: “We’re not alone.” And that’s the same impulse people get when they think about extraterrestrials.
The crux of my article in Scientific American is that there was there was a new paper published that showed that people who have this longing—so there’s variation in this: some people have more of that longing than others—those who have that longing but are not religious are more likely to believe extraterrestrials are out there.
In other words, if you have the religious beliefs, God, Jesus, Mohammed, whatever your religion is, you don’t really need the aliens, so you’re satisfied with that. But if you don’t have that then you’re more likely to go for the extraterrestrial hypothesis as a viable one in the sense that “it makes me feel good”.
Because let’s face it, religions have no more evidence for god than scientists have for extraterrestrials. It’s all imagination and speculation based on reason and logic and arguments, but we still don’t have any empirical evidence. So short of that I find it interesting that it becomes sort of an emotional appeal or a deep desire for us to feel like there’s somebody else out there, and "I’m not alone". And let’s face it, that does feel good, and there’s nothing wrong with that—but we should always suspend judgment until we actually have evidence for this. We may be the only ones in the cosmos that are sentient beings, and if so, all the more reason we should care for our world and each other, because that would mean this is it.