The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Sky Gods for Skeptics

published October 2017

Is belief in aliens a religious impulse?

Scientific American (cover)

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk encounters a deity that lures him to its planet in order to abscond with the Enterprise. “What does God need with a starship?” the skeptical commander inquires. I talked to Kirk himself—William Shatner, that is—about the film when I met him at a recent conference. The original plot device for the movie, which he directed, was for the crew to go “in search of God.” Fearful that some religious adherents might be offended that the Almighty could be discoverable by a spaceship, the studio bosses insisted that the deity be a malicious extraterrestrial impersonating God for personal gain.

How could a starship—or any technology designed to detect natural forces and objects—discover a supernatural God, who by definition would be beyond any such sensors? Any detectable entity would have to be a natural being, no matter how advanced, and as I have argued in this column [see “Shermer’s Last Law”; January 2002], “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.” Thus, Shatner’s plot theme of looking for God could only turn up an ETI sufficiently advanced to appear God-like.

Perhaps herein lies the impulse to search. In his 1982 book Plurality of Worlds (Cambridge University Press), historian of science Steven J. Dick suggested that when Isaac Newton’s mechanical universe replaced the medieval spiritual world, it left a lifeless void that was filled with the modern search for ETI. In his 1995 book Are We Alone? (Basic Books), physicist Paul Davies wondered: “What I am more concerned with is the extent to which the modern search for aliens is, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest.” Historian George Basalla made a similar observation in his 2006 work Civilized Life in the Universe (Oxford University Press): “The idea of the superiority of celestial beings is neither new nor scientific. It is a widespread and old belief in religious thought.”

Now there is experimental evidence in support of this hypothesis, reported in a 2017 article entitled “We Are Not Alone” in the journal Motivation and Emotion, in which North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge and his colleagues found an inverse relation between religiosity and ETI beliefs. That is, those who report low levels of religious belief but high desire for meaning show greater belief in ETIs. In study 1, subjects who read an essay “arguing that human life is ultimately meaningless and cosmically insignificant” were statistically significantly more likely to believe in ETIs than those who read an essay on the “limitations of computers.”

In study 2, subjects who self-identified as either atheist or agnostic were statistically significantly more likely to report believing in ETIs than those who reported being religious (primarily Christian). In studies 3 and 4, subjects completed a religiosity scale, a meaning in life scale, a well-being scale, an ETI belief scale, and a religious/supernatural belief scale. “Lower presence of meaning and higher search for meaning were associated with greater belief in ETI,” the researchers reported, but ETI beliefs showed no correlation with supernatural beliefs or well-being beliefs.

From these studies the authors conclude: “ETI beliefs serve an existential function: the promotion of perceived meaning in life. In this way, we view belief in ETI as serving a function similar to religion without relying on the traditional religious doctrines that some people have deliberately rejected.” By this they mean the supernatural: “accepting ETI beliefs does not require one to believe in supernatural forces or agents that are incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world.” If you don’t believe in God but seek deeper meaning outside our world, the thought that we are not alone in the universe “could make humans feel like they are part of a larger and more meaningful cosmic drama,” they observe.

Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God, believers in either one must take a leap of faith or else suspend judgment until evidence emerges to the contrary. I can conceive of what that might be for ETI but not for God, unless the deity is a sufficiently advanced ETI as to appear divine. Perhaps Captain Kirk has it right in his final reflections on God to the ship’s doctor at the end of Star Trek V: “Maybe He’s not out there, Bones. Maybe He’s right here [in the] human heart.”

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26 Comments to “Sky Gods for Skeptics”

  1. Bob Jase Says:

    “Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God”

    I disagree, we know the physical universe exists but we don’t have evidence for a spiritual universe. That gives aliens the advantage in probability.

  2. Marius Myburg Says:

    Another obvious possibility which is not mentioned is that for some people it just seems very likely that we (life on our planet) is not special or unique. It might be unintentional, but this column does seem to be generalizing all forms of belief in ETIs quite a lot. I assure you, my belief that it is statistically very unlikely for only Earth to have ever produced intelligent life is not religious or seeking meaning at all, it is just, well, highly likely that it has happened before elsewhere, and/or will happen in the future.

    Also, stating that there is equally little evidence for ET as there is for God is a little… well it is comparing apples to oranges. Certainly, as you know, God DOES NOT and CAN NOT possibly exist. The same can not be said for aliens. If you say that, then the converse is true – there is as much chance of there being a real God as there is of there being intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. It seems clear that that equivalence is just simply not accurate at all and you would certainly not want to start arguing for the existence of God the day we discover an intelligent alien somewhere.

    So although I agree with the ‘spirit’ of this column – which is that a blind belief in aliens is comparable to a belief in God – it is only inasmuch as a blind belief in anything is a form of faith – and I feel that although that spirit is correct, the execution leaves out way too much. I think this is one of your worst articles in terms of quality. Because the fact is, the universe is more vast, more timeless, than you or I can ever imagine. That is a fact. And your article seems to indicate that you categorize belief in the possible existence of non-Earthbound life in this vast universe with belief in deities. I honestly do not see how you can have such an opinion. It almost seems like you are placing Earth and humanity on a pedestal – saying that it is likely that ONLY us humans are intelligent because we have not seen an alien yet. What percentage of the universe do you think we have actually looked at to come to this conclusion? I’d wager that it can not even be 1%. Also, we ourselves are an example of life spontaneously / naturally beginning and thriving. So what prevents it from happening elsewhere at least in principle? And the universe is A LOT of elsewheres :). There is nothing mystical or religious about that.

    I’d like to end by saying I am a great fan of your work and arguments in general. I just wanted to respond here, I think this article specifically, perhaps unintentionally, is at worst bad and at best much too one-sided (in terms of seeming to suggest that all belief in ETs are nescessarily religious).

  3. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Am I the only one who sees a cultural bias in most of our conversations whether or not ‘God Exists’? We make many statements of the nature of god without openly acknowledging our assumptions that the god in questions is the Judeo-Christian god.

    What would it do to our arguments if we assumed god was more like Brahma or Ahura Mazda or Gaea? There are many Norse and Greek gods and it’s intellectually dishonest to say “Oh _S/He_ doesn’t count because no one believes in her/him anymore.” What about all of the non-anthropomorphic gods that various religions have espoused? Like some etherial “Great It Is”?

    This presumption that ‘God’ = Judeo-Christian-Muslim god ignores all of the adherents of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc … maybe some of them have opinions about ETI’s, too.

  4. Richard Morris Says:

    Shermer says: “Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God, believers in either one must take a leap of faith or else suspend judgment until evidence emerges to the contrary.”

    The sentence should lend at the word faith and read: “Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God, believers must take a leap of faith.”

    One may either believe or not believe, those are the only two logical positions. To suspend judgment is not a belief. It is reasonable to say “there is no evidence, therefore I do not believe,” thus making one a non-believer. One might also say “There is no evidence, therefore I do believe.” But one cannot say I believe I will suspend judgment and have that agnostic position count as a belief.

  5. Tzindaro Says:

    The argument would be on firmer ground if there was evidence of intelligent life on earth.

    Religion is a biological condition. A belief in non-physical forms of life, gods, devils, spirits, ghosts, etc., is a symptom of a particular form of brain psychopathology having it’s origin in a slightly damaged or undeveloped condition of the part of the brain that controls proprioception of one’s body. If a person does not feel the normal background of bodily sensations, one will conclude that a disembodied organism can exist. A person whose brainstem functions fully and who therefore feels his own body at all times, even though most people are not usually aware of this background of internal sensations, will scorn the idea of a non-embodied creature of any kind.

    In cultures where religion is commonplace, such as in Europe during the Christian Age, or in some remote backward parts of the world even today, most people were suffering from such brain damage, so they could believe in religion. This may have been at least partly due to some lack in the diet of that time, or it may be caused by some forms of child abuse, including, especially in cases of children of low intelligence or weak vitality, constant reiteration of religious dogma and exhortations to believe. It is worth noting that the stranglehold of religion in Europe began to die out as soon as a more varied diet became common with the introduction of new, more nourishing, crops from America that had not been available before. Today, the countries with the highest standard of living are the very ones with the least religion.

    In any case, such beliefs are nothing but a symptom of brain damage and there is no reason to ever take them seriously. ETs are at least possible; Gods are not.

  6. Kevin Ward Says:

    What a pity that evidence, logic and reasoned argument are not included in this review and, not having read the book and intending not to because of its content as indicated by the review, must therefore be missing from the book.
    Previous commentors have covered my thoughts.

  7. Ben Says:

    I think there is truth to this.
    Believers in god and believers in UFO’s have something in common. They both assume that there is Something Greater out there, and they both assume that the ethics and morality of that Something Greater precisely matches that of the believer.
    Various believers warn of god punishing nations for “fornication” or punishing humanity for global warming, with the same root assumption- My Something Greater will punish you for the things I don’t like!
    I believe global warming is real, I believe fornication really occurs- it does not follow that an alien or celestial mind would share moral opinions with me.

  8. BillG Says:

    I’m a bit skeptical on the N.D colleagues and their study – foremost being how large was the sample size and their conclusions?

    Besides, I thought there is contrary evidence (large sample) showing the more one has religious belief the more they are inclined that UFOs are ET visitations?

    (Also, belief in ghosts, angels, psychics – choose your flim-flam.)

  9. David Thomas Says:

    Marius Myburg eloquently expressed the arguments that occurred to me.

    The search for aliens is not equivalent to the search for god/God, especially since the latter is impossible and the former is possible.

    I would further argue that the search for aliens is more equivalent to the search for black holes during most of last century. It is a search for evidence regardless of beliefs.

  10. Bob Pease Says:

    Are There Aliens??
    Almost Certainly

    Are they HERE?
    Almost NOT
    Definition “Almost”

    ” > but not equal to ZERO”

  11. Terry Moseley Says:

    I think that ‘suspending judgement’ is the wrong expression in this case. It is the ‘conclusion’ that matters. We all are in the position of making judgements right now, on the basis of what evidence is available to us. Thus I currently believe that God does not exist, and I currently believe that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is true. I think that it is highly unlikely, but if irrefutable evidence was to emerge that God does exist, or that the Second Law is invalid in certain circumstances, then I would continue to make a judgement, but in the light of the new evidence I would come to a different conclusion.
    The only time when one might properly ‘suspend judgement’ is when there is no evidence or logic one way or the other, or when it is split 50:50. In those cases one could justifiably say: I am unable to make a judgement.

  12. Barbara Harwood Says:

    It has long been suggested that searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence is something that we do because we cannot find very much here on Earth. It almost appears that we are reluctant to fix our own mess because we expect someone or something to do it for us. We keep talking bout what we have to do, but nobody wants to take theresponsibility because it would be highly unpopular.

  13. Will Neeb Says:

    Lots wrong with the conclusions of the study. First, study 2 and 3-4 contradict in correlation between belief in ETI and religiosity, therefore the data is of questionable value. Second the extrapolations of the study’s authors are not obvious from the data, questionable as it is. For example, a bias against ETI is built into most religious belief systems that is not factored in. Also those who are familiar with the life sciences are much better at assessing the probability of extraterrestrial life, seeing it as statistically defensible rather than impossible as religiously trained minds would believe. The questions about ‘meaning of life’ mean different things to religious persons than those with a scientific/naturalistic outlook. Religious folks are led to believe ‘meaning’ is given to them by a god at birth while naturalistic folks find meaning through accomplishment. Given this, the non-deists would of course more frequently be seeking meaning. Really a poor study and even poorer analysis by the authors.

  14. Jim Says:

    Bad Boy Scientist,

    If god is a cultural context, then mentioning gods that have no more followers shouldn’t matter.

  15. Clive Varejes Says:

    I cannot agree more with Marius Myburg,

    This article disparages everything that SKEPTIC stands for.
    It is incredibly badly researched and is put together as if it were a 7th grade school project.
    The assumptions made hold no logical sense whatsoever.

    To state that persons who are atheist/agnostic are more likely to believe in ETI’s is asinine.
    The vast majority of those who are atheists/agnostics usually have a high IQ and are able to analyse the difference between facts and fables.

    For anyone to believe that earth is the only planet that supports life amongst the thousands of billions of planets is ludicrous in the extreme.
    Whether it is a carbon form of life is another question entirely.
    We are still to discover the myriad life forms in the sea which may alter our thinking of life and its requirements.
    Although I totally believe that there is other life in the universe/s and a plethora thereof, I cannot believe that any ‘aliens’ have visited out minuscule insignificant planet, no matter how important we think we are, even though religion states that we are the center of the universe.

    As Carl Sagan (I think it was he) stated; “10 thousand years in the universe is the blink of an eye, so there would be no such thing as ‘space wars’, it would be space annihilation.

    A further point is, that I find it quite astounding that these aliens are so technologically advanced that they are able to find their way to earth and then immediately crash and in 99% of cases, in areas where cousins have married cousins and the first thing thing they do is take them for an anal probe.

    As they say colloquially, ‘Really, no but really!’

  16. Katharine Says:

    A transcendent god most certainly does not exist. The idea probably originated as a result of man’s fear of death and the desperate wish for someone to be “in charge” of what seems uncontrollable in life. However, the concept of an immanent goddess is much more rational and believable, since she represents the sacredness of the earth and all of its inhabitants, and the truth of the interconnectedness of us all. Goddess is a totally different concept and a very rational one.

  17. Toby Grated Says:

    The article makes good points. However I take issue with the statement that there is no more evidence for ET’s then for God. There is evidence for ETIS – human beings. To ETI’s we would be aliens so there is evidence that ETIS exist.

  18. Robert Sheaffer Says:

    We know that intelligent life evolved, and exists, on at least one planet. So we know that “intelligent life” is a non-empty set.

    We do not know that any alleged “deity” exists anywhere.

  19. Randy Weiss Says:

    I do not accept any causal link between feeling a need for ‘meaning in life’ and ‘belief in Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.’ I feel a lot of meaning in my life, I also think there are ETIs. Not related.
    In fact, if it were true that Earth is the only place intelligence has occurred, we would be a lot more important! The fragile, random experiment nature has conducted here would then have far greater significance. Odds are overwhelming that this is not the case.

  20. Ginter Vurlicer Says:

    The very concept of a personal god monitoring our affairs is full of contradictions that cannot be ignored. How does a personal god flit across the fourteen billions of light-years of the universe without any time or energy constraints? How does a god listen to and interpret the firing of neurons of all the billions of prayers on earth and the billions of earths elsewhere simultaneously? What did god do for the fourteen billions of years before any intelligence appeared on earth and elsewhere? As for aliens, the energy constraints of interstellar travel requiring hundreds of thousands of years to reach the nearest neighbors traveling at only a fraction of the speed of light, makes it very unlikely that any intelligence would even consider spending precious resources on such an expedition (much like any serious effort to put people on Mars is a complete waste of our resources).

  21. Andreas Ike Says:

    “Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God”
    You mean there were never UFOs to say the least?

  22. awc Says:

    The argument from my perspective is historically clear.

    Repeatedly we humans have believed and decried our exceptional position in the universe when given enough time have been proven wrong to hold this thought again and again.

    How the existence of ETI’s are any different escapes me. Their mundane existence because of our own is inevitable. Whether we ever detect them, communicate with them or the frequency of their existence is only up for debate.


  23. awc Says:

    Correlation is not causation.

  24. Ginter Vurlicer Says:

    Let us take a look a common phenomenon, an exploding star or supernova. The sizeable star depletes hydrogen, burns the heavier elements, collapses and explodes. A (merciful?) God is standing by, watching an earth like planet vaporized on the side facing the exploding star. Bits of DNA are blasted into the ether in the tail wind. The DNA falls onto other earth like planets after a few billion years and life begins as single celled organisms again. God is happy.

  25. Michael Says:

    An alien who has figured out how to beat the speed of light would be as advanced intellectually and technically from us as we are to a single celled bacterium. ET would be able to take one dead skin cell from any living thing on this planet and recreate the entire organism in a lab, and trace our entire evolution. It would be a grade three science project for little ET. Why would ET need to suck up cows and poke holes in them or humans and stick things up their noses. ET would have us all figured out light years from arriving here just by watching our TV shows. Of course this would lead to the conclusion that we are a violent, greedy, selfish species not worth bothering with. And no, they don’t need our water or planet either. They would have learned how to transform dirt into gold and turn the moon into the universes biggest golf course. The problem with humans is that we think we are all that and more. Our egos are incredible. Religions preach this nonsense. We are special, we are the center of the universe, God has plan and purpose for me. And I get eternal life. Beat that you silly ET.

  26. OldNassau Says:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

    “Shermer’s Last Law”; January 2002], “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.”

    imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

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