This morning I read a very interesting essay at The Atlantic in which the author, after summarizing some widespread beliefs, related scientific data, and modern attempts to reconcile the data with the beliefs, recounts wrestling and coming to terms with his unbelief—in extraterrestrial intelligence. Aliens.
The title of the piece, by Michael Clune, a professor of English at Case Western University, is "I Don't Believe in Aliens Anymore." Clune's primary interest is in finding meaning and significance in a universe in which humanity, as a conscious intelligence, is alone. And we almost certainly are. Clune notes that:
Earlier this year, a group at the University of Oxford released a paper arguing that our knowledge of the universe and of math should lead us to assume that intelligent life is most probably an extremely rare event, depending on a series of fortuitous circumstances . . . that are so unlikely as to almost never happen. Humanity shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t found aliens, because most likely there aren’t any.
This is a realization I had myself some years ago. If, as we are often assured, the chance of intelligent life evolving anywhere is so infinitesimally small, the odds so impossibly long, then how can we assume it has happened more than once?
But this is, in fact, what a lot of people will say if asked about extraterrestrial life. It's become a platitude: "The universe is so big there just has to be other life out there." Some people even take such questions as an opportunity to show how very 'umble they can be, by turning the question back onto ourselves: "I think it's arrogant to believe we're alone in the universe." But if you accept the premises above—the vast and dangerous complexity of the universe, the fragility of the conditions where life could emerge, and, given everything else, the long odds of life actually appearing and evolving—you must return to the question: If we're alone, now what?
That's the question that animates Clune's essay, and I recommend reading it. But it was an offhand expression, not even an argument or line of thought, that caught my attention near the end, in this line from the conclusion: "Now looking back on that moment from the perspective of the Oxford study’s revelation, I wonder if giving up gods and aliens will lead people to the weird singularity of the human mind." Gods and aliens, lumped together. This follows from Clune's introduction, in which he posits religion as an earlier, now outmoded attempt by humanity to find a cosmic Other with which to communicate and through which to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.
I don't know anything about Clune's religious beliefs—if he has any, and he seems to dismiss religion, albeit gently, in his essay—but I am religious, and this passing turn of phrase affirmed something about belief in aliens that also occurred to me some time ago: Belief in aliens is a substitute religion, and aliens are substitute gods.
You don't have to dig far or be intimately familiar with believers to see this, and once you've had that realization, you can't unsee it. Enthusiasts of spiritual esoterica and belief in aliens have a religious fervency and conceive of aliens in very religious ways: guides, protectors, sometimes even creators. The premise of everything from Ancient Aliens to 2001: A Space Odyssey is that aliens are responsible for the greatest human achievements, the greatest human wisdom, and the greatest historical leaps forward. Alien encounters almost always take the structure of a religious experience, so much so that some of the believers who have gone farther down the rabbit hole speculate that religious experiences are in fact alien abductions. The "kinds" of close encounters pretty clearly mirror the kinds of religious experiences people have, whether simply seeing a miracle, having visions, directly encountering saints or angels, more intense encounters that leave physical marks, and, the most awesome of all, being caught up into the heavens for a beatific vision. These encounters change the often unwilling witnesses and they long to reconnect with the intelligences that came to them. One of the most famous alien abduction books, which you may remember being repeatedly shilled on Unsolved Mysteries in the early 90s, is even called Communion.
One way to view these correspondences is as two iterations of the same nonsense, the attitude Clune, more tactfully, seems to assume in his essay. As he writes, "human culture never left the non-secular world behind." Aliens and belief in them "were just a modern version of religious literature." The old temples aren't being torn down; new ones are going up. Whether it's aliens (but I'm not saying it's aliens) or abstractions like humanity, spirituality, nature, Progress or, the ultimate abstraction, the Universe, new gods are crowding in with the old. And aliens and God are hardly mutually exclusive—there are embarrassing Christian spins on all of these things. It may be the most widespread but least noted form of modern religious syncretism.
Which brings me to my point. I do agree with Clune to an extent, especially about the non-existence of alien life. But I disagree that belief in aliens is simply one more sincere but vain attempt to find meaning through false mythologies; I think belief in aliens bespeaks a deep human need to believe that has gone awry. As CS Lewis put it in an entirely different context, "spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison."
The answer to UFOs isn't to give up faith in every transcendent belief system as equally erroneous, but to take away the poison of conspiracy theory and substitute truth. That, as it happens, is the path to meaning.