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Philosophy, sociology and religion

Philosophy, sociology and religion

Aliens and atheists

02 Oct 2014 Margaret Harris

By Margaret Harris

Press releases are supposed to be attention-grabbing, but occasionally, I come across one that really goes the extra mile. That was the case this morning when – my eyes still a bit bleary, my coffee still un-drunk – I spotted a real doozy in my in-box.

“Are the world’s religions ready for ET?” the headline asked.

Some might regard this question as unimportant. Even if you care about the official views of religious groups (and many people – including some religious people – do not), their opinions about life on other planets are surely less relevant to daily life than their guidelines on, say, human morality. After all, if extraterrestrial life does exist, it is an awfully long way away: the nearest star system to ours, Alpha Centauri, is more than four light-years off, and astronomers do not regard it as a good candidate for habitable planets. So, if extraterrestrial life is ever discovered, the Earth’s religions will have plenty of time to get used to it before it causes them any practical problems down at the local synagogue, mosque, temple or church (“Baptismal Ceremony ET: For alien life forms unable to answer for themselves”).

This press release, though, had another trick up its sleeve. Under the sub-headline “Belief in extraterrestrials varies by religion”, it included a snippet of data from opinion polling carried out in the US. This is what really grabbed my attention. Apparently, the people most likely to believe in extraterrestrial life are…atheists. More than half (55%) of the atheists in the poll professed a belief in extraterrestrials, compared with 44% of Muslims, 37% of Jews, 36% of Hindus and just 32% of Christians.

Without information about how many people were polled, or how they were selected, it’s hard to know how seriously to take these results. The press release also didn’t say how the question was phrased, which is likewise pretty important. After all, believing that we are unlikely to be alone in a vast universe is very different from believing that little green men gave you a ride in their spaceship last Tuesday. But even so, it seems odd that atheists – a group defined by their lack of belief in a being (or beings) for which there is no good scientific evidence – are so willing to believe in the existence of extraterrestrials. Because, of course, there’s no good evidence for them, either.

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