Atheists who believe in E.T.

According to a press release from Vanderbilt, atheists are more likely than members of various religions to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life:

Belief in extraterrestrials varies by religion

  • 55 percent of Atheists
  • 44 percent of Muslims
  • 37 percent of Jews
  • 36 percent of Hindus
  • 32 percent of Christians

I heard about this via a blog hosted at the Institute of Physics. The writer expresses surprise at the finding:

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.

I agree that the lack of information about polling methodology is annoying. (The press release refers to a book that’s not out yet, and I can’t find any other publications by this author that contain the results.) But the last part of this quote is just silly. There certainly is evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, and it’s not at all unreasonable for a rationalist (assuming, for the moment, the author’s implicit equation of atheism with rationalism) to believe in it.

In particular, we know that there are a huge number of planets like Earth out there. There’s considerable evidence that that number is unbelievably large (i.e., 10 to some large power), and it might even be infinite. Furthermore, we know that in the one instance of an Earthlike planet that we’ve studied in detail, life arose almost as soon as it could have. Those facts constitute strong evidence in favor of the idea that extraterrestrial life exists.

Of course that’s not a proof (in the sense of pure mathematics or logic) that life exists, but presumably “belief in” something requires only (probabilistic) evidence, not literal mathematical proof. (If mathematical certainty were required for belief, then the list of things a rational person should believe in would be quite short.)

I don’t think it’s the least bit surprising that atheists are more likely than theists to believe in extraterrestrial life. That’s exactly what I would have predicted. After all, some major religious traditions are based on the idea that God created the Universe specifically for us humans. A natural consequence of that idea is that we humans are the only living beings out there. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t believe in such a tradition is far more likely to believe that life is a random occurrence that happens with some probability whenever conditions are right for it. A natural consequence of this belief is that life exists elsewhere.




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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!