A lot of atheists believe in aliens. At least, Dean Smith’s post on the blog Open The Word seems to claim so. Initially I doubted the claim and so I went on a search of reasons not to doubt the claim. A sort of optimistic Descartes-ian fact-finding mission. (I actually gave up on this endeavour until Smith posted a follow-up.) Smith’s post uses David Weintraub’s book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life as a source. The exact statistic in question is this: 55% of atheists believe in aliens. I then tried to find Weintraub’s source for his claim, and it appears that Weintraub’s book is the reference. There is nothing wrong with this―original research is to be encouraged―but I still wanted a closer look at the data.
My mind sort of autocorrected the quoted statistic the first time I read to; I understood the quote as 55% of atheists acknowledge the possibility of aliens. But that is not what general media published and not the stance that Smith defended in his post and comments (now closed). They all maintained the statistic that 55% of atheists held an active belief in aliens. The book is too expensive to buy on the back of curiosity, so I don’t have access to that, so I wanted to look up the actual research. If, as the media and Smith maintain, the idea that 55% of atheists believe in aliens was reached via a piece of independent research for this book, what exactly was the research?
I suspect it was some sort of a survey. And so what I really want to know is what the questions were. If the question was about the acceptance of the possibility then Weintraub’s characterisation of the data representing actual belief is wrong. If, however, the question was explicitly about an active belief in aliens then it seems a little at odds. That oddness may be peculiar to me, as I expect most of my friends to be approximately consistent in how they evaluate evidence and so I expect a person to abstain from believe in God and aliens simultaneously.
It is not impossible to be consistent while believing in aliens and also not believing in God. The two claims―aliens exist and God exists―are not in a state of equal implausibility. Aliens, at least, can be sensibly, robustly and consistently defined as living organisms from another planet. Given that life arose here, it is plausible that it arose elsewhere in the universe as well, especially as the number of Earth-like planets is vast (based on the data from the Kepler space mission, Petigura, Howard and Marcy (2013) to be 40 billion in the Milky Way alone). Even this number does not account for all places with possible life, as life that depends on liquid methane in much colder regions is a plausible hypothetical. Such aliens could either be found or evidence of their metabolism could be gleaned from scanning a viable planet. Alternatively, God cannot be given a sensible, consistent, or robust definition; the definition of a God cannot be made sense of, free of paradoxes, or give predictive hypotheses to test.
I would be very wary of nestling a belief in aliens on top of big numbers and statistics, because the probability of life is still unknown and will be unless/until we understand more about abiogenesis. However, one could still consistently home such a belief in aliens while simultaneously rejecting a God.
Without access to the actual survey Weintraub claims to have carried out, and thus unable to tease acknowledged possibilities from active beliefs, I turned my Descartesian eyes to Weintraub himself: does he have a conflict of interest? David Weintraub is an astronomer at Vanderbilt University Tennessee. There is no Wikipedia page on him, but Vanderbilt University does have some publicly available information on him. He has a respectable list of refereed publications, none of which are about religion or sociology. But his online CV also starts to betray a conflict of interest: in 1998, he won a Templeton Foundation Award in Science and Religion. The Templeton Foundation is reputed as being aesthetically scientific, while funding pro-religious investigations and conclusions. While trying to find exactly what Weintraub got his award for (still not found) I discovered this interview (“Did Jesus Save the Klingons?”) in which he seems to reveal a fondness or Eastern religions. Atheism, though, doesn’t get a mention. I can’t find an explicit conflict of interest, I have found that he is reasonably knowledgeable about religion, sympathetic to Eastern religions and has an affiliation (that I can’t find details about) with a pseudo-openly religious organisation.
In short, Smith’s post citing Weintraub that 55% of atheists believe in aliens is highly open to doubt. The difference between belief and possibility is not cleared up, the survey is not openly available and the author who published this unclear statistic didn’t do so through peer-review and has possible conflicts of interest.