In my first post on this blog I said that
Religion is an inescapable part of human nature—it has been a part of all human cultures everywhere and at all times. Religion serves important functions by providing, among other things: 1) a way to make parts of our lives sacred and allow us to commune with God (or some higher power); 2) moral guidelines and answers to deep life questions; 3) ceremonies and rites marking major life events; 4) a sense of community and solidarity with our coreligionists; and 5) a signaling mechanism about one’s devotion and trustworthiness.
On July 21 in the New York Times, Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, explained that
People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.
An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.
When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.
Established religions aren’t doing as good of a job at fulfilling their traditional roles in our lives as they used to. Consequently, more and more people are giving up on religion. But people who give up on traditional religion can’t escape their innate religious natures. And so they turn to UFOs and ghosts.
But why aliens? They don’t seem to be a good substitute for what religion has to offer. Professor Routledge explains:
A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.
And, I would add, the new secularists who don’t believe in UFOs or ghosts almost inevitably end up believing in some kind of new superstition and orthodoxy. The social justice movement is mostly just a new pseudo-religion thst scratches the religious itch of secularists. But such new alternatives are poor replacements for religion. As Professor Routledge points out:
It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.
The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?
We need a better replacement for the old religions than what we have—something that keeps the best parts of the traditional religions, while incorporating our new scientific understanding of the world.