(RNS) — Tom Flynn does not believe in God.
He’s less willing to say the same about aliens.
“Given the evidence we have now, I think it’s more likely that a dispassionate observer would conclude that intelligent life elsewhere is possible,” said Flynn, a science fiction writer and editor of the humanist magazine Free Inquiry. “Now that’s a very different thing from saying little green men are visiting Earth in UFOs.”
A 2021 study from Pew Research found that atheists and other nonreligious Americans are more likely than their religious neighbors to be open to the idea that intelligent aliens exist.
Eighty-five percent of atheists and agnostics say their best guess is that intelligent life does exist beyond Earth. So do 80% of unaffiliated Americans, also known as nones.
By contrast, only 51% of Protestants — and 40% of white evangelicals — are open to the possibility of intelligent aliens. So are about two-thirds of Catholics and mainline Protestants and about half (55%) of Black Protestants.
Overall, 57% of Christians in the United States say their “best guess” is that there is intelligent life on other planets.
Pew’s survey was prompted by the release of a report from the Office of National Intelligence, detailing a number of “unidentified aerial phenomena” and the difficulties involved in explaining those phenomena.
Curiously, the question of UFOs and their meaning scrambles the way religious and nonreligious Americans line up. Catholics (61%) and those who claim no particular religious identity (59%) are most likely to say UFOs are definitely or probably a sign of alien intelligence. Atheists (31%) and white evangelicals (35%) are least likely.
Overall, about 65% percent of Americans say their best guess is that intelligent life exists on other planets. About half (51%) say that UFOs reported by military personnel are definitely or probably signs of intelligent alien life.
The survey also found that religious practice affects how Americans see aliens. Those who pray often and regularly attend services are skeptical about the existence of alien life. Those who don’t pray or attend services are not.
Flynn chalks up the difference between the two views to how people see the origins of the universe. Many conventionally religious people in the United States, he said, believe in a single act of creation — where God created life once and Jesus came to Earth to redeem people once.
Because the idea of intelligent life on other planets undermines a core religious belief, religious people seem to be less open to the idea of life elsewhere.
Nonreligious people don’t have that constraint, Flynn said.
Unlike nonreligious people, religious believers typically also feel that human life is unique and beloved by a higher power, said bestselling sci-fi author John Scalzi.
“If you believe that, then the idea that there might be other intelligent life out there might feel weird, because we wouldn’t be then unique and special and beloved; we would just be another creation,” Scalzi, who is agnostic, told Religion News Service in an email.
“If one is not particularly religious or has a connection to a higher power, then this is not part of one’s thinking, and therefore entertaining the idea of intelligent life elsewhere isn’t as much of an issue,” he said.
Author Sasha Sagan, who identifies as secular, said there is a difference between being open to the possibility of intelligent life in the universe and being certain that such life exists. She is not ready to embrace the latter without more evidence.
Sagan, daughter of the famed astronomer Carl Sagan, also said that the idea that life on Earth might have happened by accident — and that there may not be other intelligent life out there — can add meaning to human life as something precious.
“There’s something about that that makes … it feels like it matters quite a lot to be in this world,” she said.
With no evidence of alien life in the universe, however, both sides are operating purely on belief, according to David Weintraub, professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University. While scientists have discovered planets that appear to be Earth-like, there is no evidence, at least for now, that life exists there.
He suspects that could change in the future, pointing to a new generation of space telescopes that will allow astronomers to examine the atmospheres of distant planets.
“I can easily imagine that within 100 years we will have studied and surveyed tens of thousands or even millions of planets around other stars,” he said. “Then we’ll have some solid numerical evidence for or against the existence of extraterrestrial life. But right now, we have nothing.”
Discovering alien life would have “profound” implications, he said.
“Having real knowledge that we are not alone in the universe — I honestly can’t think of a more philosophically, theologically profound discovery,” he said. “It would have enormous effects on our understanding of our place in the universe.”
For some, the sheer enormity of the universe makes the possibility of alien life more likely than not.
There are so many stars and so many galaxies, said Jake Kerr, a science fiction author and screenwriter from Dallas, that the probability of life existing elsewhere makes sense. The idea that humans are alone in such a vast universe does not, said Kerr, who identifies as an atheist.
Kerr said the vastness of the universe really came home to him after attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, which gives science fiction writers the chance to learn more about modern astronomy. During the workshop, Kerr and other participants climbed a mountain for an unobstructed view of the night sky.
Seeing the Milky Way in that setting brought him to tears, he said.
“You see the Milky Way in all its undiminished glory and it’s spectacular,” said Kerr.
Sagan said that she’d be thrilled to hear other forms of intelligent life in the universe. For one thing, she said, humans have some problems that we could use a hand with. And the idea of meeting an alien, she said, would be amazing.
“It almost brings me to tears thinking about it,” she said. “My first thought would just be how I wish that my father were here if that were to happen, to share in that wonder.”