In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk encounters a deity that lures him to its planet in order to abscond with the Enterprise. “What does God need with a starship?” the skeptical commander inquires. I talked to Kirk himself—William Shatner, that is—about the film when I met him at a recent conference. The original plot device for the movie, which he directed, was for the crew to go “in search of God.” Fearful that some religious adherents might be offended that the Almighty could be discoverable by a spaceship, the studio bosses insisted that the deity be a malicious extraterrestrial impersonating God for personal gain.

How could a starship—or any technology designed to detect natural forces and objects—discover a supernatural God, who by definition would be beyond any such sensors? Any detectable entity would have to be a natural being, no matter how advanced, and as I have argued in this column [see “Shermer's Last Law”; January 2002], “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.” Thus, Shatner's plot theme of looking for God could only turn up an ETI sufficiently advanced to appear God-like.

Perhaps herein lies the impulse to search. In his 1982 book Plurality of Worlds (Cambridge University Press), historian of science Steven J. Dick suggested that when Isaac Newton's mechanical universe replaced the medieval spiritual world, it left a lifeless void that was filled with the modern search for ETI. In his 1995 book Are We Alone? (Basic Books), physicist Paul Davies wondered: “What I am more concerned with is the extent to which the modern search for aliens is, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest.” Historian George Basalla made a similar observation in his 2006 work Civilized Life in the Universe (Oxford University Press): “The idea of the superiority of celestial beings is neither new nor scientific. It is a widespread and old belief in religious thought.”

Now there is experimental evidence in support of this hypothesis, reported in a 2017 article entitled “We Are Not Alone” in the journal Motivation and Emotion, in which North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge and his colleagues found an inverse relation between religiosity and ETI beliefs. That is, those who report low levels of religious belief but high desire for meaning in life show greater belief in ETIs. In the team's first study, subjects who read an essay “arguing that human life is ultimately meaningless and cosmically insignificant” were statistically significantly more likely to believe in ETIs than those who read an essay on the “limitations of computers.”

In the second study, subjects who self-identified as either atheist or agnostic were statistically significantly more likely to report believing in ETIs than those who reported being religious (primarily Christian). In studies 3 and 4, subjects completed a religiosity scale, a meaning in life scale, a well-being scale, an ETI belief scale, and a religious/supernatural belief scale. “Lower presence of meaning and higher search for meaning were associated with greater belief in ETI,” the researchers reported, but ETI beliefs showed no correlation with supernatural beliefs or well-being beliefs.

From these studies the authors conclude: “ETI beliefs serve an existential function: the promotion of perceived meaning in life. In this way, we view belief in ETI as serving a function similar to religion without relying on the traditional religious doctrines that some people have deliberately rejected.” By this they mean the supernatural: “accepting ETI beliefs does not require one to believe in supernatural forces or agents that are incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world.” If you don't believe in God but seek deeper meaning outside our world, the thought that we are not alone in the universe “could make humans feel like they are part of a larger and more meaningful cosmic drama,” they observe.

Given that there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God, believers in either one must take a leap of faith or else suspend judgment until evidence emerges to the contrary. I can conceive of what that might be for ETI but not for God, unless the deity is a sufficiently advanced ETI as to appear divine. Perhaps Captain Kirk has it right in his final reflections on God to the ship's doctor at the end of Star Trek V: “Maybe He's not out there, Bones. Maybe He's right here [in the] human heart.”