yesterday in the grocery aisle: “I’m something of an agnostic but I believe something is out there”

Yesterday, the Denver Post made the Pew Religious Landscape survey its front page story, posting the admittedly astonishing figure of 92% “of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit” next to the headline: What we believe, and the subtitle: Survey surprise: Many not bound by church doctrine.  

Denver Post front page, Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Later that day I was in the grocery aisle of my local supermarket when I overheard a conversation between two employees who were restocking colorful peppers. Apparently they were discussing these headlines, and the younger one, in his mid 30s, said: “I’m guess I’m something of an agnostic.” But then he went on to say he also believes “something is out there”.

Maybe attitudes like his explain the odd findings of the survey I commented on in my initial post (that 22% of atheists and 55% of agnostics believe in God or a universal spirit).

However, is this kind of ‘belief’ really any different from that about alien civilizations that we’ll get to meet as soon as Scotty get that bloody warp drive on the Enterprise fixed? I’m not joking here, thanks to Star Trek vast majorities of boomers have soaked up the general idea that plenty of intelligent life is “out there”, not on the basis of a conscious review of arguments and evidence, but through cultural immersion and osmosis.

Admittedly, just as likely this worker had that sense of awe in mind, the feeling many people get when they are overwhelmed with joy or sorrow, or what Richard Dawkins dubs Einsteinian wonder.

I will also posit that cultural acclimatization may be a big part of it. Throughout life Americans are flooded with a vocabulary, with role models, with behavioral norms that make the existence of an imaginary friend called God seem natural and obvious.

Perhaps the suspicion that there’s “something out there” has a deeper root in our psychological makeup. 

It’s the tendency of higher organisms to assume or suspect agency. We’re on the lookout for stuff that may be out to get us. That’s why we (and other ‘superstitious’ animals) often interpret shapes and sounds as predators: better to err on the side of caution than ending up as someone’s meal.

I’ll come back to that theory, which I learned about from Stewart Guthrie’s “Faces in the Clouds”.


6 Responses to yesterday in the grocery aisle: “I’m something of an agnostic but I believe something is out there”

  1. Chalicechick says:

    I don’t think Star Trek is to blame there. At the very least, the “War of the Worlds” scare indicates that decades before Star Trek existed, people considered life on other planets a strong enough possibility to not dismiss the idea.

    I’m not sure how an examination of what evidence we have would do much good in answering this question. Science has told us that the Universe is really, really big. So big that we have no real way to concieve of how big it is.

    No, I don’t think that aliens are coming down, scooping up hicks from cornfields, but it does seem kinda weird to say “Nope, because no alien has made itself evident to us, there must not be intelligent life on other planets.” And if we’re intelligent, why wouldn’t there be some other intelligent civilizations out there?


  2. juuggernaut says:

    Sure, Star Trek is one in a line of earlier cultural phenomena, and I agree that there are decent reasons to assume intelligent life out there.
    I guess what I didn’t express clearly but meant was that such a TV series (or Orson Welles’ radio hoax) makes it a visceral assumption, not a rational one.
    You’ve seen it over and over again, and seeing becomes believing. That there are arguments for and against, and facts that put things in perspective does not figure into any equation at all.
    Comedian Jimmy Tingles had this cute line where he argues with an atheist: “What do mean ‘There is no God.’ I worked for the guy! I was an altar boy!”

    Once a whole society pretends the existence of a deity – or the inferiority of women, the superiority of aristocrats, the nobility of warriors – it becomes ‘reality’.

  3. Chalicechick says:

    Well, we do see what we expect to see. But I think the mere fact that lots of people assume aliens probably exist but only a few claim to have seen them proves that people aren’t total slaves to these ideas.

    And Jimmy Tingles knew he was kidding, though presumably he was raised to believe in God.

  4. serenityhome says:

    Interesting comments on extra-terrestials. I remember back in my conservative christian days, a friend stating that extra-terrestials could not exist because god had too many headaches dealing with the humans. I thought his argument to be an earth-centric arrogance as I do the argument here. The possibility exists for life (intelligent or otherwise) on other planets simply because life exists here. There are lots of rational reasons as to why we have not seen proof of their existence. Some of these reasons include their development may be at the same level as ours. We simply do not have the technology that Star Trek and other sci-fi shows imagine for us. And the belief that life might exist on other planets does not mean that belief in a god is also needed. But to state life does not exist on other planets because we have no proof is a spurious assumption.

  5. juuggernaut says:

    Agreed that it’s not a valid assumption (although I’m not sure it was made by anyone here). But I’m glad you mention “the technology that Star Trek… imagine for us.”
    Just ask Lawrence Krauss at Case Western, the author of The Physics of Star Trek about the technocratic gullibility due in part to sci-fi.

    The most naive idea, and the one most widely infiltrated into the public mind, is that we’ll at some point be able to travel in person to far away galaxies and planets. Not only would it be a one way ticket, the exposure to radiation during space travel seems prohibitive (Physicist Victor Stenger has some details about that in “God. The Failed Hypothesis”).

    I mention it because in a way our inability to reach the far shores of space seems analogous to our human search for a supernatural being: when you get there (if there’s a there there in death) you don’t have a phone to call home.

  6. Chuck B. says:

    In a long winded way, I agree with CC. And I think she said it best.

    One of the problems I have with the premise here is that it ignores some scientific data. Scientists have discovered that there are organisms that exist in environments hostile to human life. That’s not Star Trek fiction. String Theory does not disprove superluminary travel, and nothing has put the final nail in worm-hole theory, yet.

    Now does that mean that a life form existing within the available elements that form in a G5 yellow star can achieve superluminary flight? No. Unless you are privy to information the rest of us aren’t concerning how organic matter functions under other sequence stars or you know that absolutely no life has come to be on extra solar planets that exist in the life zones of the billions of G5 main sequence stars out there, your position is as much based on faith as a fundamentalist.

    Also, our inability to reach the far shores of other planets, based on your knowledge of the current limits of our knowledge of physics is based on “conventional science wisdom”. Conventional science wisdom also promised the impossibility of flight.

    I think a much more valid argument against the possiblity that we will ever reach the far shores is not that based on our limited knowledge of physics it is impossible, but that based on our limited ability to come together as a people such dreams are irrational.

    Our societies cannot even evolve to reverse ecological degredation when the scientific evidence is staring them in the face, so how then could they perform the expensive, time consuming, resource consuming, open ended scientific inquiries that would be need to prove or disprove advanced space flight?

    Look at the level of financial and resource consuming that must take place simply to bring about a moon landing. Then, try to contemplate the amounts of cash to reach the economies of scale that would make space flight an ongoing and self perpetuating event simply within our system. Its pretty easy to see that absent a total reshuffling of society on a massive planetary scale, its not gonna happen.

    Now that’s why most SF writers usually hint at a calamity or some other event that caused a major disruption in our societies when they write about a universe where human system travel, let alone superliminary travel, even occurs.

    Just my two cents. Albeit, those cents are based on discussions I’ve had with astronomy and physics professors.

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