A Different Kind of Atheism.
This short book presents a variety of thought experiments designed to expose people to some rational ways of thinking about their god or gods. An attempt to distinguish a visit from god from a visit by space aliens is just a light-hearted introduction to more serious material. The underlying theme is that whatever way you have of knowing about god is evidence, and can be explored as such.
Before we start, let me try to explain why I am starting out by discussing space aliens. I am not about to suggest that god is really a little green man from another planet. I want to get people to think about what their god is like. Many of today’s religions include the idea that god was manifestly present on earth at one or more times in the past. In Christianity, the central tenet of the faith is that god himself was here in the form of a man named Jesus. At the time, not many people could tell that he was god. But now, millions of people claim to know for certain that if you don’t believe Jesus was god, you will spend eternity in hell. Some people believe that god will return. Many of them even believe that the return is immanent. But even if you don’t think god is coming to earth any time soon, you probably still believe that he could come, but just chooses not to. It is also possible that real space aliens will visit us some day. Of course some religions claim that god only made intelligent life once and it is us. If you believe that, then anything that comes to earth must be god, since there are, by definition, no space aliens. For the rest of you, if something unusual showed up on earth, you would have the job of deciding whether it was space aliens or god. How you would decide says a lot about what you think god is like, and that is the point of my writing this chapter. For me the job is easy. It is almost certainly space aliens, no matter what. For the religious among you, I am hopeful that going through this thought process might nudge you in the direction of thinking the same thing.
In our first series of thought experiments, we consider various sorts of visits to earth by aliens. Many depictions of alien visits are, of course, familiar from film, literature, and so on. Curiously, these descriptions rarely imagine the aliens claiming or appearing to have the status of gods. It has occasionally been suggested that distant past visits might account for ancient mythology, but people somehow imagine that modern alien visits would surely be recognizable as aliens. They may have advanced technology, but we imagine that it will be understood as just that – advanced technology. Arthur C. Clark famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With this thought in mind let us consider some of the common alien images and perhaps some less common ones as well. Into each scenario we will inject the question: “could the alien(s) be god(s)?”
Reptiles and Gods
Consider one of the common alien visits we see in movies: ugly reptilian creatures arrive in spaceships. It is a massive invasion, and their expressed intent is to kill or enslave humans. They shoot at us with recognizable weapons of mass destruction. Naturally we mobilize our armed forces and the world comes together to fight the aliens. Somehow, against all odds, we find a way to win.
Now just change the plot slightly. They still mean to enslave us, but what they say is “We are gods and you must worship us.” They provide specifications for the churches and rituals we are to use. How would we respond? Although there might be a few believers, it seems very likely that the response would be something like this: you are not gods – you are space aliens, and we are going to fight you to the death.
Why is this response so likely? I think that the main reason is that everything in this scenario is recognizably part of the natural world as we might understand it. There is nothing supernatural, spiritual, or mystical about these aliens. They are visible real-world creatures who come in spaceships and shoot at us with fancy weapons. We can easily imagine that if we were to build spaceships and travel to another planet the situation would look much the same. Furthermore, the aliens are ugly (they obviously did not create us in their image), and they don’t seem to like us much. These factors also contribute to their lack of godliness.
This entire picture is quite similar to one which has actually happened. If “creatures” in metal suits arrive in boats from across the ocean, some people might see them as gods. But for others, and eventually also for the believers, it will be war. Once the killing starts, and it is seen that the aliens are mortal, this clinches the case that they are not gods.