If there are two groups that might not be thrilled to be lumped together, it's likely people who believe in aliens and people who believe in God. However, a new study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion last month has found a trait that both these groups have in common: a desire to find meaning in life.
The study, which looked at 1,146 undergraduate students, found that a lack of meaning and a desire to find it correlated to greater belief in aliens. Not only that, atheists and agnostics were more likely to believe in aliens. The study’s corresponding author, Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University, told PsyPost that while research has indicated that people are becoming less religious (Millennials are the least religious generation in the history of the United States) and more secular, he saw a different interpretation. "One possibility is that it is not that people leaving traditional religion are becoming more secular but instead that are switching to other types of religious-like beliefs and interests to pursue spiritual needs," like beliefs about what the study calls "extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)."
Routledge said that he finds that "the same cognitive traits that predict [the] level of spirituality among believers similarly predict level of non-religious spirituality [ETI beliefs] among atheists." Why, he wondered, would atheists who reject a belief in God be drawn to a belief in "intelligent alien beings monitoring the lives of humans (these are the types of paranormal ETI beliefs [they] measured)?" The answer was that people who did not find meaning through religion were motivated to search for other sources of meaning, which included non-traditional sources, like ETI. He says, "It is fascinating how modern secular people are modifying and repurposing ideas from older spiritual practices to approach existential questions about death and meaning." Another possibility? That Millennials are finding their religion on a therapist's couch instead of in a church pew, as therapy is another tool to help people search for meaning.
However, Routledge is clear that while people are interested in ETI in part because they are looking for meaning in life, his research does not indicate that ETI beliefs provide meaning for the people who hold them. "All my work shows is that when people lack meaning and are looking for it, they are more inclined to be open to and interested in paranormal beliefs," he said.