Atheists reject the magical world. No God. No angels and demons. No miracles. And so on. The general position of what is often referred to as the New Atheist movement is that atheists approach life through logic and empirical evidence (science) whereas religious people rely on faith and feelings. Many atheists would argue that they do not believe in something unless there is a good reason for doing so. But is this true?

I recently started a program of research to answer this and related questions concerning the magical lives of atheists. Atheists explicitly reject religion but are they really not magical thinkers? For this post, I am going to focus on the topic of intelligent alien life. Atheists may not believe in God, but they seem particularly susceptible to believing that intelligent alien life has visited our planet despite there being no compelling evidence to hold such a belief.

First, consider public polling on different beliefs. Traditional religious belief is on the decline. Even in the United States, which is generally considered a religious nation, religiosity is decreasing—what some sociologists have started referring to as “The Great Decline”. Different polls tell the same story. Religion is losing its influence in our country. Interestingly, however, more and more people seem to be open to the idea that aliens have visited our planet and endorse the notion that the government is covering up evidence of alien visitations. Some polls suggest that about half of Americans hold these kinds of beliefs about alien visitors.

In the UK, polls suggest that more people believe in UFOs than in God. For example, one recent poll found that about 42% of UK residents believe in UFOs but only 25% believe in God.  In general, belief in alien visitors and other fringe magical beliefs such as belief in ghosts seem to be increasing. If the abandonment of religion represents a rejection of magical thinking, shouldn’t all forms of magical thinking be on the decline?

Of course, these kinds of trends do not provide direct evidence that atheists are magical thinkers. But studies have directly connected people’s religiosity to their belief in alien visitors. These studies find significant negative correlations between self-reported religiosity and belief that intelligent alien life has visited Earth. The less religious someone is, the more inclined he or she is to believe in aliens.

Males in particular, who tend to be less religious than females, are attracted to alien beliefs.

I reliably find an association between religious and alien beliefs in my own research: low religiosity = high belief in intelligent alien life visiting Earth. And when I have focused specifically on atheists, I find that many of them endorse the ideas that aliens are among us and the government is covering this up. For example, in a recent study I found that only about 7% of atheists completely rejected the idea that UFOs are real and well over half of the sample reported some confidence that they are real.

So what does this mean?

Based on these and many other findings that I will discuss in future posts, I propose that magical thinking is not an all or nothing concept. Magical thinking can be domain-specific. That is, people can reject some forms of magical thinking and accept others. And though atheists may want to believe that they have rejected the magical world entirely, it appears that many of them have only divorced themselves from some domains of magical thinking. Atheists denounce the magical thinking that is derived from traditional religious narratives and faiths. However, they are open to other beliefs that lack scientific support.

Turns out, even atheists are willing to take a leap of faith. 

About the Author

Clay Routledge

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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