Published: 7:20 PM 5/12/2015
... their sightings can be linked to popular culture, most particularly movies.
By David Brandow
As an atheist, I am interested in all kinds of beliefs that aren't founded on evidence, religion being just one of them. I find that there are many parallels between them all, but perhaps the most direct comparison to religion lies with those who believe in UFOs.
A UFO, or unidentified flying object, is basically anything you see in the sky that you can't identify. These sightings are often attributed to aliens, extraterrestrial visitors in spacecraft observing us from the atmosphere. The frequency and description of their sightings can be linked to popular culture, most particularly movies.
Do I believe in UFOs? The glib answer is yes, I believe that people have seen things in the sky that they can't identify. But no, I don't believe we have been visited by aliens. I can't discount the possibility, it certainly might be true, but there's just not enough good evidence to believe it.
Tellingly, people whose hobby or profession it is to spend lots of time looking into the sky and identifying things are far less likely to see UFOs than the rest of us. If UFOs were real, you would expect them to see a lot more of them, not fewer, based on the amount of time they spend looking where UFOs apparently show up.
The simple explanation is that these people can identify many of the things that we couldn't; they recognize more complex phenomena that we would treat as anomalous. They won't see a weather balloon and think its E.T.
My biggest objection to these reports is that people take a perfectly reasonable statement of fact, "I saw something in the sky I didn't recognize," and immediately leap to an unwarranted conclusion: "It must be a spacecraft from many light-years away piloted by members of a different species."
Often the conclusions are even more unwarranted: "These members of a different species are here to observe us in preparation for one day conquering us, and to conduct the occasional probe while they are waiting."
There is no possible way seeing some lights and movement that you can't identify could possibly lead you to those conclusions, but people believe it anyway.
Similarly, many people either become religious or solidify their beliefs because something happened they couldn't explain. Some hear their name, see the Trinity in a waterfall, experience a feeling of euphoria, find their car keys, have a disease cured, and leap from that to "there must be a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural entity who made that happen, just for me" and then leap to "it must be the God that that guy (who may or may not have existed) was talking about 2,000 years ago."
Again, taking a perfectly reasonable statement of fact, "something happened that I can't explain," and drawing much too far-reaching conclusions from it.
The other part of this analogy that makes this particularly apt is that scientists — people whose job it is to recognize phenomena — are far less likely to be religious, even though they spend their lives researching the unknown.
The core lesson here is to stop when something happens and you think to yourself, "I don't know what caused that." You don't know, and that's OK. If you want to do some research and try to figure out what it was, that's even better.
But please, please, please don't make up some fanciful story to explain it and delude yourself into thinking that your explanation is the real one.