A reader named Aziraphale posed the following question in the discussion of NDEs:
“It seems to me that accounts of alien abductions exist in comparable numbers to NDE’s. Do you think these accounts are good evidence that the Earth is regularly visited by aliens? If not, is it because you are determined not to believe?”
I’m more than happy to discuss this case, if only to point out that I don’t dismiss as “silly” a particular claim without having looked at the evidence (I’m lookin’ at you Friendly Atheist). As for aliens, I’ve thought about this quite a bit. See, for example, my 2004 lecture ““God and ET: Christian Reflections on UFOs and Little Green Men”“. (The lecture is not among my most engaging public addresses, but I do provide a decent overview of the topic.) It is also a topic on which I’ve written several times. See for example my articles “A visit from the aliens?” and “Did aliens seed life on earth? A modest defense of the panspermia hypothesis” See also the chapter I devote to the topic in my book What on Earth do we Know about Heaven?
In “On Fermi’s Paradox and the earth as a wildlife preserve” I offer a response to Fermi’s paradox. It could be, I propose, that aliens treat earth as a wildlife refuge. Like a wildlife photographer that occasionally gets spotted by the indigenous species within the preserve, so visiting aliens who are studying our planet and species close up occasionally get spotted by us. I’m perfectly open to this possibility. I don’t balk at it. I keep an open mind.
It has been argued that the distances and dangers of interstellar space travel make it impossible that aliens should travel to earth. See for example, Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples and Mark Clark’s book Lights in the Sky & Little Green Men: A Rational Christian Look at UFOs and Extraterrestrials (NavPress, 2002). But such objections are inevitably undercut by our limited technological knowledge. One can imagine a perfectly reasonable argument by a medieval scientist pointing out how it is simply impossible ever to travel to the moon. But centuries of technological progress have a way of washing away the lines we draw in the sand. Who is to say an alien civilization centuries (or millennia) older than ours couldn’t overcome the practical barriers outlined so ably by Ross, Samples, and Clark, perhaps along the lines described by Carl Sagan in Contact, perhaps in a way we haven’t yet imagined?
As a Christian I’m also open to appeal to demonic or other spirit agencies to explain certain phenomena. (See, for example, my essay “What a Coincidence!” as well as my recent podcast on demons with Robin Parry.) At least some reports of alien encounters are consistent with malevolent spirit agencies. (The film “The Fourth Kind” does a good job of exploring the dark side of putative alien encounters.)
Finally, there are all sorts of natural explanations. I remember being terribly unimpressed when I skimmed through Whitley Strieber’s account in Communion. But why is it, you ask, that reports of aliens commonly seem to describe the same diminutive creature with large eyes, no visible mouth, and a disproportionately large head? And what’s with the oft reported “flying saucer”? That could be evidence of aliens, of course, but it is also plausibly explained in terms of socially formed expectations. In the late 19th century “alien encounters” did not describe these kinds of aliens. Rather, a multiplicity of reports described more humanlike creatures riding in an air balloon or dirigible like structure. This kind of evidence makes me skeptical of alien reports. (Incidentally, this socially formed expectation hypothesis does not adequately explain NDEs precisely because the same elements are present in those who have never heard of NDEs, the young and old, worldwide, and extending far back beyond the modern period.)
I may be skeptical of aliens, but it is not a universal dismissive skepticism. I doubt the quality control at Lada’s car factory, but I still consider the quality of each car on its own terms. So it is for alien visitation reports.
As for the proposal that earth is a wildlife refuge, I certainly am skeptical of the idea. But I don’t dismiss it (which is why I proposed it in the first place). Rather than give the proposal zero percent plausibility, unexplained phenomena like the Phoenix Lights lead me to give it perhaps 5% plausibility (if percentages can indeed be ascribed to plausibility, a claim which strikes me as 80% implausible!).
The average self-described skeptic goes around declaring that there’s no evidence for an afterlife, or God, or aliens, or demons. That’s a mere village skeptic, somebody who knows the words but not the music. True skepticism, that of the open-minded critical enquirer, doesn’t engage in such juvenile behavior of opining on topics on which he hasn’t investigated, and declaring there is no evidence for a claim held by other rational people.