Ants on the Sidewalk

The search for aliens and/or God

It has become a sort of running joke that some secular materialists are unwilling to admit God as an explanation for anything, but are more than happy to allow for the possibility of aliens. Perhaps the most famous example is Francis Crick and “Directed Panspermia,” the theory that life on Earth was seeded from outer space.

It’s an inconsistency that’s worth examining more closely. This cartoon, by bestselling author and former NASA roboticist Randall Monroe, provides an interesting case study:

The Search


The argument is clear: we might be to aliens as ants are to humans, and therefore we are not justified in assuming there are no aliens out there just because we have not received messages from them or observed them in our tiny corner of the universe. It’s a good point, and Monroe’s ability to present thought-provoking ideas humorously in a few scribbled lines is what makes his work so wildly popular and so influential in “nerd culture.”

The worldview that comes across in his comics is very much secular-humanist, so it’s interesting that almost this exact argument, right down to the ants, is made by folk-singer Sarah Sparks – but regarding God instead of aliens. In a delightful narrative song, she sings about an ant who comes across a human footprint. But when he reports what he saw to the colony, the Queen ant accuses him of lying. She decides to put his word to the test:

The queen raised her voice and said to the wind,
Prove yourself if we should believe!
For how can I know if I cannot see?
All of my rule, here’s my one guarantee:
We ants who still think are the ants that are free!

… The queen then declared on the top of ant mountain,
Ranting and raving, her subjects surrounding,
Come down on this mountain to prove your existence
To me!

The human doesn’t appear, of course, so the heretical ant is executed. The song ends with his last words:

“Said he: ‘Why would a human bow down to an ant?’”

This song, I’m quite certain, is a response to the common question, “Why doesn’t God just reveal himself to us?” The song answers that with the question: “What makes you think you’re that important?” (I recommend giving the song a listen – it has a wonderfully unhinged violin part.)

Physical Smallness vs. Moral Smallness

As William Dembski first pointed out, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) routinely uses the same kind of reasoned “design inference” that Intelligent Design research uses. (And so do the fields of archeology and forensics.) Many of the same strategies and thought processes apply to both the search for God and the search for aliens; only that which specifically pertains to God’s transcendence of the physical universe is different. For example: “Aliens might exist even though we never see them, because not everything real is physically visible in our little corner of the Universe” – and the same goes for God. Or: “Perhaps the reason our equipment hasn’t picked up any signals from aliens is simply that they are not interested in contacting us now, or that they are using a different method of communication than we expect.” The same goes for God. This raises the question – why do some people happily apply certain kinds of reasoning to superhuman aliens, but seem to instinctively react against applying them to a deity?

It’s impossible to say with certainty without knowing someone else’s mind, but I tend to agree with the opinion that it’s because the idea of aliens just isn’t as disturbing as the idea of God. God, as a spiritual being, imposes a moral reality on us; aliens don’t.

The idea of a vast universe filled with superhuman aliens may reduce you to an ant physically, or even intellectually – but not morally or spiritually. In that world, humans can still feel just as significant as any other species of being (or just as insignificant), and we can still pursue our own whims and passions without any limit save our own ability. Nothing about aliens invalidates the “will to power” as a guiding principle.

In fact, considering ourselves an insignificant speck in the universe can actually free us to make ourselves more significant in our own, personal universe. After all, if Earth is just a “pale, blue dot” awash in a sea of nothingness, if humans are just atoms in a void with no deeper significance … well, then, we can do whatever we want, be whoever we want, follow whatever passion we want. The only limitation is one’s abilities. Better to be a god in your own little world than an ant in the real world.



But once you allow for God, you become an ant – not just in size, not just in intellect, but in moral value. Your universe no longer revolves around you.

A Greater Kind of God

To be fair, it’s not only atheists who think they are the center of their own world. The question “Why won’t God reveal himself to us?” is more troubling in a day and age when many Christians (and other theists) portray a kind, benevolent, “personal” God, who is “in love” with us, yet neglect some of his other attributes: majesty, transcendence, authority, incomprehensibility to the human mind.

When an atheist says, “Why doesn’t God just reveal himself to us?” a theist might respond that God has revealed himself to us, in many ways – and a Christian would add that he most importantly revealed himself in Jesus Christ, who was God in-the-flesh. These answers – though correct – probably wouldn’t satisfy the atheist, who would say something like, “But why all the hints and clues and long-ago events? Why can’t he just rip open the sky and say, ‘Hi, this is God. I’m real.” In other words, why won’t God reveal himself to me in a way that requires no searching on my part, no mental or spiritual effort whatsoever?

To be able to answer this well, the theist needs to understand that God is not merely a loving grandfatherly figure in the sky – or in our hearts. He is that; but he is much, much more. If God “just showed himself to us,” (1) we would die, and (2) this would teach us the wrong lesson about our true place in the universe. Humility is the starting point of any true search for God. A proud creature can never see God. God reveals himself to us, in part at least, by transforming us into the kind of creature that can see him; and that kind of creature is one who humbly seeks God. At the end of the search is a knowledge of a God who loves us perfectly, and kneels down to our level for us – but to truly begin seeking God, we must be radically humbled.

The words of Elihu in the Book of Job apply wonderfully to this whole discussion:

But I tell you, in this you are not right,
for God is greater than any mortal.
Why do you complain to him
that he responds to no one’s words?
For God does speak—now one way, now another-
though no one perceives it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on people
as they slumber in their beds,
he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warnings,
to turn them from wrongdoing
and keep them from pride,
to preserve them from the pit,
their lives from perishing by the sword.” (Job 33:12-18, NIV)

A bit later:

Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.
Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would anyone ask to be swallowed up?
Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness,
he does not oppress.” (Job 37:19-23, NIV)

In other words, “Why should God bow down to an ant?”

Further Reading

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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